By Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva
When I speak at sustainable gardening seminars I like to harp on two topics. One is to plant natives in your yard so you can spend less time begging your plants to stand up straight and look happy, and the second is to get rid of your front lawn so you can stop wasting so much water. It’s usually the men in the audience who freak out at the idea of losing the grass. They’re really attached to their big lawns; and yes, you can interpret that any way you’d like.
So for Father’s Day (June 19), here are two new books filled with facts, advice, designs, statistics and simple construction tips to help lower your outdoor water bill and also create a natural landscape that won’t be so demanding. We want dads to sit down and enjoy their yards—not just fix things outside all of the time.
The first one is called Water-Smart Gardening: Save Water, Save Money, and Grow the Garden you Want by Diana Maranhao. Maranhao is one of the nation’s leading garden water conservationists and go-to hydro experts in the Southwest. She is fired up and ready to take readers from water dumb to water smart.
“I’m tired of everyone just talking about drought,” she says. “Let’s do something!” Recent drought index shows that nearly 40 percent of the country is in the midst of a drought. Areas that are traditionally rich in rainfall—when hit with drought—get hit hard. Plants react badly to a cycle of wilt and stress, and their root systems stop producing deep far-reaching lines. Maranhao urges gardeners to get ahead of climate change. “Take stock of your landscape now and take the steps to bring it to water thrifty before it’s much too late.”
She gives an example of the typical backyard filled with the poor guy pushing a lawn mower to keep the weed patch in check. The sprinklers are misdirected, watering both browned-out turf and water-gouging shrubs. Yearly water use: 28,000 gallons. Take the same small backyard and retrofit it to a small terrace garden, a tree for shade, drought-tolerant shrubs and just enough turf to cool everything down. Yearly water use: 6,000 gallons.
From smart zonal planting to installing rain barrels to directing the flow of water in the form of swales, berms and basins, you’ll find a host of techniques that you can adopt to make sure your landscape thrives in practically any climate.
Midwest garden writer Lynn M. Steiner has recently come to save the day with her new book called Grow Native: Bringing Natural Beauty to Your Garden. Just what is a ‘native’ plant? At its most basic, a native plant is one that is endemic to the ecosystem where you live. It has survived for years and has proven that it can adapt and flourish in your yard. In other words, it is not a diva plant. It is a self-sufficient plant. (Trust me. These are the plants you want to grow if you want a life!) On top of that, the local birds, butterflies and bees expect to find native plants in the ’hood. There they can hang out, stop for a feast and flourish.
Steiner fears that the art of gardening has turned away from “green” and toward the imported. After gardening for 30 years, she knows that what happens in our gardens has ramifications well beyond our property boundaries. “The plants we choose don’t always stay in our gardens,” Steiner says. “Some are from other areas of the country or the world and can have serious effects on our natural areas and our native pollinators, birds and other fauna. The chemicals and fossil fuels (for mowing, fertilizing and so forth) often used in traditional gardening are also cause for alarm. The bottom line is, gardening isn’t always a ‘green’ hobby.”
Grow Native nudges gardeners to experiment with natives that either blend into existing landscapes or stand out as garden stars in more gutsy gardens. She addresses common complaints such as “native messy” and natives that flip and flop or take on an untamed look. If unruly isn’t the desired look, she can redirect you to natives with a bit more structure or predictability. She also lists a detailed index of comprehensive plant profiles featuring native flowers, ferns, grasses, groundcovers, trees, shrubs and vines.
In each individual plant listing you will find the botanical and common name along with a photo and the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. You’ll also find descriptive information on the size of the plant when fully grown, which pollinators and beneficial insects the plant attracts and how the plant can be used in your landscape and its long-term maintenance.
Many suggested plants will be familiar to you, such as black-eyed Susan, tickseed, coneflower, garden phlox, beardtongue, bee balm, cardinal flower, Virginia bluebells, coral bells, blanket flower and milkweed.
Are you ready to break up with your turf and plant a low-growing native that can take some light foot traffic instead? There are recommendations for native grasses, groundcovers and sedges that can happily replace a grass lawn. These natives do not need so much care and are not hooked on drugs (synthetic fertilizers). According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly 80 million pounds of pesticide-active ingredients are used on U.S. lawns annually.
In addition, one gas-powered mower, used for one hour, emits as much pollution as eight new cars driven at 55 mph for the same time. Maybe it’s time to say farewell to your thirsty turf? Check out these books, design a plot, and come fall (a better time to plant, since you can rely on rainfall) get to work sheet-mulching the area or have it removed. RIP enormous front lawn. Thanks for the memories!