Home & Garden

How to transform your landscape

After: Low-water landscape guru Roberta Walker transformed this Land Park home into a water-wise and much more interesting landscape. The palm tree and bird of paradise stayed, but the walkway got new curves to go with the new plantings.
After: Low-water landscape guru Roberta Walker transformed this Land Park home into a water-wise and much more interesting landscape. The palm tree and bird of paradise stayed, but the walkway got new curves to go with the new plantings. Randy Pench

Lawn transformations continue to be in high demand, said Sacramento water-wise landscape designer Roberta Walker, whose business continues to boom.

“You see dead or dying lawns all over town,” she said. “The drought has forced us to do something. People realized there is something better they can do. But transitioning (to a water-wise landscape) takes baby steps.”

In preparation for such a makeover, summer is for planning, and fall is for planting, she said. Her new DVD can stimulate ideas about how to get projects done.

“For people who can’t afford a designer, they can do it themselves,” Walker said. “ A lot of the work you can do yourself. Even if you plan to hire someone, it’s good to know the steps.”

1. Do the prep work. That means drawing up plans, demolishing unwanted walkways or other hardscape and getting rid of the old lawn.

The hardest part: removing a Bermuda grass lawn. “I’m an organic gardener and I really hate to say this, but Bermuda grass needs to be killed chemically,” Walker said. “You need to treat it before you dig it up so you reach the roots. Otherwise, it will just keep coming up.”

2. Keep what works. For example, the palm and bird of paradise became part of garden makeover. So did a Japanese maple and large camellia on the shadier side of the garden.

“Don’t sacrifice your shade; keep your trees,” Walker said. “You can have shade and a drought-tolerant landscape, too.”

3. Reshape your landscape. Create mounds or a cobble stream bed that doubles as a rain garden. Add some boulders as focal points.

“Making mounds is not expensive; it’s just moving dirt,” Walker said. “But it adds so much interest.”

4. Put in paths. It can be as simple as stepping stones or more elaborate hardscape, but give yourself a way to get around the garden to see your plants. A curved or winding path adds more visual interest.

5. Choose a ground cover. Bark needs to be replenished annually, Walker noted, and that can really be expensive over time. Instead, she uses a lot of “lava rock,” lightweight pumice in beige or black.

“It’s lightweight and stays put,” she said. “You can blow off fallen leaves. Under trees, I like decomposed granite because it’s permeable.”

6. Know your plants. Choosing plants can be the hardest part. Look around at what works in landscapes you like, take photos and then head to the nursery.

“Don’t just fill up with plants,” Walker said. “The garden will look helter-skelter. Do some planning. You really need to know what you’re doing. The first question (should be): How big does it get? Some things get really huge! How much sun does it need? Can it take frost? Our local nurseries do a really good job of educating people; just ask.”

Some of Walker’s favorites: lantana, dwarf agave, red hot poker, landscape shrub roses, dwarf Chinese fringe flower, yarrow, yucca, black-eyed Susans, agapanthus, daylilies and dwarf bottlebrush.

Walker uses more than 80 percent non-deciduous plants. These evergreens create constants in the landscape. They also mean less clean-up during the change of seasons; they don’t drop all their leaves at once.

“People say they like English gardens, but those flower all summer and look dead in winter,” she said. “You want something growing year-round. That’s why evergreens work.”

7. Install drip irrigation. With plants in place, you know where to target the emitters. Walker tucks drip lines under weed fabric, so the soil stays evenly moist.

8. Add lighting. “That’s the frosting on the cake,” Walker said. “LEDs offer a lot of options. Lighting adds more interest and, at night, these gardens are really pretty.”

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