FALL PLANTING : The Shrinking Lawn : Southern California’s Most Forward-Thinking Landscape Architects and Designers Face the Challenge of Limited Water

<i> Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine. </i>

ON NOV. 5, the Los Angeles Aqueduct celebrates its 75th anniversary. The opening of this huge waterway initiated the greening of a very dry Southern California. With recent drought conditions, however, the pressing question for gardeners today has become: How much longer will our gardens remain green? Will we still be watering our lawns when the Aqueduct turns 100?

As the fall planting season (the best time in Southern California to plant everything, from ground covers to trees) nears, it becomes relevant to consider the future. Some say that Southern California will eventually revert to desert. Others predict we will soon be raking gravel mulches instead of lawns. Just what is the future of gardening in this hot, dry corner of the country where we depend almost entirely on imported water?

This much we know: We cannot take rain for granted in California anymore. We are experiencing the second period of drought in recent years, and although drought does not affect Southern California as immediately as it does Northern California and other parts of the country, water shortages are certain to affect us in the future. As Southern California’s population continues to grow, our sources of imported water are shrinking because of demands made by other Western states. In many areas, the price of water is expected to double in the next 20 years. Drier gardens are coming; it is only a matter of time.

Although new lawn grasses and irrigation technology will help, less lawn is inevitable and may even be mandated, as communities limit how much of a garden can be planted to lawn. Several have already placed restrictions on commercial and multifamily developments. Goleta, near Santa Barbara, has actually limited what can be planted in a home landscape--only 20% of the garden can be grass.


Santa Monica-based landscape architect Doug Campbell, who works with his wife and partner, architect Regula Campbell, speculates that “the drought may be the best thing to ever happen to California garden design. It forces us to rethink the entire thing, and many of the possibilities are very exciting.”

“I don’t think there is any question that gardens are going to change,” affirms Thousand Oaks landscape architect Ken Smith, who has worked with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and other water agencies to identify water-conserving plants and to develop better gardening practices. “But not suddenly,” he adds. “How can we design water-conserving gardens while people still want bluegrass and birch trees?”

Plant materials such as those bluegrass lawns and birch trees--known for their unquenchable thirsts--are still the signature of an elegant garden. “One of the real luxuries of garden design,” explains landscape architect Bill Evans, designer of several Walt Disney theme parks, “is a great sweep of lawn. There is just no substitute.”

Lawns are the garden’s open space: a family’s personal park or meadow that can be walked on, played on, laid on. But they also are the consummate consumer of water. In Southern California, grasses that remain green year-round are as unnatural as indoor-outdoor carpeting. Native grasses originally were perennials that dried up in the summer, giving California its Golden State image.


The basic problem with water usage in Southern California gardens stems from the general rules of garden design here: Lay out the largest lawn possible; then plant the perimeter and add other features. That is a simple way to design a garden, but its heritage is found in the normally rain-soaked gardens of our East Coast, and before that in even wetter England. In California such lawn-centered design is not what many now would call “an appropriate landscape.”

Southern California has a Mediterranean climate, which means that the weather is wet in winter and dry in summer, with temperatures moderated by a nearby ocean. Good sources for garden ideas for California, then, are the gardens in other Mediterranean-type countries, including Chile, South Africa, Australia, Portugal, Spain, the south of France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Israel and the coastline of North Africa. A wealth of plants similar to our own natural vegetation hails from these areas.

To illustrate new ideas in drought-resistant gardens, we have designated today’s typical garden, one designed around a lawn, as Plan A (top left). With some of Southern California’s most forward-thinking landscape architects and garden designers, we have come up with Plan B (bottom left), what we think the design of tomorrow’s garden might look like.

PLAN B BEGINS with less lawn. Dividing the yard into smaller, more manageable areas is an effective way to deal with space usually occupied by lawn. These areas would be like a series of what Santa Monica garden designer Nancy Goslee Power calls “garden rooms.” Classic Mediterranean gardens are laid out in this manner.

Garden designer Phillip E. Chandler, who has inspired many of today’s young designers and started a number of trends in gardens, uses very little lawn. (In his own garden in Santa Monica, there is none at all.) What grass remains is given the best possible position: close to the house, where it can be lavished with care and enjoyed at close range.

