Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Home landscapes of the future - less lawn, more meadow

A few days of rain does not end a historic drought.

Recent storms won’t wash away California’s need or desire for low-water landscapes.

“When it comes to our drought, this was barely enough to wet the bottom of a tea cup,” said Kathleen Norris Brenzel, Sunset’s longtime garden editor, about last week’s storm.

Brenzel remembers past California water shortages. “I’m no stranger to drought in Northern California,” she said. “I remember bricks in the toilets (to cut water waste). There were so many brown lawns everywhere.”

Droughts may come and go, but California gardeners need to get into a permanent water-saving mindset, she noted.

“Water always will be an issue,” Brenzel added. “As our population keeps growing, pressure on our water supply increases. That gets more people thinking about alternatives to lawn. Don’t just let it go brown; that’s so boring. Do something else.”

What will future California landscapes look like? Take a peek at Brenzel’s new book.

“The Sunset Western Garden Book of Landscaping: The Complete Guide to Beautiful Paths, Patios, Plantings and More” (Oxmoor House, 416 pages, $29.95) arrives this month when gardeners throughout the state are searching for ways to transform their outdoor spaces into sustainable and beautiful personal havens.

Brenzel and her team of Sunset writers, photographers and designers spent more than a year pulling together the best forward-thinking ideas for 21st century western landscapes.

“We wanted the book to really reflect where we’re going with landscaping,” Brenzel said in a phone interview. “People want landscapes that are sustainable in all forms. They use less water, but they also create less green waste. There’s less runoff from irrigation and more recycled materials.”

There’s also less use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and more support for wildlife, she noted. There’s a focus on selecting the right plants for the right places.

“The whole book reflects that idea of sustainability; it’s how we garden now and where we’re going in the future,” Brenzel said. “We wanted to show ideas from real people as well as landscape designers. There are a lot of beautiful ways to use plants.”

With more than 600 color photos, the latest title in Sunset’s Western Garden series looks gorgeous. Flip through the spectacular patios and private oases and two constants emerge: Most of these gardens are quite small and there’s very little if any lawn.

That approach makes sense for most California gardeners, Brenzel noted. Many homes today have postage-stamp yards, but these small outdoor areas still can look smart with a creative use of limited space. Think vertical “walls” of plants or a side yard packed with edible plants.

As for lawn, its days may be numbered in a lot of gardens. “In times of drought, people are asking, ‘Should I let the lawn die?’ ” Brenzel said. “That’s the question we’re hearing over and over. The answer is not always yes. If you have kids, a patch of lawn is essential. They need a place to play.

“But if your lawn is just for looks, it’s time to do something else,” she added. “Lawn has its place in wetter climates. But when water is tight, it’s hard to justify.”

Menlo Park, Sunset’s hometown, is a case in point, Brenzel said. “Here, you can only have so much percentage (25 percent) of your landscape be lawn. On a street near where I live, there are no front lawns any more. What happened was a little surprising; they’re really interesting front yards. There’s so much diversity, so many different plants and ideas. It’s really kind of fun.”

Imagining life after lawn can be challenging. One alternative is to create a meadow with low-water sedges, carex and creeping fescues.

“The thing I like about meadows is that they have that green and lush look of (traditional) lawn, but don’t need a lot of water,” Brenzel said. “Another thing they don’t need is a lot of work; you won’t have to mow much.”

Meanwhile, interest in growing food continues to skyrocket.

“That’s one trend that’s not going away,” Brenzel said. “During this drought, many people are asking: ‘Does this mean I can’t plant edibles this year?’ You can grow food with less water.”

Brenzel and her staff experimented in Sunset’s test garden with how to grow edibles in a tight space with less water. They used two raised beds, each 3 by 8 feet, and irrigated on drip systems. They grew tomatoes, peppers, bush beans, herbs and more with a fraction of “normal” irrigation for those crops. “If you love edibles, plant them,” she said. “But be smart about it. Mulch. Use soaker hoses. Think about where you put your water. Tomatoes actually like it somewhat dry.”

The downside of re-landscaping in times of drought is that new plants need water to become established and grow, she noted. “If mandatory water rationing is called for, people are going to have to look at their gardens and decide what’s worth saving – the trees, the shrubs, the tomatoes –and decide that’s where they’ll spend their water.

“The best thing to do now: Keep going with what you have,” she added. “Make choices, lose the lawn and think about alternatives.”