Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Don’t Just Kill the Lawn. Why Not Create Habitat?

Some Californians seem shocked to hear the water people finally say: “Hey folks, rethink that yard! We don’t have enough water for lush lawns.” Why the surprise? California is the only state in the union where rain doesn’t typically come in summer, which (aside from the gold rush) is why they call it the Golden State. Describing the state’s crispy hillsides as “golden” is much more poetic than burned-out brown.

California’s Mediterranean climate zones are perfect places to grow many exotics—almonds, pistachios, olives, citrus fruit, figs, apricots, wine grapes, you name it. Many of these can be grown in the U.S. only here. But lawn? No. Bad idea. It’s always been a bad idea, a complete waste of the West’s precious water.

And scarce Western water is fast becoming more precious—a lesson driven home on a daily basis, with supplies dwindling faster than normal during the current drought.

Fortunately, eliminating water waste is pretty easy—especially when you start looking around outside. Just how much water the average California family consumes monthly for outdoor irrigation and other uses varies considerably, but you can figure it’s anywhere from 25 percent for mild-weather coastal cities like Santa Cruz to 80 percent or more in Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella Valley.

Worse, when it comes to irrigation abuse, there are superstars. According to a report from Matthew Green of KQED in San Francisco, 15 percent of California households are responsible for 60 percent of landscape water overuse.

Acknowledging upfront, then, that no one is really “average,” about 53 percent of the water used by the average California household is used outdoors.

So go ahead, kill your lawns, or let the summer heat do it. Will you’re waiting for the grass to turn “golden,” start planning new, adventurous, yet highly traditional landscape habitats to take its place.

Everyone a Native Californian

Planting the right kinds of milkweed plants "feeds" Monarch butterflies, because the caterpillar stage will eat only milkweed. (photo by vladeb)

Planting the right kinds of milkweed plants “feeds” Monarch butterflies, because the caterpillar stage will eat only milkweed. (photo by vladeb)

If you can’t be a native yourself, you can at least plant some. No need to paint the dead lawn stubble a deep green, or dump a load of gravel around a few desolate cacti. Native plants are a much better way to seriously save on water while creating a lovely landscape.

Drought resistant native California plants have many qualities to recommend them, starting with very low summer water requirements. It’s a natural fact that they evolved here, and are uniquely adapted to thrive under conditions that often doom other contenders. You’ll need to provide drip irrigation for the first few years, until everything is well started, but after that it will be enough to water just once a month or during extended hot spells.

Monarch emerging from its milkweed chrysalis (photo by Sid Mosdell)

Monarch emerging from its milkweed chrysalis (photo by Sid Mosdell)

In fact, once established, natives are so low maintenance you can spend weekends year-round doing something other than work in the yard. Natives also need little or no fertilizers or pesticides, lowering the environment’s toxic load.

Because they evolved together native plants support native pollinators, providing them with food and shelter, which ultimately supports both native wildlife and plants. Attracting birds, including nectar-loving hummingbirds, as well as butterflies and other pollinators is another benefit of native plants. You’ll be surprised by the number of animals that will make themselves at home in your yard, including nesting birds. Native bees, moths, and other pollinators also directly support us, boosting food production in gardens, orchards, and fields, now that domestic honeybee populations are in decline due to pesticide overuse, parasites, and disease.

Given how much California real estate we human residents have appropriated, “giving back” habitat for the wild things seems perfectly reasonable. That gift can also provide huge support to wildlife in general, with private native gardens and landscapes serving as a valuable “bridge” between barren urban and natural landscapes.

Many native gardeners, for example, now make a point of planting Asclepias speciosa, showy milkweed, and other regional milkweed species essential for the survival of migrating Monarch butterflies. The hope is that if many people create milkweed “Monarch waystations” in their gardens and on other property, together we can recreate the conditions that once supported migrations of millions and millions of Monarchs. Together we can save this imperiled species.

Circling back to the original point: In supporting nature we also save water, and otherwise support our own survival.

First Create Community

Cedar Waxwing enjoys toyon berries (photo by Kevin Cole)

A Cedar Waxwing enjoys toyon berries. (photo by Kevin Cole)

You can be a purist by planting only natives, or allow them to mingle with established landscape trees and other plantings that are also reasonably drought tolerant. That’s up to you. Both approaches can create stunning drought-resistant landscapes.

Either way, you’ll need to commit to a period of study and research. Then you’ll need to decide on the type of plant community to create.

A native plant community is a group of native plants that interact with each other and with their environment in ways not greatly altered by modern human activity, as Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources explains this basic ecology concept. Recognizable plant communities (whether all-native or not) to try to emulate in Northern California include central or northern oak woodlands in valley areas such as Bidwell Park, which range up into the foothills; yellow or Ponderosa pine mixed forests just above oak woodlands; valley grasslands, where soils are too shallow to support oaks; and dry chaparral brushland areas characterized by rocky, shallow soils.

A native carpenter bee (many people mistake them for bumblebees) feeds on Western redbud blossoms. (photo by JKehoe Photos)

A native carpenter bee (many people mistake them for bumblebees) feeds on Western redbud blossoms. (photo by JKehoe Photos)

Make a “planting plan” based on climate conditions where you are, soil type, and drainage. The plants you select need to “create community” together. They should have similar water needs, of course, but you’ll also want to group them in correct “micro-communities.” Shrubs that thrive in woodland or forest understories, for example, need the same filtered or shady light conditions and protection in your garden. The more successfully you imitate each plant’s ideal growing environment, the more successful your garden community will be.

A great place to start educating yourself about native plants and their garden possibilities is the nonprofit California Native Plant Society (CNPS)—support it by joining a local chapter—and its very helpful website. The CNPS native plant database is very useful. As part of its in-depth Gardening Program, the CNPS will soon certify landscapers as knowledgeable about planting and maintaining natives in the garden. The first certification classes will be held in Fall 2015.

Northern California has some excellent native plant nurseries, including Chico’s own Floral Native Nursery, a peaceful place to wander, ask questions, observe various plants at different times of the year, and also see some of them established in the landscape. There’s even a useful online price list to help with garden budgeting.

California fuchsia is striking in the landscape, and a hummingbird favorite. (photo by JKehoe Photos)

California fuchsia is striking in the landscape, and a hummingbird favorite. (photo by JKehoe Photos)

The Las Pilitas California native plant nursery is a bit far afield for most of us to visit, but its website is a wonderful resource for “plant community planning,” wherever you are. Discussions of California plant communities include extensive, informative listings of plants typically found in each, complete with photos. You can also figure out what plant community you live in by city or zip code, though in “edge” areas, this tool may not be absolutely accurate. (For Paradise, for example, the dominant community listed is Central Oak Woodland, but even in middle Paradise the Ponderosa pines are already pretty thick, suggesting a quick transition into Yellow Pine Forest.) So at least here in Northern California, where native vegetation is still easy to find, you’ll get good guidance by going outside and looking closely at what’s growing wild.

Also immensely helpful is the Tree of Life Nursery website, which features a variety of useful planning tools, plant profiles, and a 30-plant short list of reliable “must-haves” that will succeed even for the beginning native gardener. Check out Tree of Life’s Sage Advice article series for more in-depth practical assistance, with topics such as How to Create a Pollinator Garden, Fragrant Natives, Natives for Basketry, and Native Groundcovers.


Adult male Monarch butterfly (photo by Shawn Kinkade)

This is the first in a multi-part series that encourages Californians to replace lawns and other thirsty landscaping with drought tolerant native plants. The many benefits of this approach include re-creating natural animal and plant habitats that human population growth has overrun. In the next installment Up the Road introduces some popular, easy to grow native plants.

Kim Weir is editor of Up the Road. A long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers, she is also a former reporter for North State Public Radio. Before Weir embarked on a career in words, she sharpened her observation skills while studying botany and ecology as a biology student at Chico State.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>