Real Californians Have Drought-Resistant Lawns

So says one San Francisco-area landscaper, who sees each backyard as a gateway to understanding — and thereby saving — the rest of the world.
Lawn Revolution: Meadow Soprano

Lawn Revolution: Meadow Soprano

On the East Coast, there's the prairie movement; here in Northern California, a similar return to naturally occurring meadows would mean more environmental stability.

Photo by: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

By: Amy Keyishian
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"People complain that we don't have seasons here," says Michael Thilgen of Four Dimensions Landscape Company. "I understand what they mean. We don't have the classic, dramatic cycle. Ours is more subtle, but you can sense the season by your senses if you stay in touch with the natural world."

The traditional green lawn behind a white picket fence is a beloved symbol of well-being. Transplants from the East Coast have a lingering desire for that perfect patch of soft, fragrant, foot-friendly turf. That made sense early in the 20th century, when the ability to dam, pipe and spray water was new and seemed limitless.

These days, water is more scarce. That patch of green now represents something else: waste, carelessness and environmental damage. "I think it's a tossup, actually, between a traditional grass lawn and an artificial-turf lawn," says Thilgen. "The artificial turf is made of petrochemicals in a factory. But the living green grass requires water, which diverts it from the Bay. The two-stroke mower causes air pollution. The fertilizer soaks into the groundwater and into the nearest creek, causing algae problems. So which impacts the environment less?"

The answer, of course, is that neither is great. Instead, Thilgen and his cohort in the Bay-Friendly Gardening Coalition are gunning for your grass: The Lawn Reform Movement is here, and they want to reboot our perception of a healthy lawn. 

A Lawn Revolution: Water-Wise Landscapes in California

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Meadow Soprano

On the East Coast, there's the prairie movement; here in Northern California, a similar return to naturally occurring meadows would mean more environmental stability.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Contrasting Textures

The grass clumps are Muhlenbergia Rigens, surrounded by wood mulch, next to a path made of decomposed granite, which complements the dormant grass in color.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Emerald Waves of Grain

When Carex Pansa gets long enough, it lays down gently to create wave-like forms. Wildflowers such as Cistus Purpureus are a gentle yet spectacular complement.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Two Kinds of Grass

At left, Festuca Rubra, which stays green. At right, Nasella Pulchrum, which goes dormant in the summer.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

A Beautiful Compromise

This lawn has the traditional Dwarf Tall Fescue lawn to the right — but only one patch of it. The rest is Iris Douglasiana (foreground) and Festuca Californica (rear), with stones and mulch for variety.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Wildflowers in Bloom

Salvia Clevelandii is a common flowering shrub that blooms all summer.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Cat Not Included

The grass here is Festuca idahoensis, with lavandula vera (not in bloom — it's a fuzzy purple stalk of a flower) and a gravel path.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Strange Flowerbed-Fellows

Festuca rubra grass with the wildflower Erigeron glauca, also known as the seaside daisy.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Native Pride

The state flower, California Poppy, with Salvia clevelandii in bloom.

Photo By: Michael Thilgen and Four Dimensions Landscape

Northern California has two main seasons: the wet season, from late October through March, and the dry season (spring and summer). "A lot of the native grasses have adapted to our Mediterranean climate," Thilgen says, "which means they go dormant in July and August, just when we're all hosting summer barbecues. It's kind of a shock, because people are emotionally attached to their lawns, and as Americans we're used to having it all. But the chickens are really coming home to roost, environmentally." We have to change our ways.

But it's not like taking medicine: Drought-resistant native-plant lawns can be beautiful, green and resilient – just maybe not all at once, or not all in the same spot. Depending on what you use your lawn for most, you can have "a smaller spot of grass and more of other elements" chosen for green, for beauty and for heavy traffic — with the result that, as you see up close how these native plants develop over time, you'll begin to sense and recognize the subtlety of the NorCal seasons. 

If You Want: Groundcover

Creeping Thyme: "It doesn't have to be watered as often. It looks a lot like a lawn until it flowers, and then it's spectacular. But you don't want to play soccer on it, because you might step on a bee."

Sand Strawberry: "We plant a lot in our gardens in between other plants. They grow over the wood-chip mulch to turn a brown place into a green place. They don't fruit very much — you get a big show of white flowers in the spring, and a smaller fruit than market strawberries."

Yerba Buena: "This prostrate, spreading mint grows naturally in oak woodland and creates a green carpet. But you can't walk on it very much or you'll crush it."

If You Want: Local Grasses

Carex Pansa: "It's not bone-dry tolerant, but requires much less watering than traditional grass. It grows about two feet tall, then collapses onto itself and creates sweeping wave patterns, like an ocean flowing and sweeping up and across. And then once in a while you cut it back with a weed whacker, and it sprouts again."

California Fescue and Red Fescue: "A beautiful oak woodland grass that gets to be 12-18 inches with flowers twice that height."

Red Fescue: "You sow this out by seed, it grows about 12' tall and then collapses like the carex. It's used by CalTrans for land management projects."

Purple Needle Grass: "This is our state grass, and it's a lovely bunch grass with a slender, fine texture that used to grow in valley grassland all across the middle of the state."

If You Want: Durability

Wood-Chip Mulch: "This abundant waste product from tree trimmers is a great material. It conserves water, rots down to provide nutrients to the soil, and makes a great woodsy and rustic path or patio."

Native Sod: "There are a couple of companies now making sod with native grass that responds to mowing. It does go dormant in drought, so you've got to be ready for that." 

Steppingstones: Folks around here make their own, adding marbles, shells and other doodads to make them cute as can be. Create a path with them and you'll be less tempted to trample the carex pansa.

If You Want: Beauty

There are simply too many options to name. A visit to your local plant nursery or to Annie's Annuals will provide you with an array. Thilgen specializes in creating backyards "filled with different species that jostle with each other and delight the eye. You can put annual wildflowers in a caryx meadow so they blossom throughout the year."

Sounds dreamy. And it sounds like a trend that fires the imagination and the senses.  

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