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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Reimagining the California Lawn


Is your garden one of the many thousands across the state that is covered mostly in turf?

If so, and if you’re not actively using it, three California horticulturists would like you to consider making a change.

In their new book, “Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs,” Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien tackle water-guzzling lawns straight on.

They describe half a dozen garden styles that require less water and are easier to take care of, and offer hands-on techniques for better managing existing lawns or reducing their size.

The book is filled with 300 inspiring photos to illustrate the concepts. Altogether, “Reimagining” provides a comprehensive set of tools to reinterpret your garden. It’s an excellent resource, whether you’re planning to replace your lawn, or just make it more efficient. The design ideas are also worth a look if you’re landscaping a property for the first time.

By Way of Background

Creeping red fescue

In the Introduction, the authors provide a brief history of lawns in America. They cite the unintended consequences of routine application of herbicides and synthetic fertilizers — including a study that concludes that turfgrass practices actually contribute to greenhouse gases.

In addition, they note that a modest-sized front and backyard suburban lawn consumes 45,000 gallons of water per year. Altogether, the authors say that the estimated 300,000 acres of residential lawns across California consume as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water per year.

“I’m not suggesting there’s not a place for lawns in our communities,” said Fross, founder and president of Native Sons wholesale nursery in Arroyo Grande. “But how many of us can drive around and see a patch of lawn that has absolutely no purpose? It’s being irrigated, mowed, fertilized and repeated over and over and over again. It’s just consuming water and fertilizer and energy and maintenance time.

“My message is to look at the space and to think of whether you’re using it or not. Then reimagine it. There are a lot of interesting, innovative, creative things you can do with that space that are much less consumptive of resources.”

One Giant Step



Chapter One is for folks who are ready to reinvent their landscape by replacing all of their turf with something else. But first, the authors encourage readers to take a step back and settle on a design style.

Here’s where your imagination can really take over. Photos illustrate seven lawn-substitute styles, including greenswards, meadows, rock gardens, succulent gardens, carpet and tapestry gardens, and kitchen gardens. There’s also a section on green roofs, which is a particular favorite of Fross. While it’s not likely that a Central Coast gardener would already have turf on a roof that would then be replaced, the section provides an interesting look at a niche gardening technique.

Along with describing the various design styles, the authors provide a history and examples of each, along with comments about design and installation, maintenance and special issues, and a selected plant palette.

A transformation

Fross said that it’s important to note that while a lawn stays essentially the same over time — as a flat, two-dimensional, green surface — replacement gardens continue to grow and change.

As an example, he cites a photograph on the cover of the book, which shows his daughter Blair at age 8, in 1989, skipping across flat boulders scattered among an informal planting of deer grass and native wildflowers.

“The meadow is still there. It hasn’t been replanted. It’s just evolved into a different-looking thing,” Fross said. “Think about that image, with a lawn there. Think about the number of years, the amount of times your lawn would have been mowed, fertilized and watered, relative to that one, and I think it speaks volumes.”

Piece-Meal Progress


However, if you’d rather chip away at your turf than daydream about its demise and wholesale replacement, skip to Chapter Two, which kicks off with methods to tune up existing lawns.

The authors cite overwatering as the number one problem. They dispense advice on ways to avoid applying too much, such as matching irrigation techniques to various soil types, figuring out how long to run each sprinkler cycle and mowing at the proper height. They also discuss solutions to weeds, insect pests and diseases.

Next is a section about removing lawn beneath established trees, followed by a discussion of replacing lawn with hardscape, such as flagstone, brick, concrete or decking.

Then comes what may be the heart of the book for many readers — descriptions of hands-on techniques to eliminate lawn. These methods include mechanical removal, solarization, sheet mulching, lasagna bed method and herbicides.

The chapter closes with a few paragraphs explaining why the authors oppose artificial turf.

Plant Profiles

Autumn moor grass

A plant encyclopedia comprises much of the remaining half of the book. The authors, with decades of experience between them, describe the various characteristics of the plants and their optimal growing conditions. Each entry encompasses plant type, climate zones, light, soil, water, origin and garden uses, along with detailed, conversational descriptions.

The garden uses category is especially helpful, as it links the particular plant with whichever of the seven design styles that it’s best suited. For example, bougainvillea is listed for carpet and tapestry gardens only, while oregano is suitable for six styles, including meadow, rock, succulent, carpet and tapestry, kitchen and green roof.

Local Roots

Beach strawberry

“Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs” has its roots in the Central Coast.

Two of its three authors — David Fross and Carol Bornstein — live here, as do the publishers, John Evarts and Marjorie Popper, who own Cachuma Press, a 20-year-old publishing company based in Solvang. Many of the gardens pictured in the book were photographed by Evarts on the Central Coast as well.

Fross is founder and president of Native Sons wholesale nursery in Arroyo Grande, while Bornstein is a former Director of Horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The third author, Bart O’Brien, is Director of Special Projects at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.

The three teamed up several years ago to write “California Native Plants for the Garden,” also published by Cachuma Press and now in its sixth printing.

“We wanted to reach out to a broader audience than the native plant enthusiast,” said Evarts, in explaining the decision to publish “Reimagining the California Lawn.”

“If you’re really interested in a garden that reduces water use, where do you begin? For most gardeners, that begins with the lawn…. (The book) offers options from water conservation to reducing the lawn to completely replacing it. The idea is, sooner or later, Californians are going to have to contend with reduced amounts of residential water or considerably higher prices.”

“Reimagining the California Lawn” is available at bookstores, online and directly from Cachuma Press at A calendar of talks and book signings by the authors is also on the website.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

6 responses to “Reimagining the California Lawn
  1. Our plan is to slowly transform our tiny urban yard into a tiny urban orchard.

    I just can’t love the “random tufts of ornamental grass, surrounded by the sea of rocks” aesthetic, which is — sadly — how so many people interpret lawn removal.

  2. How did I miss this post????

    I lOVE my impractical lawn where the puppies and bunnies play hide and seek with each other- but I’m open to new ideas. Will check it out.

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