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Tips for Low Water Gardens

As a landscape designer, I had a large library of reference gardening books, yet there were a few that I used over and over again.  When I moved my home to Wyoming, I pared down my gardening library, taking with me what I considered the best and most essential books.

If you are looking for a low water garden, here are some of the best reference books out there.  For a good guide to help you start planning your low water garden, please see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future  I also give you step-by-step instructions for a native lawn or meadow, edible low water plants, as well as tips on how to irrigate and zone for reduced watering.

Rock with succulents

Below are my top recommendations:

1.  Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region by East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD).  I might consider this book a good primer for those who are beginning gardeners or homeowners.  The oversized format has wonderful glossy photos and it is of course put out by the water district.

2.  The New Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch.  This book has been around for some time and is still considered the best book on the subject.  Salvias are such a great addition to one’s low water garden. There are ones for sun and shade, small and gigantic.  Clebsch has grown them all and gives you growing tips galore.

3. ¨Designing California Native Gardens by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.  Keator is considered one of the leading botanists in California, an expert on oaks and California natives. Need I say more.

4. Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden.  Drought Resistant Planting through the Year by Beth Chatto.  Although Chatto is from England and her gravel gardens were an experiment there, she is right on the mark for California. This is probably the book I used the most in designing low water attractive gardens.  You’ll droll at the photos and her wonderful plant combinations.  And gravel is the quintessential mulch to retain water.

5.  Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish.  If you are planning a succulent garden, this is one of the best reference books out there for the larger plants and how to use them in a design.

6. California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Burt O’Brien.  These are the top people in the plant world.  Bornstein was the horticulturist for the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden for 30 years.  Fross owns Native Sons nursery.  A must have to understand California natives and their culture.  Fross also wrote the comprehensive book Ceanothus, but that book is probably too horticulturally geeky for the average gardener.

7. Mediterranean Gardening: A Waterwise Approach and Gardening the Mediterranean Way: How to Create a Waterwise Drought-Tolerant Garden both by Heidi Gildemeister.  Mediterranean is what we have in California climate.  You will get good tips and photos from these books.

8.  Native Treasure: Gardening with the Plants of California by M. Nevin Smith.  Smith is the Director of Horticulture at Suncrest Nursery in Northern California.  For years I coveted a hard-to-get in-house printing that described all of Suncrests plants and their culture, written by Smith.  Hard to find a person more experienced in plant material than this man.  Suncrest is one of the top nurseries in California, growing and introducing new plants all the time.

9. Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for every Garden by Joann Gardner and Karen Bussolini.  I include this book because all plants silver are low water plants.  Plus silver is a good foil and contrast against other plants in the garden.  Good photos and information.

Dry CA

Lawns for a Drying California

I was speaking with a friend the other day in the Bay Area.  She told me all the landscapers are busy pulling out lawns.  No doubt!  But then she said they are recommending artificial turf AKA fake grass.  Google ‘artificial turf and cancer‘ and you’ll come up with a lot of buzz on the internet.  Fake grass is made from tire products and many of those chemicals are considered carcinogenic.  I’d be especially worried about installing fake turf in my home if my kids played on it or my pets laid on it.  Sure it’s easy to maintain because you don’t have to do anything–it’s fake!  But I personally wouldn’t take the risk.

So, if you want a lawn and live in a parched California, where water is the new oil, what can you do?

My answer was written up in a post back in 2009.  Carex pansa lawns.  Because of the extreme drought situation, I wanted to repost and speak again about this fabulous native grass.

Dry Gardening lawn

Carex pansa front yard lawn

Here is some of what was written in that previous post years ago:

Once established, it requires watering only about every 3 weeks or more, depending on your site, and mowing no more than 4 times a year!  I do have clients that keep it very ‘lawn-like’ and mow it every two weeks, but since it only grows 6″ high, that isn’t necessary.

Carex pansa can tolerate traffic.  I have clients with kids who play ball on the lawn.  But it isn’t for intensive traffic.

The planting/preparation method is simple.  Prepare your bed as if you were going to plant a conventional lawn, in other words, good soil, lots of compost, rake out the clods, bed should be to finished height.  I always install a conventional irrigation system–better safe than sorry and its so much easier for the homeowner.  In the beginning you will need to water the plugs till established and the first summer while filling in, water a few times a week.  So a watering system on a timer is essential.  This means the irrigation system should be installed prior to planting.  The sprinkler heads can be installed and then adjusted to correct height once the Carex is in.

