When people who had grown up in the East and Midwest started moving to California, they quite naturally created landscapes that reminded them of home. Later generations grew up in houses with lawns, and so the idea that they are central to beautiful landscaping has been perpetuated. Lawns do smell and feel and look good but our continuing increase in population, the movement of people into areas without much water, and long periods of drought have stressed our water supplies. If we are to adapt to our new conditions, there needs to be a paradigm shift in our idea about landscape beauty, away from large, flat expanses of turf and plants that require lots of water, and towards more climate-appropriate gardening.
Is this the end of Claremont as we know it? The need to use less water might seem to be at odds with maintaining the visual character of Claremont since one of the most attractive features of our city is that it has an abundance of greenery. Does being waterwise mean we need to pattern our gardens on the Mojave, with a few agaves dotted in a sea of decomposed granite? Do we need to forgo our title of “City of Trees”? Not if we make some sensible changes.
We can change our plant palette: It is perfectly possible to keep that overall verdant look while reducing landscape water usage substantially. We have a Mediterranean climate, one where the local native plants are adapted to dry summers and wet winters, and we can use them in our gardens. There are a lot of plants from Mexico, Australia, South Africa, and, of course, the Mediterranean that will also love our local conditions. They will look healthy, beautiful, and lush with much less water than a traditional landscape requires. And as for our trees, almost all will do very well with a deep watering once or twice a month. We don’t need to lose their beauty, shade, and other environmental and economic benefits.
We can lose most or all of our lawn: Turf grasses use most of our landscape water, so removing the lawn or reducing it to the minimum needed for children or pets to play, using the most drought-tolerant grass species available, and reducing irrigation times will save a lot. For a purely decorative flat green area, look for some of the less thirsty lawn alternatives such as silver carpet or thyme. What about artificial turf? It’s useful for putting greens and tennis courts, but replacing a lawn with artificial turf buys in to the idea that we need a lot of flat green space (even if it isn’t alive and doesn’t do a thing for the environment) in order to have a proper garden, a mindset it is imperative we change. Faux grass takes water to produce and clean, it becomes a heat sink unpleasant to sit on and hot enough to kill the life below it, it provides no food or habitat and decreases biodiversity, it doesn’t help to increase local humidity, and it helps to clog up landfills when it has to be replaced.
We can incorporate some hardscape: Concrete, brick, pavers, stone, gravel, and decomposed granite can make good paths and patios, especially if they allow water to percolate into the soil below. But since none of these add to biodiversity or support wildlife, and too great an area of hardscape can create glare and a heat island effect, we should be pay attention to the balance between hardscape and plants and opt for more greenery.
We can irrigate more wisely: We can reduce water use if we water by hand or install drip irrigation (and follow the City restrictions, of course) and we can add mulch to retard evaporation. We can group plants with similar water needs together, put them on the same station and reduce the frequency of watering until they are getting the minimum amount needed to keep them healthy. We can gradually replace thirsty plants with more drought-tolerant ones and water our private and street trees deeply once or twice a month.
So, the final word is that colorful, plant-filled, environmentally-friendly landscapes that take less time and effort than traditional ones are absolutely possible in Claremont. Drive around and you will see some beautiful, imaginative ones. We can keep Claremont green and lovely if we make that paradigm shift towards climate-appropriate gardens. Our landscapes can be both full of a diversity of plants (including trees) and waterwise!