Thaya duBois, a garden designer by trade, has created a water-thrifty meadow garden at her home in Studio City. It requires far less water than a lawn. At first glance, the growth of a meadow in our dry city appears to be no small feat. Our ecosystem is classified as chaparral, which means that most of the year the plants native to our area are dull green or gray, with dabs of flowers thrown in for color during winter and spring.
DuBois’ meadow garden of consists of clumping green grasses that do not require copious amounts of water. In the front of her house, behind a tall, protective brick wall that parallels the street, Berkeley sedge (Carex tumulicola) is thriving. Native to the San Francisco Bay Area and points north, Berkeley sedge is cold-tolerant and will grow anywhere in Southern California as long it is protected from hot midday sun.
In truth, many of the ornamental grasses now available are not really suitable for just any meadow but for what duBois calls a “woodland meadow.” Sedges, in particular, are partial to moist soil and some sun protection. In the Valley, this microclimate can be found under native riparian trees such as sycamore and alder or under the ever-popular European white birch, often planted in a clump of three or five trees in the front yard. Because of their thickness and the fact that they grow half a foot tall or taller, sedges provide their own shade, forming a living mulch that slows evaporation of moisture from the ground, reducing irrigation frequency.
In duBois’ meadow garden, in between the swaths of sedge in partial shade, self-sown blue forget-me-nots are blooming. They impart a spontaneity and freedom that can never exist in the presence of those compact, predictable, multicolored impatiens mounds.
In one corner of the meadow, where an ancient walnut tree had stood until it succumbed to oak root fungus, a Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum) is flourishing. Despite its small stature – no more than 20 feet at maturity – it has an open structure and will seldom, if ever, require pruning. It also has leaves that turn luminescent tones of gold, burgundy and scarlet before dropping in the fall.
A stunning purple-flowered vine, known as queen’s wreath or sandpaper vine (Petrea volubilis), is blooming against a west-facing wall, just inside the entrance to duBois’ garden. Never having seen this plant, I could only marvel at its generous, foot-long spikes of flowers and wish I had planted it next to my own front door. Being semi-tropical and frost sensitive, queen’s wreath should be planted next to a west- or south-facing wall or fence. Sun-exposed structures absorb heat during the day that they give back to the vines growing against them at night.