A short drive around Chico will reveal that lawn is a prominent landscape feature for the majority of homes. Yet we seldom see people outside using their front lawns. Maintaining a lawn just to view wastes time, energy, water and money. According to a 2011 study sponsored by the California Department of Water Resources (“California Single Family Water Use Efficiency Study”), the average household uses 360 gallons of water per day, around 50% of it outdoors. Replacing lawn with waterwise landscaping can reduce outdoor water use by 30-70%. In addition, lawns need mowing, fertilizing and weeding.
Most people enjoy watching birds and pollinators, but a lawn doesn't offer critters much in terms of food, shelter or a place to raise young. While a lush green lawn may be soothing, it's boring. A well-designed garden of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants in a variety of colors, textures and elevations welcomes wildlife, provides visual interest, and distinguishes your yard from your neighbors'.
Native plants in front yard, Jeanette Alosi
Start with hardscaping: walkways, gravel paths, small patios or decks, dry creek beds and retaining walls. These provide visual interest and reduce irrigated areas. Plan a pleasing and obvious walkway to your front door. You can edge it with intervals of plantings, in the ground or in urns. Meandering gravel paths provide a functional and low-cost way to move about the garden. A small patio invites you to relax. Dry creek beds and small retaining walls separate planting areas and provide elevation changes. You can also use an edging of stone or brick to separate planting areas.
Evergreen shrubs and trees give backbone and structure to your planting areas, and can offer the soothing color of a lawn. Choose trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and groundcovers that vary in size, color and seasonal interest. Mass several of the same plant together or repeat it throughout the yard to create a sense of cohesion. Mixed textures and foliage provide contrast. Balance colorful focal points with gray or green plants. Place some elements so that they lead the eye from focal point to focal point; situate other features where they will provide a visual resting spot.
Berm with dry stacked flagstones, Cindy Weiner
Plan for the size of the plants at maturity: don't plant them too close together. You want to avoid future crowding and having to remove plants that outgrow their spaces.
Flagstone walkway to door, Cindy Weiner
The New Sunset Western Garden Book and Calscape (California Native Plant Society's database of native plants) provide information about waterwise plants. If your yard will include automatic irrigation, group together plants with similar water needs.
The UC Cooperative Extension WUCOLS database estimates the water needs of thousands of garden plants and is a valuable tool for grouping plants into hydrozones.
Consider adding focal points. A water feature attracts birds to the garden. It can be as elaborate as a fountain or as simple as a ceramic dish. Large boulders also provide visual interest. A bench flanked by large pots of colorful flowering plants invites you to sit and enjoy your garden.
Mulching conserves moisture by reducing evaporation and controlling weeds. Choose organic mulch (shredded bark) or inorganic mulch (gravel or small rocks). Keep organic mulch a few inches away from the trunks of trees and plants. Excessive moisture trapped by mulch too close to the trunk can lead to fungal diseases in the plant. Inorganic mulch can itself become a design element, for example by using different sizes or colors of rocks in different areas.
Birdbath made from large boulder, Cindy Weiner
Visit the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at Patrick Ranch (10381 Midway in Durham) to see a variety of gardens that are waterwise, interesting and beautiful without relying on areas of lawn. Our gardens are free to visit and are open whenever Patrick Ranch is open to the public.
UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email the Hotline at email@example.com or leave a phone message on our Hotline at (530) 538-7201. To speak to a Master Gardener about a gardening issue, or to drop by the MG office during Hotline hours, see the most current information on our Ask Us Hotline webpage.
A newly-finished project -- hardscape completed and happy plants in place, Eve Werner