Losing Your Lawn
Turf-free gardens offer design challenges — and rewards.
By Ilsa Setziol 02/26/2014
At long last, the lawn has become passé in Southern California, and it’s about time.
Lawns are perpetually thirsty and California is in the grip of a record drought. Many municipalities are paying residents to rip out conventional grass and replace it with drought-tolerant landscaping. (In Pasadena, the rebate is a dollar per square foot of turf, up to $2,500.)
Still, even scoundrels have redeeming qualities and lawns have theirs: providing a soft, durable play space that’s easy to incorporate into a garden. “When you have grass, artistically it ends up being a fairly simple design,” says Laramee Haynes of Pasadena-based Haynes Landscape Design. A strong design becomes more vital in the absence of grass, he says, because the assemblage of plants replacing it can look “too busy.”
Despite the challenges, losing one’s lawn presents opportunities. Many lawn-liberated gardens in the San Gabriel Valley are exemplars.
Five years ago, the garden in front of Denise and Tim Morse’s elegant 1924 Italianate home near Caltech was an uninspired combination of grass and ivy. Today, the garden’s more formal, geometric design complements the Mediterranean house, as do its drought-tolerant plants. Haynes installed low, variegated mock-orange hedges that skirt two ovals of decomposed granite (DG), one on each side of the path to the door. (The curvilinear shapes echo the architectural eyebrow above the entrance.) Creeping rosemary trails over the edges of the DG, softening the borderline. A stone bench flanking a dwarf orange tree is both a focal and vantage point.
The result? A space that feels simultaneously enclosed and open, public and private. “It’s a living space for us,” says Denise Morse. “It gives me enough privacy that I’m separate, but still part of what’s going on in the neighborhood.” To accomplish that, Haynes deployed just a handful of plant varieties, lending order to the design. “The old-fashioned advice from English gardeners is ‘repetition, repetition, repetition,’” he explains. “It becomes paramount to do that when you don’t have grass.”
A relatively easy approach to replacing lawn is to swap it for other ground cover that’s drought-tolerant. Authors Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien present several attractive options in their book, Reimagining the California Lawn (Cachuma Press). These range from native grasses and grass-like plants to carpets of resilient low-growing things like yarrow, as well as wildflower meadows, rock gardens or succulents. All are far more interesting than a monolithic lawn, although many won’t tolerate heavy foot traffic.
One lawn substitute that will, according to Altadena-based designer Wynne Wilson of Terra Design, is grass-like sedges in the Carex family. Wilson recommends Carex pansa, native to the West Coast. It lends a graceful texture to the garden she designed for Tina and Mark Graf in southeast Pasadena. “It can tolerate all kinds of traffic,” she says. “It can be mowed [but] it also looks beautiful long.”
In the Grafs’ front yard, she installed another lawn substitute — dymondia. The little yellow-flowered, daisy-like South African plant is drought-tolerant and endures light foot traffic. (A summer bloomer, most of the year it displays petite silver-green foliage.)
There’s little point in merely exchanging lawn for another entirely flat surface, however. If you’re going to rethink your garden, why not opt for a more interesting design?
In the Grafs’ front yard, the carpet of dymondia edges bluestone paths and weaves around beds of Corsican hellebore, Kashmir sage, yarrow, coyote mint and other low-water plants. For the backyard, the flat landscaping was jettisoned in favor of plants of varying heights and textures; they carve the area into compelling architectural spaces. “I look at it like a painting,” Wilson says of designing gardens, “with an experience of volume and space.”
Having earned degrees in environmental design and fine art from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Wilson likes to play with the “seduction” of “something you go into — tunneling and then it opens into volume.” Like many landscape professionals, she achieves coherence and drama by massing together plants of a single variety — in this case, the Carex, roses and ferns.
Just off the Grafs’ back porch is a large semi-circular graveled area for entertaining. It’s surrounded by fields of Carex, edged with maroon-leaved redbud trees. Heading away from the house, a gravel path rounds a low fountain and leads out of this fairly formal area to a more rustic rose-covered lathe house (a shade structure of wooden slats that let in light and air). The Grafs enjoy polka dancing here, under a wrought-iron chandelier. Exiting the lathe house, a tunnel-shaped arbor leads into the wildest part of the garden — a native-plant-filled woodland that envelops a mature oak. It’s a secluded spot for observing the many species of birds the new garden shelters.
Paths are a key element in lawn-free gardens. “The paving becomes much more important,” says Haynes, a former mechanical engineer, “because it’s the open space now.” He advises against skimping here: “Wider, more generous pathways with plants creeping over the edges is a lovely look, you can enjoy the view; whereas a narrow steppingstone path forces you to look at your feet.”
For Beth Gertmenian’s front garden near Caltech, just down the street from the Morses, Haynes ripped out the lawn and added a brick patio and pathways that weave among native black sage, ceonothus, coffeeberry, galvezia and other drought-tolerant plants. “We’ve done a curved pathway that makes the space feel bigger and more interesting,” says Haynes.
The new garden is not only more aesthetically pleasing, it’s also more functional than the old lawn-dominated yard. “Too much water was being used,” says Gertmenian, “and rain was running down the gutter, running away [into the street].”
Now the slightly tipped patio catches water from the roof and directs it into a rock-lined catch basin. Gertmenian’s grandsons like to drive their toy trucks through the garden, climb on the rocks and rearrange smaller stones to make little dams.
In the backyard, Gertmenian and Haynes adopted an approach that designers recommend for people who aren’t ready to ditch their lawns entirely: make the flowerbeds bigger and fill them with less thirsty plants. “Once you take out the edges and corners,” he says, “that can be 20 percent less grass, and it will actually look better.” He also gave Gertmenian’s lawn a more appealing curvilinear contour.
If you do decide to keep some lawn, better management will still save water. “I leave the grass taller,” says Wilson, adding that she lets the mowed clippings drop to the ground to mulch the lawn. Most lawns are overwatered, so experiment with less frequent, perhaps longer watering.
Still, Wilson and Haynes say most of their clients these days want less lawn — and none report missing it when it’s gone. They fall in love with “the textural, layered effect of a real garden,” says Wilson. “The birds, bees and butterflies pretty much [seal] a forever relationship with this type of gardening.”
To find out if you qualify for a cash-for-grass rebate program, visit socalwatersmart.com or cityofpasadena.net/waterandpower/turfremoval/