Smaller lawns are inevitable, but it’s unrealistic to think that they will disappear altogether. The future of Southern California lawns includes better lawn grasses and more efficient irrigation. The thirstiest lawn grass, bluegrass, is already being replaced by the tall fescues. Unfortunately, however, these deep-rooted, somewhat coarse grasses are not as water-thrifty as first thought. To look their best, fescues require almost as much water as bluegrass, though they can survive less handsomely on a smaller quantity and needn’t be watered with the same frequency.

John Rector, agronomist at Pacific Sod in Camarillo, says that lawns of the future will be the warm-season grasses that need much less water--the fine-bladed, low-growing Bermuda grasses; the coarse, taller St. Augustine and especially the hybrid zoysias. “By the middle to late 1990s,” Rector says, “I expect to see new hybrid zoysias playing a very big role. The reason they are not as popular now is that they go dormant in winter, but new varieties have a much-shortened dormancy period and green up in early February instead of late March or April.”

Still, “lawns are becoming a smaller carpet in the garden,” explains landscape architect Ken Smith. To replace lawn space, Smith predicts, there will be more garden paving. “But if we’re going to use more paving,” he is quick to add, “we’re going to have to use more imagination.”


The best way to use paving, Smith believes, is to spread it around the garden--to make more and wider paths and create several smaller patios instead of one large one. (Note that Plan A has one large patio; Plan B has two smaller patios.) Too much paving in one place not only looks less garden-like but, from reflected heat, is likely to raise the temperature of the garden.

Garden designer Christine Rosmini of Los Angeles, who favors paving materials, says, “I haven’t left anyone with a lawn in years.” In her much-admired gardens, which brim with flowers and fascinating plants, paths and patios of tile and brick take the place of lawns, providing visual and actual access to the garden and a vital sense of openness. Where increased openness is necessary, she uses gravel, partly because plants can both grow onto it or in it, and because gravel is permeable. Permeable paving is important because it allows water to seep through to the soil beneath, nourishing tree and shrub roots, instead of ending up in puddles or rushing down a gutter.

Gravel mulch also can replace lawn, but only if it is used in small pools or on paths so that it does not overpower the design. In Arizona, gravel mulches are common; one municipality has a rebate plan to encourage their use. Too much gravel, however, is inadvisable, according to Greg McPherson assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arizona, Tucson. McPherson reports that tests on quarter-scale houses and gardens indicated that reflected sunlight from gravel mulches increases home-cooling costs 20% to 30%. The cost of cooling interiors outweighed any savings in water--even when compared to the amount of water expended on a thirsty lawn--and this in an area where the cost of water is double what we pay.

In many Mediterranean gardens, paths are virtually the garden, they are so important to the design. In Plan B, the large, graceful paths of decomposed granite wander throughout the garden. Walking through Plan B would be much more interesting than a stroll through Plan A. The colors of Plan B’s paths and other paving are muted and earthy to cut glare, and much of the paving is shaded by trees.

Rosmini plants former lawn areas with “mixtures of low-growing plants that look like a meadow” (though they can’t be walked on). These include thyme and chamomile and other low-growing herbs, with clumps of statice and similar rugged flowers or bulbs in season poking through.

What about lawn substitutes for the less-dedicated gardener? “Large, simplistic drifts of the same plant,” says West L.A. landscape architect Robert Fletcher. He is talking not about traditional ground covers but of shrubby plants such as raphiolepsis, natal plum, dwarf oleander, abelia and pittosporum that shade the ground and make invasion by weeds (the undoing of low-growing ground covers) difficult.

The University of Arizona found that such plants saved water without increasing the heat load of a garden. Fletcher advocates placing ground-covering shrubs far apart and using a surrounding thick organic mulch until the plants fill in. That keeps plants from growing together too quickly and then mounding up higher than planned, making maintenance difficult. Also, very little water is used because plants can be irrigated efficiently by small drip emitters.

In a low-maintenance version of Plan B, the flowing island bed between the paths could be planted with ground-covering shrubs, also a logical choice for the front yard, as shown in Plan B.


Fletcher has noticed two other trends in garden design: shade structures and ornamental ponds. Shade structures not only help to cool additional paving but also partially enclose the paved areas, making them more room-like and intimate. (In Plan B, the back patio is shaded by an arbor.) Water features, such as fountains, give a garden a feeling of wetness and coolness, although very little water actually is required. In other Mediterranean gardens, from Spain to Algiers, water is essential. In Plan B, the focus of the garden is an ornamental pond in a large pot, a sparkling contrast to the warm, dry, decomposed-granite paving and the sunny nature of the garden.

