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7 Smart Ideas for a Low-Water Yard

When you need to ditch the lawn due to low-water conditions, opt for native plantings

Kathleen N. Brenzel
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Losing the lawn

It looks vibrant, with flowering and fruiting plants, shade trees, and grasses that shimmer like spun gold in sunlight. But this garden, fronting a custom prefab home near downtown Santa Barbara, actually thrives on very little water. “It needed to be super-green to match the house,” explains landscape designer Margie Grace, “with a naturalistic feel and the strong sense of place. It needed light and movement.”

Before the new landscape went in, piles of sandstone boulders—all unearthed during site preparation for the home—populated the lot. Grace incorporated the boulders into the garden, using them to form gentle mounds and swales that help prevent storm-water runoff, and to build walls. Then she chose mounding shrubs and soft grasses, which are watered by a seasonally adjusted drip-irrigation system. Paths are permeable.

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Low maintenance

“The secret to any water-smart garden,” says Grace, “is playfulness. Play with plant textures and beautiful mulches. And keep the plantings undemanding.”

Which these certainly are. “It takes two guys a half-day once a month to tidy the grasses and refresh mulch,” says Grace. Most of the plants need irrigating only during August through October. For the other nine months
of the year, the irrigation is turned off for everything but the fruit trees.

DESIGN Garden: Margie Grace, Santa Barbara; . Home: Michelle Kaufmann, Novato, CA; .

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Lawn alternative

Rich green Myoporum parvifolium carpets the area closest to the front door. Native to Australia, it grows 3 to 6 inches tall and spreads to 9 feet, but doesn’t stand up to foot traffic.

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Permeable paving

Stone slabs with Mexican beach pebbles between them create a wide, sinuous path to the front door.

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Unthirsty shrubs

Prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Irene’) spills over the low sandstone wall. Nearby, ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ English lavender pump out wands of fragrant blooms in late spring.

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Citrus

Lemon trees (and a small lime tree, nearby) need more water than the other plants; they’re on their own irrigation schedule.

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Open spaces

Pockets of the 25- by 80-foot front yard are unplanted, reducing the total area needing water. Grace dressed them with California Gold gravel, then topped them with sandstone boulders.

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Grasses

Blond Mexican feather grass dances in breezes. Near wild land where it’s a weedy nuisance, try similar Slender Veldt Grass (sold as Pennisetum spathio­latum)—“the closest I’ve found to it,” says Grace.

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Shade trees

Sycamore trees shade the house during the summer months. Native to Califor­nia where they grow near streams, “they’re high-water use but low demand,“ says Grace. “During drought, they sleep.”

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