Carex pansa needs a good edging as it will spread beyond your beds without one.  Its not a weed nor really invasive, but, like grass, it will grow outside its borders if given water and good soil.  Depending on your design, you might even want to pour a concrete edging.

Dry gardening lawn

Carex pansa in a large backyard situation

I’ve put in a few dozen of these lawns and never had any problems.  For Californians, now is the best time to prepare your area and plant your plugs. Carex pansa grows during the warm weather, so your lawn will fill in quickly.  Plant 3″-5″ apart for a fast fill, although if you need to save money you can plant 6″-9″ and wait longer and weed more. For information as to where to obtain the plugs (this ‘grass’ must be planted from plugs), as well as further information including how to plant a natural meadow, please see my eBook Gardening for a Dry California Future.

Dry California lawns

Carex pansa lawn with kids and dogs in househole

Some Patio Notes

I recently visited some old clients and got a chance to see how their gardens had filled in.  I want to comment on just two gardens with interesting patios.

The first was an idea I cooked up.  It involved using pavers set in concrete around the edges of the patio.  Executing it was a contractors’ nightmare I suppose.  I wanted the pavers to be included in the final pour so the patio flowed together.  First we did a hand pour and set the pavers in around the edges.  You’ll notice those white things in the photo.  That’s where the planted edging around the lawn goes and we had to have a backstop for the concrete, so it wouldn’t pour into the dirt.  We used some styrofoam that could later be taken out.

The pour

The boulders to the right of the above photo are set so no concrete flows beyond them.  That area was a planted pocket.

As we poured the patio, we had to hand work the concrete into the spaces between the pavers and wipe the pavers off of the concrete.  We had to work fast and it was tedious.  Like I said, a contractors nightmare!

Carex lawn with small plants as edging

I didn’t want the concrete to butt up to the lawn.  I wanted a softer edge so I used a mixed planting of grasses and Stachys ‘Hummelo’, a small flowering Stachys which isn’t flowering in this photo, but flowers all summer long.  The lawn itself is Carex pansa.  The owner has two children who were around 10 and 8 at the time.  They were able to play ball on the lawn.

Pavers set in concrete

Originally I’d picked out a dark purple colored paver, but that was too wild for the client so we went with a more subdued look.

The client asked for a small patio/sitting area in the corner of her garden.  Instead of using more concrete, I chose decomposed granite with the addition of a few pavers in it to match.  A path of the same pavers set in soil with ground cover leads to the patio.

Decomposed granite small patio with pavers; Pavers set in Dymondia groundcover

Decomposed granite small patio with pavers; Pavers set in Dymondia groundcover

I say that a yard takes about 6 or 7 years to mature.  This yard is about 4 years old, still growing in, but I was pleased at its progress.

I also visited a garden that used the DG dusting method described in a previous post.  This garden was installed five years ago.  The DG still looked excellent, but in a few spots you could see exposed baserock.  After five years it’s time for another dusting of DG.  In making a decomposed granite patio, the major expense in materials is the DG.  At over $80/yard, doing a dusting instead of 2″ saves quite a bit of money.

Decomposed Granite patio dusting method after 5 years needs new 1/2" DG application

Decomposed Granite patio dusting method after 5 years needs new 1/2″ DG application

Decomposed Granite patio

The paver patio set in concrete looked good, although the client never had it sealed.  Sealing is really not necessary with a hard stone, but it does bring out the wonderful colors of the stone.  Here is a photo of some of the detail work we did with her patio.  My client is an artist and fun to work with.  She’s willing to take risks and stretch the boundaries.  She wanted the edges to have a ‘river’ like look.  She personally went and hand picked all the river cobbles as well as placed them herself.

Placing the edging cobbles

River rocks edge patio for an artistic look

cobble edging detail around natural stone seat

And to leave all you readers with a final funny thought:  While driving around nearby Belvedere, the most upscale and expensive neighborhood in Marin County, my son and I saw a police car parked at a prominent corner with a stop sign.  When we looked inside, there was a dummy policeman, complete with a donut and coffee mug on the dash.  I guess the wealthy citizens of Belvedere can’t afford a real policeman to deter criminals.

Belvedere ‘fake’ cop. Dummy with coffee and donut on dashboard