See how to ditch thirsty turf grass in favor of beautiful, easy-care gardens
1 of 21Thomas J. Story
This Palo Alto, CA front yard was designed be a point of interest for anyone passing by. Landscape designer Chris Jacobson kept mostly to a green palette to create tranquility and year-round good looks. Clumping Berkeley sedge dots the yard, while spiraled Aloe polyphylla and asparagus ferns line the drive. Japanese maples and dogwoods provide softness, shade, and color. Jacobson placed an arbor supported by concrete columns 7 feet from the house, creating a courtyard. The planting beds, mulched with tumbled glass in shades of blue and green and buff-colored decomposed granite, add texture while keeping the palette serene.
Garden designer Susanne Jett cheered up this Santa Monica lawn by laying down a crisp layer of decomposed granite and planting a showy—yet low-water—border that birds love as much as the homeowner does. Color was the driving force for Jett’s plant choices, including pink-blooming Cistus, orange Leucospermum, and purple-flowered Ceanothus. Shrubs provide privacy from the street, while shorter perennial plants and groundcovers make the space feel lush. The homeowner chose California natives such as Ribes and toyon specifically to provide berries for birds.
Garden designer Marilyn Waterman created her version of a homestead in her Menlo Park, CA yard. Waterman tucks in edibles everywhere: a ‘Red Fuji’ apple tree, blueberries, strawberries, a Meyer lemon tree, and herbs. She also loves water-wise succulents and ornamental grasses. Where her property meets the sidewalk, Waterman built a rustic fence with recycled 4-by-4s, wire, and turnbuckles. The fence is covered with Niabell and ‘Flame Seedless’ grapes as her offering to the neighbors. Even the boulders, which Waterman hauled from a stone yard, fit her ranch theme—she imagines rattlesnakes napping on them. But they’re functional too; the level surface makes them a useful resting spot for a person, pruners, or cup of coffee.
4 of 21Norm Plate
Shady patio garden
A sycamore takes center stage in this lawnless California yard. Shade created by the tree keeps the patio cool while permeable paving, potted plants, and other design details keep watering to a minimum.
"When your home and office are the same place, it's harder to stop working," says Ian Kimbrey, who works in an office above his garage, as does his wife, Joanne Forchas-Kimbrey. "You need a separate area for recreation that tells the brain it's time to switch gears."
So the couple (he's a photo editor, she works for a design firm) asked landscape designer Jay Griffith to help them turn a small lawn between their house and the garage into a transitional area, a "decompression chamber" where they can relax after work.
A variety of plants with low water requirements replaced the former sterile expanse of rocks covering the front yard of this Oregon home. They are all heat-tolerant and were chosen to provide year-round interest. Pavers take up most of the space where thirsty grass might grow instead.
Easy-care plants and materials create a low-maintenance garden that can fend for itself for weeks at a stretch. See how durable furnishings, bulletproof plants, no-fuss flooring, and clever details make it work.
Bridges, islands, and a shaded fireplace add plenty of whimsical details to this Albuquerque backyard design—no water necessary. And a smattering of carefully chosen drought-resistant plants offer just enough no-fuss greenery to create a lush landscape.
Grassy screen Tall Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ grass screens the sitting area from the street.
“Character” plants From fluffy mounds to floppy giants: Rusty-hued Carex testacea softens the front path, while green kniphofia, plum Heuchera ‘Obsidian’, Libertia peregrinans ‘Bronze Sword’, and euphorbia surround the ‘Karl Foerster’ grass. Across the path, drifts of Picea sitchensis ‘Papoose’, variegated iris, and Phormium ‘Dusky Chief’ encircle a ginkgo tree.
Design/Build Rebecca Sams and Buell Steelman, Mosaic Gardens, Eugene, OR
10 of 21Thomas J. Story
Easy-care front yard
Flagstone paths curve through a low-water front yard. A low berm of soil on either side of the walk adds interest, and weed cloth topped with permeable pea gravel allows excess water to soak into the earth rather than run off into the street.
Rocks covered the front yard when Ken and Beverly Behymer bought this house in Grants Pass, Oregon. But summers here are hot, and the couple yearned for a more inviting garden, one that wouldn't bake in the sun or raise their water bill by much.
Landscape architect Jim Love's solution: Add mostly low-water plants that give the yard all-season appeal.
1. Use permeable paving It helps rainfall percolate easily into the soil. The paths in the Zinners' garden are covered with gravel, and a small square patio in the front yard is of decomposed granite.
2. Extend the season Since most California natives bloom in spring, combine them with plants that flower at other times. Blanc added butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), coral fountain (Russelia equisetiformis), and Mexican lobelia (Lobelia laxiflora) for summer color.
3. Go on sustainable-garden tours You'll find ideas as well as designers who can help you realize them. The Zinners discovered garden designer Stephanie Blanc on such a tour.
Instead of expanding their 1,250-square-foot Spanish colonial revival home ― even though there was ample room on the lot to do so ― Gabe Gelbart and landscape designer Paul Rhoadzhagen decided to keep the house compact and let the garden shine, providing plenty of outdoor living nooks, colorful plantings that require little water, and lessons on incorporating environmentally sound materials and practices into the landscape.
Lawns demand about an inch of water each week during the growing season. That was too much for Seattle-based landscape designer Stacie Crooks of Crooks Garden Design. She knew she could create a traffic-stopping tapestry of plants that would survive on half the water.
So one spring, she ripped out much of her lawn and replaced it with a mixture of perennials and shrubs.
Plant natives, and birds will follow. That's what Mary and Joe Bochiechio found when they installed their garden in San Marcos.
After removing the lawn, designer and contractor Greg Rubin ― who specializes in California natives ― installed a meandering path bordered by fragrant 'Bee's Bliss' salvia, wild lilacs, and an existing non-native purple tree mallow ― all pretty, low-water plants.
Landscape designer Shirley Watts is on a mission to green up her gardens. That doesn't mean she packs them with foliage. Watts is committed to green solutions that benefit the environment by preserving resources and by recycling materials.
Multitiered raised beds and house walls protect this courtyard from breezes. The fountain in the center provides butterflies with a necessary supply of water. (After spilling down the column, it moistens the rocks below before disappearing underground; siphoning water from a puddle beneath wet rocks is a butterfly's preferred way to drink.)
When Claudia Armann and her husband, Kurt, moved in, the first-time homeowners faced a boring patch of lawn and little else. Two years later, they enjoy a vibrant landscape composed of succulents and drought-tolerant perennials that win admiring looks from passersby.
Style and practicality determined the design of this water-conserving garden in Clovis, California. For owner Claudia Kus, the distinctively Southwestern house style suggested a less thirsty garden to match. But the real issues ― a costly water supply, serious soil problems, and the hot, dry summers of the San Joaquin Valley ― were the clinchers.
As in many areas of the West, water is precious ― a limited commodity. Kus needed to manage carefully the available water.