Slowly, over the last few years, more and more front yards in Los Angeles have turned brown and stayed that way or, in some cases, turned to dirt. It is no longer a stigma for the owner of any sort of property — be it a home, an apartment building, a condominium, or an industrial park – to utterly neglect space that was formerly occupied by a lawn. I must admit to having wondered if this lack of civility — since there is no consideration for those who have to live with their neighbors’ front yard neglect — is also just a sign of the times.
Yet there are two legitimate reasons, in the first place, for dead lawns. One of them is water rationing. When you are allowed to sprinkler irrigate a Los Angeles lawn only three days a week, that lawn will experience serious dieback during the summer. I would be curious to know if anyone reading this has successfully sustained a green lawn on three weekly sprinkler applications. If so, please let me know how you did that. I realize it is possible, in some cases, to keep Bermuda grass or Kikuyu grass alive with three weekly irrigations, but even these tough grasses are likely to lose their luster under such a watering regime.
The second reason for dead lawns and their neglect has to do with the expense of keeping a yard or garden looking good. It’s not just water expense, but the gardening service that goes with it, as well as recurring expenses of fertilization, weed control, pest control and, especially, irrigation system maintenance. Apparently, the moment lawn death was all but inevitable due to water rationing, all plant maintenance around the house (and associated costs) were put on hold. It was as if people said to themselves, “I know my front yard is mostly dead grass, but it’s not my fault, and if the rest of my plants suffer from lack of attention, that’s really all about the fact that, without a lawn, there is no longer a justification for gardening service or plant care in general.”
In retrospect, with an uptick in environmental awareness, it is easy to understand why traditional Los Angeles lawns had to go. Tall fescue, which was the most popular local lawn grass for years, is native to European wetlands and is ill-suited to the climate of Southern California. There has been a slow but steady shift towards shrubs, ground covers, and succulents, many of them longstanding staples of the nursery trade, that can subsist just fine on three or fewer weekly irrigations. In fact, nearly every woody perennial and succulent you see when browsing a nursery or garden center will grow well despite the water rationing that is in place. Surprisingly, many of these plants, once established, will survive the summer without any irrigation whatsoever, as long as our average winter rainfall of 15 inches occurs.
Keep in mind that many traditional garden favorites – such as geranium, bird of paradise, rosemary, and gazania — come from parts of the globe where the climate closely resembles our own and are therefore drought tolerant, too.
Without much of an investment, improvement of the front yard, or any area formerly occupied by a lawn, is eminently feasible. One solution is to plant a ground cover that flourishes with three weekly waterings or less. Trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) immediately comes to mind. Its foliage is deep green all year round and it can easily be kept under a foot tall.
Lantana is another evergreen ground cover which, as a bonus, flowers most of the year. There are many lantana cultivars, but the trailing, ground hugging type blooms in either lavender or white. Just a week ago, I drove by a front yard in Encino that was filled with the white cultivar, a most cooling respite on a hot summer day.
You can also go with California native shrubs which, once established, need a bare minimum of summer irrigation, if any. I like the idea of a native oak tree planted in the center of a yard surrounded by manzanita and ceanothus shrubs. Nothing could be simpler, in addition to being unmatched in natural beauty.
Tip of the Week: Gazania is another lawn replacement possibility. I recently received a price list from Stover Seed, where hybrid gazania seed is sold for $48 per pound. A pound of gazania seed covers approximately 1500 square feet, which is the size of an average Valley front yard. Once established, gazanias – blooming vibrantly in full sun in various shades of pink, yellow, and orange, as well as in white – will persist in clumps and self-sow and thus you will have an eternal flower garden in front of your house to gaze upon. Gazanias do require a very fast-draining, sandy soil to flourish and thus you may need to bring in amendments to eliminate the possibility of standing water, which could eventually sabotage your gazania planting.