'Green' yards conserve water

In a neighborhood of crisp green lawns and colorful rose bushes, Don and Denise Hahn’s yard is a lesson in subtlety. Clumps of wild-looking grasses sit next to spiky aloe plants which rest under the shade of palo verde trees, all of which melts into the natural vista of the foothills.

“I am just a regionalist,” Denise Hahn said. “Everything should look like it is in Southern California. I think it is ridiculous to waste water on sod that doesn’t want to be here in the first place. It is totally artificial.”

The Hahns, who moved from Glendale to their home on Knight Way in La Cañada Flintridge five years ago, are part of a contingent of local property owners to have embraced drought-resistant and California native plants, and are re-landscaping accordingly. The movement is being stoked by the ongoing Southern California water crisis, which has cut available water and resulted in increased customer rates.

Nina Jazmadarian, general manager at the Foothill Municipal Water District, said that native plants and waste-free watering are critical given current conditions. Many water agencies are now offering financial incentives for households that install hyper-efficient, weather-based irrigation controllers, she added.

“It is very important,” Jazmadarian said. “When you are watering efficiently and not losing that water to runoff, it is just great.”

The biggest challenge, Don Hahn said, was letting go of the lawn. After that, it was time to experiment with species of different sizes and textures to get the right mix.

The couple sought out specialty nurseries, and consulted with a landscape architect. They intend to plant several Engelmann oak trees, as well as buffalo grass, hummingbird sage and California meadow sedge, in coming weeks.

Because the yard is a work in progress, Denise Hahn said, it is difficult to quantify how much water or money has been saved so far. But they said they were confident that the work would pay off in the future.

“I am figuring they are going to shut off our water and we will be ready because we have already done all the experimenting,” she said. “We don’t want suddenly nothing but dirt out there.”

La Cañada residents Eric and Elisa Callow have made a science of native plant gardening and efficient watering, reducing their water consumption by more than a third last year, they said.

The landscaping of their 30,000-square-foot property, located on the southwest corner of La Cañada Boulevard and Journey’s End Drive, was meticulously orchestrated. Most of the established plants require little more the occasional pruning, Eric Callow said.

“It can be dramatically less maintenance in terms of pests,” he added. “I use no pesticides whatsoever, no herbicides. Even though there are snails in the yard, they don’t get anywhere because there is nothing they like to eat.”

The crown jewel of the yard is a multi-circuit irrigation system.

Concerned about over-watering, Eric Callow began gathering extensive data on the survival needs of native plants. Species with similar watering requirements were grouped together, and the irrigation system was programmed accordingly.

The planning paid off. In 2007, the Callow household consumed 869 units, or 86,900 cubic feet, of water for a total cost of $2,196.95. Two years later, the usage was reduced to 538 units for a total cost of $1,997.44. The savings would have been much greater, Eric Callow said, had the price of water not increased substantially.

“My big epiphany was that the efficiency of your water system and knowing what you are actually putting down is as important, if not more important, than the choice of plant,” Eric Callow said.

Native plant gardens do not appeal to everyone’s aesthetic tastes. The colors and textures of California native plant species tend to be more muted than those of none-native species, Eric Callow conceded. Nevertheless, a committed gardener can achieve a very full and pleasing result, he argued, and tastes do change.

“My objective in this garden is to achieve a level of abundance and polish that it will seem acceptable to traditional gardeners,” he said. “It is a question of care and watering, and obviously plant selection.”

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