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.
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.
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.
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.
Our conclusion to this series on Garden Design Basics leads you through the final steps needed to create your new landscape. Eager as you may be to get your plants into the ground, this ultimate preparation phase is as important as all of the others. To save time and money, we recommend that the last thing you do is go shopping for plants!
Infrastructure: Before digging any holes for plants, complete the installation of your infrastructure, including all hardscape, irrigation lines, and drainage facilities. Build berms, install focal point(s), pour concrete, place landscape rocks; all of this comes before the living elements are added. Planting beds can be outlined with rocks at the same time as planting, if the rocks are relatively small and placing them will not disturb the plants.
Irrigation: Before planting is also the ideal time to test your newly installed or revamped irrigation system: make sure that flow and volume are correct, and that emitters for hydrozones (if included in your design) are properly sized. Resources for learning more about drip irrigation can be found in the Drought and Water-Wise Gardening section of our website.
- AIR: Compaction is the bane of healthy soil. It reduces space for air and water movement and creates anaerobic conditions (which in turn attract and feed detrimental bacteria, fungi, and protozoa). Try to protect your soil from heavy foot traffic and heavy equipment during hardscape installation. Lay down wide boards to distribute the weight more evenly in areas that experience a lot of foot and wheelbarrow traffic. Keep heavy equipment use to a minimal, restricted area if possible.
- FOOD: Organic compost and mulch provide nutrients to soil. Nutrients from organic mulches are leached into the soil through rains and irrigation, while organic composts are manually incorporated into the soil itself. Composted organic materials improve air and water movement, improve soil structure, reduce surface crusting and soil erosion, and increase water absorption and infiltration. Organic mulches reduce soil erosion, reduce annual weeds, and reduce evaporation and runoff. Good examples of organic mulches include leaves and the various sizes of wood chips.
- WATER: The texture of soil directly affects its ability to hold or shed water. Soils with a high proportion of clay drain poorly, creating waterlogged environments low in oxygen. This is hard on the roots of most plants and on the organisms which thrive in healthy soil. Soils that are too sandy allow water to leach nutrients below the root zone and have a low water holding capacity, allowing moisture stress to occur more quickly. Amending either soil type with compost can help: adding compost to clay soil increases aeration and water infiltration; adding compost to sandy soil increases its water and nutrient holding capacity.
- PROTECTION FROM ABUSE: Compaction is not the only form of soil misuse. Erosion is a culprit as well: overwatering bare soil can cause runoff and reduce the nutrients in the soil. Applying mulches and/or incorporating groundcover plants can protect soil from eroding on a slope. Create mini-berms around plants on slopes, and add terraces to steep yards during the hardscape phase of garden preparation. Neglect is another form of abuse! Check plants on a regular basis to catch pest infestations or signs of stress. Irrigation systems need regular check-ups too, as small rodents and problems with water pressure can wreak havoc on water lines and emitters.
Now you can go shopping. Happy Gardening!
This series of Real Dirt articles summarizes the presentation Butte County Master Gardener Eve Werner created for the Butte County Master Gardeners Spring 2017 Workshop Series.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org (preferred) or call (530) 538-7201.