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  • Randall Benton /

    Switch out an old-style sprinkler head for a new rotary variable arc nozzle to save water.

  • Ellen Zagory / UC Davis

    San Miguel Island red buckwheat, a drought-tolerant California native, puts out big sprays of flowers that bees and butterflies love.

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    A golden currant shrub blooms in the native plant garden at UC Davis. Many California native plants are naturally drought-tolerant.

  • Ellen Zagory / UC Davis

    Garrya elliptica Evie – commonly called silk tassel bush – is one of the favorite plants at the UC Davis Arboretum.

  • Monrovia Growers

    Blueberries instead of lawn? Why not? It looks beautiful, uses less water than lawn and provides great berries.

  • Florence Low / Sacramento Bee

    This toyon displays yellow berries. Other varieties of the shrub, popular with birds, have red berries.

More Information

  • Sacramento continues warm, dry march toward new weather records
  • See water use restrictions in your neighborhood
  • Seeds: When in drought, pick the right veggies to grow
  • Be water smart during dry winter
  • New Front Yard: Chaparral currant

    An estimated 65 percent of household water use in the Sacramento area goes toward outdoor landscaping. With rationing and mandatory cutbacks a real possibility, homeowners will need to squeeze water use out of their gardens. But where to start?

    Garden designer Cheryl Buckwalter, executive director of EcoLandscape California, teaches river-friendly and water-efficient landscaping and gardening techniques. She urges homeowners to come up with an “action plan” including:

    • Take out lawn. It doesn’t have to be the whole lawn, but start reducing turf and convert it to more water-efficient landscaping. Water savings may not be immediate but will add up over time. Remember that any new plants (even drought-tolerant natives) need regular, deep irrigation until established.

    • Turn off the automatic sprinklers. “I still see them going, every single day,” Buckwalter said. “It’s not like the middle of summer; in winter you need less water. There’s less evaporation and less heat.” Even traditional landscapes need irrigation only once a week in winter. Before switching on the sprinklers, check the soil. If it’s still moist two or three inches deep, wait a little longer before you water.

    • Plant California natives. Not all natives are drought-tolerant, but many were meant to grow here and adapt well to long periods with little rain. They also attract beneficial insects and support birds and bees.

    • Mulch. If you do nothing else, add an insulating layer around trees, shrubs, perennials and bedding plants. Mulch maintains soil moisture levels, keeping roots hydrated and healthy. You’ll use less water, too. Depending on the size of your landscape, an inch or two of mulch potentially will save thousands of gallons a year.

    • Convert to drip irrigation. Put water where plants need it most – at the roots. Drip systems also keep runoff to a minimum and can encourage deep root growth – necessary for surviving drought. Where appropriate, convert traditional sprinklers to water-efficient rotary-style sprinklers. Some water districts offer rebates and other incentives for installation of “smart” controllers, moisture sensors, sprinkler retrofits, drip systems and other efficient makeovers.

    • Need ideas? Check out a gallery of water-efficient landscapes (and get more tips) at See more plant suggestions at

    • For more tips and to find potential rebate offers, visit

    — Debbie Arrington

The ‘New Front Yard’ saves water, supports wildlife

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 18, 2014 - 7:53 pm

You’ve heard the drought warnings and emergency declarations. You see your utility bill. You know you’ve got to do something to save water.

With looming cutbacks, it’s time to rethink the lawn. But what will replace it in the New Front Yard?

Imagine a fertile greenbelt of colorful California native flowers alive with hummingbirds and buzzing with bees. Picture a garden space ripe with home-grown fruit and blueberries. See substantial water savings – and no more mowing.

Yet many homeowners are reluctant to take out the turf; they know what the grass looks like and aren’t quite sold on alternatives. Now that Sacramento city officials have voted to ask residents and businesses to slash water use by 20 percent, however, many consumers will be pushed into action.

“This situation offers an opportunity here,” said water-efficient landscape expert Cheryl Buckwalter, executive director of EcoLandscape California. “It’s time to actually take action and do what we’ve been talking about. If people really started these things some time ago, we’d be in a much better position today. But if you start now, we’ll be in a better position in the future.”

Landscape irrigation accounts for about 65 percent of household water use in the Sacramento area, according to local water agencies. Turf grass ranks among the thirstiest landscaping, needing 2 inches of water a week (or more) during hot summer months.

Even with cutbacks, that water use adds up quickly: A half-inch of irrigation for a typical front lawn uses as much water as about 104 showers, 52 baths or 52 loads of laundry, according to efficiency experts. Faced with rationing, do you want clean kids and clothes or green grass?

