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  • Roberta Walker

    Sacramento landscape designer Roberta Walker transformed the former lawn (left) into a “riverbed” (above) with cobblestones and water-wise shrubs and perennials.

  • Roberta Walker

    This is the same garden before its transformation to a water-wise landscape. Sacramento landscape designer Roberta Walker took out the lawn, which was struggling in partial shade even with irrigation three times a week.

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Lush and low water? It can be beautiful

Published: Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 4, 2014 - 9:25 am

Roberta Walker didn’t need a drought declaration to know people are worried about water. She sees it every day in her work as a Sacramento landscape designer.

“Absolutely, the message is getting through,” said Walker. “Almost all I do anymore is take out lawns and put in water-wise landscapes.”

Walker will be among the most popular speakers today at the Northern California Home and Landscape Expo at Cal Expo. Her 1 p.m. presentation – “Designing a Lush Yet Water-Wise Landscape” – hits home with many gardeners.

“Years ago, people got rid of the lawn because they didn’t want to mow anymore,” she said. “Now, it’s all about water. They know they have to do something different to save water. It looks like we’re headed for our driest year ever.”

In light of last week’s state drought declaration, new restrictions will limit landscapes to once-a-week irrigation – or less if it doesn’t start raining. In warmer months, most lawns need watering three times a week – or more.

“If you can only water once a week, what’s going to happen to your landscape?” Walker said. “That’s the question everybody is asking themselves. Some people say they’ll just let the lawn turn brown, but how fun is that to live with? Most people leave the lawn dead because they don’t know what else to do.”

I’m trying to educate people; there are alternatives to dead lawns that look beautiful.”

Landscapes and garden design have always been a highlight of this huge expo. Including Walker, several experts pack this weekend’s speaker schedule. The idea is to inspire and help homeowners visualize the results. For example, Sacramento garden designer and author Michael Glassman will show plenty of before-and-after examples in his Sunday talk, “Plain Jane to Wow! Solving Landscape Problems One Yard at a Time.”

Right now, too much lawn may be the No. 1 issue. But the solution doesn’t mean going without plants.

“The biggest misconception: People hear ‘drought-tolerant’ or ‘water-efficient,’ they think ‘Arizona’ – all rocks and cactus,” Walker said. “But there are plants that grow with very little water – even no water (some months of the year). They don’t know there are ways to have a beautiful garden with less water.”

Over the past 17 years, Walker has created more than a thousand water-wise landscapes. She’s also heard hundreds of questions about lawn conversion. The most common among Sacramento gardeners may be surprising.

“What about the leaves?” Walker said. “Most people have established trees in their yards. Those leaves used to fall on the lawn. If the lawn’s not there, how do you deal with all those leaves? There’s no flat surface to rake them off.”

In recent landscapes, Walker dealt with that issue by substituting crushed lava rock or river cobblestones for bark as mulch under drought-tolerant shrubs and perennials. “When you blow, the leaves go, but the rocks stay put,” she said. “Unlike bark, they don’t break down, either.”

Water-wise landscaping is shaping a new paradigm for Sacramento gardeners: a lush look with less water.

“We have this romantic idea of English gardens,” Walker said. “But I can create that look with plants that exist on very low water. Maybe they’re not all totally drought-tolerant, but part of this (strategy) is switching to drip irrigation. You cut your water use down to one-third of what you use with a spray system because the water goes to the roots and is not lost to evaporation.”

Another key to this strategy is using plants that can grow here without much effort – or water.

“During the building boom, it looked like every house became Mediterranean,” she said. “All these palms and bougainvillea; no matter what you do, you struggle to get them to survive here. There are many alternatives – cannas, clumping bamboo, flax, purple potato bush, geraniums – that give a lush tropical look with less water.

“There are so many options with low-water,” she added. “Actually, it excites me.”

A cleaning tornado?

Inspired by our recent story on getting organized in the new year, reader Charles Tatter offered this perspective:

“Many of my decisions as to whether to keep or throw away household or office items are based on the simple idea, ‘If a tornado or hurricane were to hit my house and my things were scattered about, what would I want other people to find, pick up and know about me?’ ”

It’s a good thought to hold as I scan my desk, which looks like it got caught in a landslide of paper, books and magazines.

Added Tatter, “And I try to heed noted clean-up author, Don Aslett’s advice, ‘Don’t love something that can’t love you back.’ 

It makes breaking up with that mess a little easier to do.


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

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington



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