Hot Gardens Newsletter: Summer 2006
Gas or Grass. We suspect that many of you are now faced with the monthly choice of watering your desert garden lawn or putting gasoline in your car. We offer you a solution – in fact, many solutions. They begin with replacing your lawn. Of course, you want to maintain that lovely emerald green grass in areas where children play or around your patio or terrace behind your home. But that expensive expanse of green lawn in front of your home – minimize it or eliminate it.
Going Native. We do not, however, recommend that you simply rip your front lawn out and “go native”, so to speak, by letting the native shrubs, weeds and cactus take over. It always seems as if the scraggly natives show up first, put down roots and stick around.
Rock Mulch Inferno. Nor do we recommend that you pour a truck load of red gravel/mulch in the area where you currently have a front lawn and call that “desert landscaping”. That rock mulch will reach temperatures of close to 150 degrees F in hot summer sunlight, turning your front yard into a furnace! That fake plastic grass, which these days looks almost real, is also hotter than hot in the sunshine. What you save on water you will spend on air conditioning if you spread lots of rock mulch in any area around your home.
Instead, do this:
1. Plant Ground Covers. Fast growing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis), Trailing Indigo Bush (Dalea greggii) or Desert Carpet (Acacia redolens). Plant them densely enough so they will completely fill in the area within a year. The idea with ground covers is to create a visual substitute for the water-gulping lawn.
Lantana will give you brilliant color – yellows, golds, pinks, or purples – for months on end, so pick a color that goes nicely with your home. Or mix them up!
Acacia redolens ‘Desert Carpet‘ is a low-growing, gray-green leafed shrub with yellow, puffy round blooms in Spring. Trailing Indigo Bush, a Western U. S. native is more subtle, low-mounding shrub with pearly gray leaves and small lavender flowers in Spring.
All three require little watering, endure poor soil and keep their leaves year ’round. And they never need mowing. You may even be able to say goodbye to your lawn service guys, as well as to high water bills.
We are ambivalent about creeping Rosemary as a lawn substitute. It is one of the sturdiest, most drought-tolerant low growing ground cover shrubs, but attracts bees, which may have been Africanized and are potentially dangerous. At the very least the bees may sting.
Your local nursery may also have other options for low-growing shrubs and ground covers for you — be sure to ask them.
2. Plant Lawn Pavers. This solution can be quite striking if your front garden is small and faces north or east. What you do, after you remove the lawn, is install large concrete pavers widely spaced in a geometric pattern. The idea is to lessen the amount of plants requiring watering in your front garden – not to create a front yard patio, so be sure to allow wide spaces between the pavers. We suggest that you stain the pavers in a color to complement your home before you install them. Don’t leave them concrete-gray.
Between the pavers, plant low growing herbs. Yet another plant to go between the pavers is simply the lawn grass you already have growing. But then you would still have to trim/mow it somehow!
We also suggest that you plant a wide border of drought-tolerant plants at the sides of your front yard if you install pavers. It looks a bit weird if the pavers extend from wall to wall across the front of your home.
For suggestions of plants suitable for the border, visit our Beautiful Borders page. You may also wish to consider planting taller Ornamental Grasses, such as Pampas grass or Deer Grass, in your border. In the border you should consider positioning some small “boulders” to give the border a natural, native look.
One More Thought About Lawns. In Albert Camus’ novel ‘L’Etranger’ one character muses that the green landscape of France hurts his eyes and he longs for the soft browns of his native Algeria. We would all do well to learn to love the subtle, soft colors of our dry climates wherever on our planet they are.
Very Tall Tall Grass. Bamboo is the giant of the grass family and Oldham bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) can be grown in low water usage conditions. This timber bamboo has a clumping growth habit – that means it more or less stays where you plant it. (“Running” bamboos spread underground and will take over your entire yard–and your neighbors yard, too–if they like the conditions.) This giant grows fast – more than a foot a day during its growing season – and rapidly forms a tall screen. Under best conditions it can reach 50 feet tall, but more commonly grows to about 15 to 25 feet in height. Just the thing to counteract noisy neighbors! Planting it in partial shade is best.
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