“Unless you have horses grazing in front of your house, there’s no reason to grow grass there,” said Sacramento radio host “Farmer Fred” Hoffman.

He saw the water savings firsthand at his own 10-acre property in Herald. Hoffman removed about 2,600 square feet of Bermuda grass and replaced it with fruit trees, blueberries and California natives. He slashed his water use for that former turf area by 88 percent.

“The sprinklers used 2 gallons a minute,” Hoffman observed shortly after the makeover. “The drip system uses 1 gallon an hour (once a week). It’s a fraction of the water and very low maintenance.”

The blueberries don’t need to be mowed, he noted, and they’re a lot tastier than turf.

Some homeowners assume that the best drought-minded alternative to turf is concrete or other hardscape; it needs no water at all. That worries Buckwalter.

“(Low-water landscapes) are not all cactus and rocks,” she said. “There are beautiful landscapes that are low-water use. People take out softscape and put in impermeable surfaces such as concrete and it can create a heat island effect (making the surrounding area warmer); you no longer have the cooling effect of plants. You need the softscape – the plants and mulch.”

What if you could replace that grass with plants that need no summer irrigation or just a trickle? That was the goal of UC Davis Arboretum horticulture director Ellen Zagory and the arboretum’s staff in compiling a collection of easy-care – and beautiful – low-water candidates for use in residential landscaping.

“We call it ‘The New Front Yard,’ ” Zagory said of the 41 recommended plants. “These are lawn alternatives, making it look nice but without a lot of resources. We’re creating a new regional model for plants for low-water landscapes.”

Several of these plants also have a major side benefit – they help wildlife. This is the time of year when birds really need our help, Zagory noted.

“Personally, I’m obsessed with our relationship to animals,” she said. “They’re suffering from drought, too.”

Instead of just pulling out the lawn, replace it with California natives or other low-water plants that can support the local ecosystem, she suggested.

“There is a new paradigm in the garden world, and the model is spreading,” Zagory said.

She cited a statistic from the U.S. Forest Service: “With more than 80 percent of the U.S. population living in urban and urbanizing areas, protecting and restoring wildlife habitat in our cities and suburbs has become a vital component of wildlife conservation.

“For those planning to convert a water-guzzling lawn to a low-water landscape, now is also a great time to take stock and plan changes to also support wildlife.”

Buckwalter agrees. “That’s one thing I’m so excited about with new landscape plans: You’re creating a wholesome habitat, a food source for wildlife.”

The New Front Yard collection relies on California natives that are favorites of birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects.

“Adding or converting to California native plants wherever possible strengthens your garden’s draw to native animals,” Zagory said. “Planting design, plant selection and maintenance practices all add up to the difference between a yard rich with living things and one without.

“Many people don’t realize that the winter garden is home to a variety of both resident and migrating bird species,” she added. “Winter blooming plants provide sparkle during dreary winter days but also provide nectar and pollen for resident creatures, like hummingbirds and native bees.”

The old lawn may have been flat, but its replacement can have height, she noted. Consider such native shrubs as currants ( Ribes malvaceum, Ribes viburnifolium), manzanitas ( Arctostaphylos) and silktassel ( Garrya elliptica). In the shade of oaks or other trees, the currants can live with almost no summer irrigation once established.

“Incorporating evergreen shrubs, including conifers, and growing thick hedges provides birds with shelter from inclement weather, places to hide from predators and a place to nest,” Zagory said.

For example, migrating cedar waxwings – which make their winter home in our area – love toyon ( Heteromeles arbutifolia).

“I’ve seen flocks of cedar waxwings devouring the berries,” Zagory said. “I led a tour recently (of an arboretum garden) and saw several toyon bushes wiggling around. I shook a bush and out flew all these waxwings. It was really fun.”

Think like a hungry bird when picking out low-water plants, she suggested. “Incorporating plants for berries and seed production will set the table where birds will dine.”

Among Zagory’s other recommendations: coffeeberry ( Rhamnus californica), Oregon grape ( Mahonia aquifolium), California lilac ( Ceanothus), buckwheats ( Eriogonum), mountain mahogany ( Cercocarpus betuloides) and redbud ( Cercis occidentalis).

Don’t forget oaks, she said. “Native oaks provide acorns for jays, but also host a wide variety of insects eaten by birds.”

If weather returns to normal, the New Front Yard will still thrive, but those water savings will continue to add up.

“There are always going to be more people and that puts more pressure on our water supply,” Zagory said. “No matter what happens with the weather, we’ll always be under pressure to save water.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington

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