ceanothusandbeeThose of you who have been following along here at Left Coast Cowboys have heard me warning about our historic drought. I’ve even condemned the ubiquitous Ice Bucket Challenge. Despite its noble goals, it still perpetuates the completely irresponsible assumption that we have plenty of potable water to throw around. I could go on for days on the pitifully inadequate response of our state government to this ecological catastrophe. Instead I’ll do something I know I’ll be ashamed of later: quote James Michener. As dreadful a novelist as he might be, he still wrote something that has stayed with me. In Hawaii, a missionary is wondering why the Native Hawaiians are sickening and dying in such great numbers mere decades after first contact with Europeans. His wife says, of course European diseases and alcohol are partly to blame, but she thinks the key thing plaguing the Hawaiians is “our inability to find them beautiful”. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, while the roulette wheel of ecology and Climate Change are a big factor, our inability to find Native California beautiful is also a core problem.

Think that’s a stretch? Take a walk through my neighborhood in San Jose. The Rose Garden District is acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful areas of the city. Older homes sit on tidy streets under the shade of large mature trees. A key component of the “Rose Garden look”: lawns. Big, thirsty lawns of Kentucky Bluegrass punctuated with flowers — often of the tropical Hawaiian variety. Not to pick on my ‘hood. This phenomenon is pretty widespread throughout the West. People leave New England, Ohio, and rainy climes, move to Phoenix, LA or Las Vegas and immediately put in a lawn and all those plants that looked so great back home. Why is this almost always the case? I think it’s for two reasons: a) people have no idea what plants are native to California, and b) they don’t know the first thing about California’s ecology. Because if you really learned about the latter, you would demand the former.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the same clueless variation on a complaint about Western weather — “Gee, what a shame all the rain came at once instead of being spread out through the year.” Hmmm. Clearly you were snoozing in 7th grade geography. Because it’s pretty consistent in any semi-arid place from Australia to Eastern Africa to America’s West that typical weather patterns consist of long dry periods punctuated by short intense wet seasons. And it’s also a pretty cyclical event that sometimes those rains don’t come during that small window of opportunity, leaving you with practically no rain for the year. Get three years of that in a row and, well, we end up where we are now. In a drought of the proportions that once brought down the Anasazi, Chaco Canyon and probably the Mayan civilizations.

Sticky Monkey Flower is one of my favorite natives. There are endless and subtle variations in the patterns.

Sticky Monkey Flower is one of my favorite natives. There are endless and subtle variations in the patterns.

Yet, people are clinging to their lawns and their water wasting ways. Which is the long way about telling you that I’m not. Clinging to my lawn that is.

I’ve just completed the first stage of Project Lawn Be Gone, which will segue-way into planting a beautiful drought tolerant lawn of California native plants. And forget this dreadful “Brown is the New Green” campaign that California thinks will make everyone save water. I’m not going to have any brown. Because, if you plant a native garden right, you can have year round color for the price of NO water. If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you know how hard we’ve worked to preserve and restore our native habitat on our spread in Sonoma. We have large areas of plantings that we haven’t watered in three years. They’re beautiful. But then I’ve always preferred California plants to anything imported. All those East Coast plants seem to me blowsy and overly perfumed. California plants have smaller flowers, but they reward with intense colors and peppery scents. Describing the landscape of another semi-arid area, Isak Dineson wrote:

“There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.”

Exactly! I’ll be going for “strong and refined essence”. Can I also add that another benefit of a California garden is that it feeds native Californian birds and insects. See all drought-tolerant gardens aren’t created equal. Think before you grab those Mediterranean plants. Sure, they’re water wise, but can the local fauna find any sustenance on them? Probably not. And believe me, you want those California birds, bees and butterflies. They are as beautiful as California native plants.

Another favorite native: Blue Eyed Grass. These always look as if they are winking.

Another favorite native: Blue Eyed Grass. These always look as if they are winking.

But I’ll be spending much more time evangelizing about native plants in later posts. First, let’s get to the hard part in this equation: taking out a lawn. I’m using the sheet mulching method. It’s scary at first, but it’s by far the easiest, most ecological way to proceed. Step one is covering your entire yard with flattened cardboard boxes, slightly overlapping. Be sure to use thin boxes and remember to remove all tape since it won’t compost.

The cardboard forms a weed barrier. Here is my Sonoma Ranch Manager Louis trying to convince my neighbor, Gary, that things will get better. Gary is polite, interested but skeptical.

The cardboard forms a weed barrier and speeds the breakdown of the grass. Here is my Sonoma Ranch Manager Louis trying to convince my neighbor, Gary, that there will eventually be a beautiful garden here. Gary is polite, interested but skeptical.

After you wet down the cardboard, cover with about an inch or two of dirt.

After you wet down the cardboard, cover with about an inch or two of dirt.

Finally, cover the dirt with mulch. We opted for the shredded redwood bark called "Gorilla Hair". It's the lightest to move and we were exhausted by this point!

Finally, cover the dirt with mulch. We opted for the shredded redwood bark called “Gorilla Hair”. It’s the lightest to move which was much appreciated by this point in the project.

Finished! Now we'll let it sit for four to six weeks, by which time the grass below should be turned to compost.

Finished! Now we’ll let it sit for four to six weeks, by which time the grass below should be turned to compost or at least significantly broken down so that planting into it is easy.

We’ll wet it down with the sprinkler nozzle on the hose just to keep everything from drying out. But the Gorilla Hair kind of mats down and holds everything in place really well. I purchased soil and mulch from Evergreen Supply who I highly recommend. They’ll calculate how much you’ll need of each based on the square footage of your lawn. They also steered me to a cheaper soil than what I was going to purchase. When I mentioned that I was putting in a California native garden, they reminded me that California plants thrive in less than rich soil so I could go for the cheap stuff! As for the small piles of leftover mulch and soil, I posted on Nextdoor.com that I was giving it away free. Gone in an afternoon.

As I warned, this is the scary part. Six weeks of staring at mulch is going to put a bit of a strain on my relationship with my neighbors, although they’ve been very polite about the whole thing. When we get to the planting stage, we’ll just cut holes through the mulch, soil, cardboard sandwich and pop our plants in. What remains of the cardboard should continue to act as a weed barrier.

If you are interested in how this all progresses, watch this space. I’ll be generating pretty detailed, full color landscape plans that I’ll be posting as we refine our design.

As I keep telling my neighbors: Trust me. You’re going to learn to love California Natives. I’m hoping that, unlike Michener’s missionaries, you will develop the ability to find them beautiful. It will be a different kind of beauty than perhaps you are used to. But it will be beautiful.

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