Water Conservation Can Be Beautiful

While this is probably not news to most of you, I believe it's well worth repeating and considering. Last year, 2013 became the driest year on record in California; San Francisco had the least amount of rain since record keeping began during the gold rush of 1849, and here in Southern California, Downtown Los Angeles saw the driest calendar year on record.

Sustainable Water-Wise Garden

We have had virtually no rain this winter (our rainy season) and on January 17, Governor, Jerry Brown, declared a statewide drought emergency. He has urged a voluntary 20% reduction in the use or water saying, "We ought to be ready for a long, continuous, persistent effort including the possibility of drinking-water shortages. I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries." The department of Water and Power has announced that water rates will be going up and inspectors will soon be on the street checking to see that the thee-day water rationing is being respected and that sprinkler systems are in good working order.

I have written a number of newsletters and blogs about our diminishing water supply with ideas and suggestions on how to deal with it; I even have a page of my website devoted to Sustainable Green Landscape Design. Should you want to read what I've had to say over these past three years, here are their links.  There is a lot of valuable information in them on how you can save money and help protect your home from fires, which is also of serious consideration, since the Santa Ana winds are now blowing year round.

Creating A Beautiful, Water-Wise Garden

A drought is a perfect opportunity to change habits by re-conceiving your yard or garden as a landscape that reflects the reality of the environment we now live in.

Sustainable Garden - 2

This doesn't mean that it can't be beautiful, in fact, by using a combination of drought-resistant native plants, succulents and a range of ground covers that includes artificial, native and hybrid grasses as well as gravel and rocks, what was once a boring, water-guzzling turf can be transformed into a stunning xeriscape or Green Garden.

Here are some thoughts and ideas on how to deal with this changing reality by converting all or part of your lawn to a more diverse planting, This can have multiple benefits — from an expanded wildlife habitat to less frequent maintenance, which will save water, save energy (both real and human) and, over time, save you quite a bit of money.

Questions To Consider

  • Are you concerned about water and energy conservation?
    The typical suburban lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water above and beyond rainwater each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. We don't often think about how water and energy use are linked, but reducing a landscape's water use also saves energy, since it takes considerable energy to pump, heat, treat and deliver water.
  • Would you like to spend less time and money maintaining a lawn?
    With the average homeowner spending 150 hours per year on lawn care, it's no wonder that the no-lawn movement is gaining popularity. Depending on the composition of the plants chosen (and whether low-maintenance ground covers, such as gravel, are incorporated), a shrub- and perennial-dominated yard should take between 25 to 75 hours a year to maintain. Select native plants and you'll save on fertilizer, herbicides and other items as well.
  • Is your lawn in a less-than-ideal spot: on sloping ground or in shade?
    Why maintain a lawn where it doesn't want to be? Plant trees, shrubs and other leafy plants that require little maintenance and much less water. They will help intercept and slow down rainfall and reduce runoff.
  • Would you like to support your local wildlife?
    Multi-tiered environments featuring native trees, fruiting shrubs and vines, and ground-level grasses and perennials are what draw birds, butterflies and beneficial insects.
  • What will it cost?
    The cost will obviously vary depending on the size of the project, your site and what elements — trees, shrubs, perennials, ground cover, hardscape and paving — you are replacing your lawn with. That said, here are some general guidelines.
    • If you are hiring a designer or landscape architect to plan your garden's makeover, the cost can start at $1,500 for a planting scheme and run higher for a complex plan with more design elements.
    • If you remove the lawn yourself you'll save the cost of demolition; otherwise plan to spend an average of $3,000, depending on the size of your lawn and the eradication method.
    • A mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses for an average front yard costs $2,000 to $6,000, depending on the container sizes. You may be tempted to save money by doing the planting yourself, but be aware that contractors are able to purchase plants wholesale, and what they charge to both purchase and plant them correctly often equals the plants' retail price.
    • Irrigation costs vary according to the method used (drip and subsurface irrigation systems are less expensive than sprinklers), materials and even the soil. The average price is $2,000 to $5,000.
  • What is the typical project length?
    It all depends on the amount of demolition required and the scale and extent of the installation.
  • Will a permit be required?
    Permits are not usually required for planting projects. However,if your project is larger than 2,500 square feet, check with your municipality, because special landscape ordinances may apply. In addition, check local codes if you plan to redo your parkway.

Moving Forward

I hope this gives you some food for thought and helps guide you towards creating a sustainable landscape that will grow in beauty while saving you money and all of us a bit of our ever-dwindling water supply. For more information and specific suggestions on municipal rebates and water management solutions including intelligent irrigation and rain and greywater collection, please check out by newsletters and blog posts listed above.

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Plant Of The Month


Coyote Bush

Coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis, grows throughout California's coast ranges and Sierra Nevada foothills in coastal scrub, chaparral and woodland habitats up to approximately 5,000 feet elevation. This shrub is considered a secondary pioneer species, or one of the first woody plants to grow after a disturbance event. As such it is often found in areas that have been recently cleared, burned or flooded.

Also known as chaparral broom or bush baccharis, coyote brush is a perennial shrub with different habits depending upon location. Plants found on dunes and other coastal areas influenced by onshore winds and salt spray often grow in a prostrate or mat form, while at inland locations coyote brush shrubs are upright, rounded and may reach 12 feet high.

A member of the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, coyote brush is typically an open or "leggy" shrub with leaves clustered at the ends of long, bare stems and branches. The ½- to 1-inch long leaves are green and somewhat egg shaped with jagged edges. Coyote brush is dioecious, meaning that it produces male and female flowers on separate plants. The flowers are small and fluffy, and occur in tight clusters at the ends of the leafy stems. The shrubs with whitish flowers are the females, while shrubs with yellowish flowers are the males. Blooming occurs late in the season, generally from August through December — locally our coyote brush tends to flower in the middle of winter from late-November through January. Seeds are small black nuts that hang from a fluffy tuft of hair called a pappus that catch the wind and blow away to land and make new seedlings.

Combinations of habit and blooming period help make coyote brush an excellent wildlife plant. The shrub has many stems that arise from clumps near the ground, forming dense vegetative cover preferred by many small mammals and low nesting birds.

Being evergreen, this cover is present year-round. With its fall and winter blooming period, coyote brush provides an important late-season nectar source that attracts many bees, butterflies, predatory wasps and other insects — which are in turn food sources for other wildlife.

In the garden coyote brush will flourish in a wide range of conditions. It tolerates poor soil, thrives in dry settings and is deer resistant. Coyote brush is best suited to areas with full sun, though it will also take some shade. It makes a fine specimen plant or works well mixed with other drought tolerant shrubs.

Since it's a pioneer species, this shrub is often used for restoration projects in natural areas. In our gardens that means it makes a great choice for those open, sunny areas and works well to stabilize exposed slopes. The shrub is fast growing and matures in one to two years. It quickly grows a large taproot and also has well developed lateral roots, which help it survive in its dry environments and respond to those disturbance events. Pruning can be used to maintain shape if desired and encourages vigorous new growth.

Coyote brush makes a great selection for your garden and provides a unique combination of being easy to grow in inhospitable locations, drought tolerance, fast growth, attractive winter blooms, and many wildlife habitat values. Cultivars, typically low growing varieties, are usually available at standard nurseries, while the resident form is available from native plant nurseries or our CNPS plant sales.

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