For those considering getting rid of their lawn, two things often stand in the way: imagination and horticultural know-how. Reimagining the California Lawn:Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien from Cachuma Press addresses both.
As a residential landscape designer, I’m finding more and more clients open to the idea of eliminating or at least reducing their turf grass. When the discussion turns to what to do instead, however, I’m often met with a blank stare. Because most of us grew up with a traditional landscape centered around a lawn, it can be overwhelming for even the most sustainably-minded soul to envision an alternative. That’s good news for the garden design profession (cue Snidley Whiplash moustache twirling), but bad news for the vast majority of gardeners who prefer to do things on their own. Reimagining the California Lawn is a great place to start, as it provides a range of options, from greenswards, (defined as “a sweep of…grasslike plants that provides a surface accessible to varying degrees of foot traffic"), to kitchen gardens to the tapestry gardens popular in many sloped East Bay front yards.
Rosalind Creasy's kitchen garden
The book includes in-depth information that goes beyond plant design, such as advice on integrating hardscape and instructions on removing an existing lawn. Detailed plant lists are incorporated throughout. For those of you who find inspiration in pictures more than in words, you’ll be happy to know that photographs are plentiful.
The second challenge is horticultural know-how. You might be all set to turn your lawn into a low-water paradise, but what plants do you choose? As in their instant classic California Native Plants for the Garden, the authors include an extensive collection of plant profiles, each with a photograph; in fact, the profiles make up three quarters of the book. Information for each plant is thorough, including climate zones, soil types and most importantly, water requirements.
Things I liked:
- The book includes a solid section on environmental reasons that goes beyond water conservation as to why California gardeners should rethink large lawns. If you pick up the book but are still on the fence, or if you have other family members to convince, these facts may be your tipping point.
- The authors recognize that California has many environmental challenges, and lawns have their good points too. For example, in fire-prone areas, lawns are an effective firebreak, and in California, fire is a trump card.
- Similar to their earlier California natives book, a terrific selection of plant lists organized by both cultural conditions and aesthetics is included. I regularly refer to the native plant lists in their previous book and can’t wait to delve into these.
- An extensive reference list at the end of the book is helpful if you want to explore a specific topic in more detail. (Confession: I also like this section because the Lawn Reform Coalition is listed as one of the resources.)
As this book covers a range of topics related to lawn alternatives in great detail, you won't be surprised hear I believe they got a few things wrong.
- As an advocate of sheet mulching, I'm pleased a section on this process was included, but I feel what was presented was somewhat incomplete and not entirely accurate. Through reading, classes and personal experience over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sheet mulching, but the book's interpretation makes the process seem overly complex while simultaneously leaving out important details (amount of cardboard overlap, how to handle borders, modifying irrigation). Photos or diagrams would be helpful here. More importantly, instead of the usual suggestion of finishing with 4” to 6” of mulch, the book recommends shooting for an astounding finished layer of 12” to 24”. Admitedly I did not research this to see if other sources concur, but I find it highly unlikely the average suburban homeowner would be ok with the expense and visual results of such a thick layer of mulch, let alone be willing to wait for the layer to break down so the lawn was ready to be replanted. I'm also surprised manure was recommended with no reference to compost as an alternative. The suburban neighborhoods I design for would certainly complain if a client covered their lawn with a 2' high pile of mulch that included fresh manure.
- I was disappointed to see a photo of blue fescue as a front yard lawn substitute in the design section. This plant is short-lived in many California gardens, and must be cut back regularly and divided every few years to be viable - and frankly, doesn't look that great much of the time. While some of these drawbacks are mentioned in the plant profile, such a fickle and labor-intensive plant is a poor choice as a large scale groundcover and the enticing photo is misleading. To be fair, I’m guessing the authors struggled to find photos to depict a large range of successful lawn alternatives and wanted to show some variety. As a recent author myself, I’m entirely sympathetic.
There are a few other instances, but my quibbles are insignificant compared to the wealth of inspiration and hard data provided by the book. The authors display an astounding level of expertise, and offer a level of detail well beyond the range most gardening books. To see what others say, check out this review on Sunset's Fresh Dirt blog.
Thyme lawn photo courtesy of John Evarts. All other photos courtesy of Saxon Holt.
Note: I did not purchase this book but was given a review copy by the publisher.