Santa Barbara landscape architect Isabelle C. Greene, an admirer of Italian, Moorish and Spanish gardens, has a reputation for gardens that have a distinctly Mediterranean feel. “I find that gardens are more comfortable and restful if they look like they harmonize with the climate,” she says. “I like to use the wetter and juicier and most brightly colored plants right up next to the windows and doors of the house and then use the tougher, scruffier Mediterranean plants farther away, blending them into the native flora at the very edges.”

Greene positions thirsty plants inside hedges or walls so they do not battle--visually or culturally--with the drier parts of the landscape. Where dry plantings abut a lawn, she cautions, there must be a transition zone at least 3 feet wide, or a swath of bare dirt, so that the lawn sprinklers do not soak the dry plantings. Plants that can take water but look as though they don’t need it are used in such transition zones.

In Plan B, beds of roses, which do best with lots of water, are enclosed by small, formal hedges at the far end of the garden view. Greener, “juicier” plants are close to the house, including--just outside the kitchen door--a kitchen garden (which, of course, needs regular irrigation). Vegetable gardens also can be segregated from drier parts of the garden by low hedges--perhaps the aromatic myrtle commonly used in Mediterranean gardens.

Designer Chandler has noticed another trend: privacy. Secluded areas were important in the design of classic Mediterranean landscapes, from totally enclosed Moorish gardens to the high hedges of Italian Renaissance gardens. Without a large lawn, perimeter plantings that provide privacy can be allowed space to grow more densely. Many shrubs and trees used for privacy today--such as oleander, pittosporum, bottlebrush, podocarpus and privet--can get by with little or no water.

And what of flowers? The dedicated flower gardener has nothing to fear. With less lawn, there is also more room for flowers. In many gardens, flower beds are already eating away into lawn areas. Once established, most flowers--annual or perennial--need watering once a week, no more.

This can be taken one step further: The perennial flowers and small shrubs in Plan B have a more Mediterranean appearance and demands, less like those found on the East Coast or in England. The annuals (and bulbs) are planted in the fall to bloom in the spring, because the plants are on the same cycle as native wildflowers and take advantage of winter rains. Many gardeners consider these flowers to be the prettiest plants in the garden.

Although many California gardeners attempt to create English-type gardens, avant-garde English gardeners are trying their best to grow many of the Mediterranean plants that flourish here but drown in the wet soils of England. Agapanthus is a prized specimen in England, and there are probably more fremontodendrons (a choice but difficult native) growing there than in Southern California.

At the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, horticulturist Carol Bornstein has just planted an alternative to the typical English-inspired border--one made up entirely of native California plants. Once established, the border needs no watering in summer. In the spring, it is a blaze of color; at other times, the border has it own natural grace. Says Bornstein: “I’m trying to get people to think about plants throughout their cycles.” She wants gardeners to look at the foliage color and beauty of the seed stalks and to observe the mounding or upright form “because flowers are so ephemeral.”

Her native-plant border is full of form and foliage color, two elements California and Mediterranean plants have in abundance. Gray grasses contrast sharply with mounding olive-green perennials and small shrubs. Interestingly, the gray and olive-green borders do not clash with the lawn. “I’m not opposed to having a lawn in the garden, so I just put greener plants in the front of the border, but you could also use a wide pathway as an edge,” Bornstein explains. She suggests decomposed granite, because it makes a fine path and looks at home in a California garden. (In Plan B, the island bed is perfect for Bornstein’s California perennial border.)

A flower border needn’t be confined solely to California natives but can include all sorts of plants with origins in other Mediterranean climates. (El Modeno Gardens has compiled a list of plants with low water requirements that is available at most nurseries.) Many are already common in our gardens but tend to be over-watered.

PLAN B IS an “appropriate landscape,” made by combining many water-conserving ideas. Land scape architect Greene believes that endless possibilities will emerge when gardeners begin to “mine the vein of appropriateness.” The result will be a water-thrifty, sun-filled garden of sweet scents and soft, muted colors with areas for play or rest in sun or shade, and paths worth exploring daily.