Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs

A quick glance at Pacific Horticulture‘s online calendar will reveal a plethora of programs on replacing the conventional lawn, whether the goal is to save money, labor, and water, or to create a healthier environment. Known for their highly regarded previous book, California Native Plants for the Garden (Cachuma, 2005), these three authors have provided an excellent new treatise and reference, addressing the reasons for removing a lawn and offering innovative options for replacing it.

What began as a convenient landscape tool in Europe, whereby large landowners kept the vegetation low by grazing livestock on it, thus opening views to the full breadth of their holdings, evolved into a virtual symbol of America’s open and democratic society. In the twentieth century, the lawn became both the default and the expected solution for covering the ground on properties of all sizes, always supported by regular applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides—along with regular irrigation and frequent mowing with gas-guzzling power mowers. Even where water is plentiful, the lawn can be hard to justify these days, given the damage already caused by chemical residues and the fumes of fossil fuels. In the arid West, the massive amounts of water necessary to maintain the picture-perfect lawn make the concept an irresponsible dream.

It’s not fair to convince others of the need to eliminate something without offering alternatives. Here, Reimagining the California Lawn shines, as the authors clearly and systematically discuss better solutions for covering the ground. Recognizing that the low profile of the lawn is a valuable design element, the authors suggest switching to a greensward, meadow, carpet, or tapestry of water-conserving plants—many native—that will retain the low stature and allow views to other parts of the property or neighborhood. Rock gardens might provide a dramatic alternative to the conventional lawn, and, where a low profile is less critical, the options broaden to include succulent gardens and kitchen gardens.

A substantial chapter addresses the process of removing the lawn and the secrets to its successful replacement with one of the suggested alternatives. More than half of the book is devoted to the Plant Profiles, an extensive encyclopedia of plants discussed in the text that can be used to fulfill the dream of an alternative to the lawn, with recommendations for specific uses and regions of California most suitable for their successful cultivation. Throughout, the color photographs expand the value of this important new book, which belongs in every gardener’s library.

Richard G Turner Jr, editor