The Dry Garden: Long Beach lawn rebates prove just how beautiful change can be


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Plaudits, not sprinklers, were flowing this week when the Heal the Bay president, a Surfrider Foundation policy director, a vice mayor and water company general manager gathered in the garden of a Long Beach handyman to ooh and aah over the salvia.

They were there to praise citizens of Long Beach who embraced the first of two rounds of rebates -- $2.50 per square foot lawn converted to low-water garden -- that started in April.


It stands to reason that clean-ocean advocates would appreciate how important it is to check the stream of pesticide and fertilizer pollution that runs into the Pacific from lawn-sprinkler overflow. But what has dazzled everyone familiar with the Beautiful Long Beach Lawn-to-Garden Incentive Program is how citizens of this beach city have been so ready to do their part. The first day that the Long Beach Water Department began accepting applications, conservation specialist Joyce Barkley said, “They were gone in 45 minutes.”

Among the first to the phone was local handyman Alan Phair, pictured above. His 6th Street garden was completed in April, and through word of mouth it has become a destination for other homeowners thinking about ripping out their lawns, grant or no grant.

“It’s hard to get people to leave,” he said, so poker-faced that you had to check for a slow grin.

One glimpse at his home (before and after photos, at right) and it’s clear why people want to stay. Phair has created a storybook English-style cottage garden.

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Phair was raised in the north of England, not far from Beatrix Potter country. The ability to parse the line between romantic and twee runs in his blood, as does a way with flowers.

“I was given my first pack of seeds at 4 years old,” he joked in a voice that, after 33 years in the U.S., remains pure Manchester.

The contrast between his display of cosmos, sage and roses with neighboring lawns is startling. The lawns are green, yes, but they look barren. Over in Phair’s garden, fiery skipper and swallowtail butterflies sup on nectar in his parallel Technicolor universe, pictured above.

Not far away, another frontyard is aflutter on Coronado Avenue, also thanks to a turf removal grant from the water department. This time it is an Americanized version of a cottage garden. Pamela Gamble, who laid stonework along the path dividing roses and a flower bed, waters maybe twice a week and has no runoff. Her 3-year-old granddaughter loves the flowers, she said.

The look changes completely at the hacienda-style Lewis Avenue home of Eddie and Peggy Rosales. They chose a Southwestern-style landscape with cactus and succulents, then used a rim of the South African groundcover dymondia as a smooth connector between the spinier segments of the garden and the sidewalk. The overall look is so sculptural that Rosales began fashioning handsome stonework using brick, tile and polished stone in the decomposed granite alongside the driveway.

What do the neighbors think? Organizers of the rebate program heard that one applicant actually was offered money by a worried neighbor not to remove the turf. But in the Rosaleses’ case, neighbors were so taken by what Eddie and Peggy did, the neighbors converted their garden the same way -- at their own expense. Once the Rosaleses put in a dry streambed lined with weed cloth and filled with gravel to trap and infiltrate rainwater from their roof, their neighbors followed suit, integrating both landscapes.

Given the prevailing synonymy of lawn and wealth, one might expect the attachment to turf to be strongest on sycamore-lined East 37th Street, yet the water company scored a conversion at one of the grandest corner homes in this proud historical district. Where before there was grass, seen at right, now agave studs the steep slope around a Spanish-style mansion, pictured below. It’s almost too much to bear to imagine how exquisite the street would be if everyone followed suit.

The final stop of a tour led last week by Long Beach Water Department’s Joyce Barkley, above, brought yet another change in style. A small 1940s home on East 46th Street was given a crisp modern treatment with an olive tree, illuminated stones, agave, nested succulents and grasses.

What all these gardens have in common, apart from beauty, is tranquility. Yet it will be many moons before these early adapters can fully enjoy the fruits of their labor. At 46th Street, as happened at other homes during our visit, the street reverberated with the roar of mowers and leaf blowers from lawn crews working the yards of neighbors.

It has taken roughly half a million dollars to put the yards of 275 homes on the path toward quieter, more sustainable models. Meanwhile, Long Beach has 80,000 residential water hook-ups. With a rebate of $2.50 per square foot, it’s not realistic to think that most residents will be paid to redo their yards any more than most drivers will be paid by California’s Air Resources Board to buy Priuses. Rather, most Southern California homeowners will have to do what Eddie Rosales’ neighbors did: See a good idea and copy it and pay for it.

The good news is that savings on water bills and lawn maintenance fees will soon pay for the conversion.

Why even try? As a region we don’t have enough water to sustain grass as default landscaping. Watering lawns causes chronic ocean pollution through irrigation runoff. The power consumed by pumping water to Southern California is accelerating climate change. Exhaust from lawn mowers and the dust from leaf-blowers is ruinous for air quality. The perpetual roar of these machines makes being outside unbearable in a region famed for outdoor living.

In other words, if we don’t follow Long Beach’s suit in adapting our gardens, the future is bleak. If we do, the irony will be that only in austerity did Southern California realize its potential as a garden paradise.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays.

Photo credits: Emily Green


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