Home & Garden

Water-wise makeover changes a Sacramento landscape

Khristine Terlinde’s  husband, Randy Bond, created this flagstone “river,” a path in their front yard through what once was a boring plain green lawn.
Khristine Terlinde’s husband, Randy Bond, created this flagstone “river,” a path in their front yard through what once was a boring plain green lawn. lsterling@sacbee.com

Khristine Terlinde’s conversion started when she took a serious look at her water bill.

“Here I was telling everybody on Facebook, ‘Save water! Save water!’ and then I did the math,” Terlinde recalled. “I was mortified!”

Terlinde figured water use at her Larchmont home would be somewhere below 250 gallons a day, the average for most households in the Sacramento area.

“We were using 700 gallons a day – and I thought I was conserving water,” she said.

Terlinde called her water provider, California American Water, and asked for a free “Water-wise House Call.” They found a leak – and made a suggestion.

“It was one leaky sprinkler valve in the back of our garden behind some big hydrangea,” Terlinde said. “Who knows how long it was leaking? But (the technician) also told me about the water district’s rebates for lawn removal.”

Like several other water districts throughout California, Cal Am offers a Cash for Grass program: $1 per square foot, up to 2,000 square feet.

During the ongoing drought, Terlinde looked at her front lawn as 1,200 square feet of untapped water-saving potential.

Now she and her husband, Randy Bond, are enjoying much lower water bills – and a beautiful, colorful front yard.

“People from throughout the neighborhood stop by and look,” Bond said. “It’s become a real crowd-pleaser.”

“We’ve become advocates for saving water,” Terlinde said. “Seeing is believing.”

Terlinde and Bond are among several homeowners who are taking California’s prolonged drought to heart. Their landscape makeover is one of the area’s first to be completed under local turf rebate programs.

“Residents and businesses here in the Sacramento region answered the call to conserve,” said Amy Talbot, water-efficiency program manager for the Regional Water Authority. The RWA represents about two dozen local water districts.

In August, local customers conserved 22 percent overall compared to the same period last year, according to data submitted to the RWA and State Water Resources Control Board.

Since January, the Sacramento region has saved more than 20 billion gallons, Talbot added. That’s enough to wash 666 million loads of laundry.

Rebate programs and other incentives have helped convert more households into major water savers. Since 65 percent of Sacramento’s household water use typically goes to landscaping, that area represents the biggest potential for savings. Due to weather and plant needs, lawn conversions in fall and spring have the greatest success, Talbot said.

Terlinde estimates their own water savings at $50 a month. “In August, we used less than 160 gallons a day,” she said. “And our water can go to things that are more important, like saving my maple tree or my camellias.

“We were going to let the old lawn die anyway,” she added. “This is so much better than a burlap-looking front yard with nothing but dead grass.”

The garden not only changed their water use but their habits.

“When I got home from work, I used to go straight from the driveway to the front door,” said Terlinde, a program manager for a large telecom company. “I never even noticed the lawn.

“Now, I’m out here every day,” she said of her garden. “This has become my hangout. … Instead of another nondescript blob of green, this garden now attracts and engages people. People love to talk about it. It’s helped strengthen the bonds of our neighborhood.”

At first, the couple weren’t sure how they would reshape their front yard.

“When she told me she was going to do this, I thought, fine; we’ll get some rocks and cactus,” said Bond, a film director. “I’ve worked a lot in Arizona; I know what that (kind of landscape) looks like.”

“But that’s not what I wanted,” Terlinde said. “I wanted something soft and pretty, that looked natural with texture and lots of color.”

Terlinde found landscaper Eric Zemlicka of Z-Scapes through EcoLandscape’s “Green Gardener” program of certified water-wise experts. She credits Zemlicka with coaching her through the process and selecting the right plants for the right spots.

“Eric was wonderful,” Terlinde said. “He kept me from being too spontaneous and came up with a theme. It was kind of fun, designing and planting a new garden.”

Bond put in a “river” of flagstone that flows through the new landscape. About 55 square feet of stones were used.

“That’s my big contribution,” he said. “First we put down decomposed granite, then positioned the stones. Once they settled, we added birds-eye gravel.”

About 10 cubic yards of bark form a mulch layer 3 inches deep. That helps keep the plant roots cool and moist. Drip irrigation also was installed.

With Zemlicka’s help, Terlinde picked the plants. She leaned heavily on blues (“Rozanne” hardy geranium) and purples (lantana and sage) accented with some bright orange (lion’s tail), yellow (“Moonbeam” coreopsis) and pink (creeping verbena and coastal rosemary). She included some more unusual choices, such as a strawberry tree amid a sea of red “Hot Lips” salvia.

Mixed into her plant palette of mostly California and Mediterranean natives are several Peach Drift landscape roses and such interesting Australian imports as grevillea (a drought-tolerant shrub) and Shark Bay boronia (a licorice-scented ground cover with pale pink flowers) as well as several red-leafed leucadendron from South Africa.

Terlinde was surprised by the beauty in this drought-tolerant diversity.

“It doesn’t have to be all lavender and kangaroo paws,” she said, mentioning two common low-water plants. “There are some amazing new plants from Australia, Africa and New Zealand and even relatively unknown California natives that are having a resurgence and are exceptional.

“We’re still in the experimental stage,” Terlinde noted. “I’m seeing how big things will grow and what blooms when. I want a garden where something is always in bloom.

“It’s so important to me to bring wildlife into the garden,” she added. “Now it’s full of bees and butterflies. I never saw bees on our old lawn.”

The couple finished replanting the landscape in June. In just three months, the perennials and shrubs quickly became established. They credit their home’s location for the garden’s early success. Near the American River, it’s in an area that once was home to hop farms.

“I’ve been told our soil is a combination of river bottom and old hops,” Bond said. “It makes a huge difference.”

“We have incredibly good soil,” Terlinde said. “Before we planted, we added a ton of compost, too, just to make sure (plants had enough nutrition).”

Bond sees practical advantages in the front-yard makeover. The new landscape is monitored by a weather- and soil-moisture-sensitive irrigation controller, so even the decision of when to water is a no-brainer.

“I don’t have to mow it,” he said. “I don’t have to water it; that little apparatus on the roof takes care of that. But the most important thing is that we’re saving a whole bunch of water, and that’s critical right now.”

Terlinde enjoyed the transformation so much, she’s begun another in her backyard. But creating a new front yard brought dividends she didn’t expect.

“The best part for me was the process,” Terlinde said. “It was the physicality of changing the garden, coming out front and engaging with the neighborhood. There are so many things I love about the new garden, but the process itself was life-changing.”

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


▪ Before taking out your lawn, contact your water provider for information on rebate programs. To locate your district and rebate details, go to BeWaterSmart.info.

▪ Contact your water provider for a free “Water-wise House Call.” This conservation program pinpoints leaks and suggests ways to save.

▪ EcoLandscape trains and refers “Green Gardeners,” experts in such lawn transformations. Find its referral list of landscape professionals online at www.ecolandscape.org.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee