The ‘New Front Yard’ saves water, supports wildlife

01/18/2014 12:00 AM

10/04/2014 12:45 AM

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.”

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