When you replace a lawn with water-thrifty plants, you save money by significantly reducing water use, by eliminating application of lawn fertilizer and weed control products, by eliminating the need for a weekly gardening service and, if you hand water, by eliminating the cost of irrigation system repairs and upgrades.
Two years ago, the Majamaki family decided to remove their front lawn and replace it with a garden of water thrifty plants. The end result of their labors might serve as a paradigm for 21st century Valley gardens.
The Majamaki garden, located in Sherman Oaks, owes its success not only to judicious plant selection but to utilization of gravel and bark for ground cover and to the absence of an irrigation system. Where water wise gardens are concerned, gravel and bark can serve both water-saving and aesthetic functions. As mulch, they save water and, on either side of curving headers, create a pleasing contrast of colors and textures. The dark brown bark is a fitting compliment to the gilded gravel, sometimes referred to among crushed rock merchants as ‘Palm Springs Gold.’
The use of non-living ground cover such as gravel and bark is key to the success of a drought tolerant garden. Gravel and bark reduce water use since they minimize evaporation of water from the soil surface, keeping water in the soil where it can be steadily absorbed by plant roots. When plant roots are kept cool by surrounding mulch – such as gravel and bark – plant health is enhanced. Plant stress is nearly always the result of extreme fluctuations in soil moisture level. Either the soil is too dry or too wet. Mulch keeps soil moderately moist at all times.
The absence of an irrigation system generally means healthier plants. We often forget that irrigation systems were originally designed for lawns. Where garden plants are concerned, overhead irrigation leads to fungus problems, especially with plants native to dry summer climates, when water does not evaporate immediately from leaf and stem surfaces. Excess water on the plant is generally the source of insect pest problems as well. When you water by hand with a hose – or, for that matter, through drip tubing – upper plant parts remain dry. Hand watering or drip watering sessions, where drought tolerant plants are properly sited and mulched, will seldom be required more than once a week. Once plants are established, once or twice a month watering, if even that often, will be sufficient for many plant species.
French lavender (Lavandula dentata) serves as a lush, anchoring perennial in the Majamaki garden. Over the years, I have found French lavender and English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) to be the toughest of the dozen or so lavender species and cultivars that are locally available in the nursery trade. French lavender seems to have a longer bloom period than any other lavender, while both French and English lavender, as long as they are watered from below, should look good for four years, at least, before going into decline.
A salient feature of the Majamaki garden is a stout firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) shrub standing in the back. Pyracanthas of this type have virtually disappeared from the nursery trade. Nowadays, the Pyracanthas you encounter are types that are grown either as low hedges or ground covers. According to the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, shrubby firethorn, which can reach twenty feet in height, is considered to be invasive in Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties, despite its usefulness as a drought tolerant garden ornamental whose berries attract wildlife and as a species that provides excellent erosion control on slopes. These qualities are shared by Cotoneaster, a close relative of Pyracantha, except that Cotoneaster is thornless, has arching as opposed to ramrod straight stems, and has softer leaves. Both Pyracantha and Cotoneaster show off a mass of white flowers in the spring followed by a rich crop of red, miniature pome fruit in the fall. (Pyracantha fruit may be orange or yellow as well.) The fruit of both Pyracantha and Cotoneaster, while edible, is bland.
Silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae) fills the parkway here. One section is struggling and I wonder if wayward dog walkers or curbside car parkers have trampled it. While silver carpet can handle light foot traffic, it would rather be simply watched than walked upon.
A circular planter, constructed from decorative concrete blocks, serves as a well-integrated accent, even as it stands out as a focal point of the Majamaki garden. Cacti and other succulents adorn this planter, whose shape is an appropriate compliment to the curved lines that separate expanses of bark and gravel.
Tip of the Week: Several tried and true succulents adorn the Majamaki garden. As long as you have half of the day’s sun and decently drained soil, you can grow these succulents, too. Miniature pine tree (Crassula tetragona) is a unique succulent ground cover owing to leaves that point outward in four directions, curving upwards, as if the plant were a bonsai version of a Canary Island Pine (Pinus canariensis). Sticks on fire (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’) lights up the garden with glowing orange and red tips on its cylindrical leaves. Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is currently showing off its pinkish-red flower wands while variegated pink stonecrop (Sedum ‘Autumn Charm’) is flush with rosy pink florets even while it displays attractive cream and green variegated foliage.