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After The Lawn: Designing Your New Garden

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Being socially responsible during dry times doesn't mean killing lawn. It does mean changing the way that most of us manage it. However, if you've had it with lawn culture and decided that it's time to reduce or eliminate the stuff, you'll be in the vanguard of reforming western landscaping practice. So make sure that you do it smartly.

Whichever option you choose - keeping lawn or relandscaping - the first step is the same: Think.

The first consideration should be context. Walk up and down your street at different times of day. Note the sweetest shade, the most punishing heat, problem drainage, eyesores, access, and safety. How tolerable is it for pedestrians? Is there adequate parking? Will a songbird find a place to nest? Consider what landscape architects call "the viewshed." What are the sightlines? How does the design of your front yard connect with those of your neighbors?

As any scientist will tell you, the only way to really see something is to draw it. Drawing forces the eye to focus. Water companies understand this. They require drawings for rebates, although their motives are different (they want to calculate how much irrigation a specific lawn rebate might capture and how much to pay for it.) To do a drawing, you will need a measuring tape and a friend to hold one end of it, a notebook, pencil, graph paper and a calculator. Plans are also easily done on laptops and tablets. Drafting applications such Sketchbook Express can be downloaded cheaply or free, as can graph paper templates.

The first outline of your lot shouldn't be about the plants. Rather, it should note the imprints of all "hardscapes." These include structures such as buildings, pavement and anything hard and impervious that will heat up when it's hot and create run-off when it rains. You'll want to kiss this map when you are cool in summer and your lot drains well during winter. Note that all plans should include cardinal directions for North, South, East and West.

Now you're seeing. Now you're thinking. So keep drawing. This time fill in all the areas of the lot and adjacent parkway that are irrigated by lawn sprinklers and have lawn as ground cover.

Now measure turf that might be removed and converted to a different garden scheme.

Baseline turf rebates from the region-wide wholesaler Metropolitan Water District of Southern California start at $2/square foot. Local city water companies such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power might top this. If this theoretical lot were in Los Angeles, its owners would be eligible for $4,884 from Metropolitan and a $2,625 top-up from the LADWP. Total: $7,509.

That's a lot of money. However, as Julie Saare-Edmonds of the California Department of Water Resources warns, rebates are not meant to pay the full replacement costs of new gardens. They are enticements.

How much do new gardens cost? At the high end, the Association of Professional Landscape Designers calculates that installation might run five to ten per cent of the value of a home. The San Diego County Water Authority has a lovely (and free) publication, the "eGuide to a Water Smart Lifestyle," available online that is bursting with enticing possibilities for upgrades that a homeowner might make while assisted (if not underwritten) by a rebate.

Read it and drool. But hold onto that calculator. If the property in the sample drawing used for illustration in this were an average Los Angeles home worth roughly $500,000, a $7,509 rebate would not come close to buying what's in that book. A landscape to "Water Smart" standards might range from $25,000 to $50,000.

But wait! What about the company called Turf Terminators that was all over the news? They'd replace all the lawn "for free." All the homeowner need do is sign up and they take care of the rest.

Yes, such a company exists and ever since Metropolitan's board voted to put $100 million towards conservation rebates, there are increasing numbers of companies very like Turf Terminators. But beware. There is no such thing as a free garden. These companies are paid. They take your turf rebate. In return, they give you a cheap replacement garden. They may do an adequate job, or they may do Southern California the kind of favor that aluminum siding salesmen did for Baltimore.

Between the extremes of de-luxe and de-little is a world of choice. The quality of that choice rises steeply if you approach lawn reform or removal in affordable, well-conceived stages. Hence the maps and urging to strategize.

As you ponder options, be sure to do at least one more map. This time identify trees and their shade arcs. Mature trees represent decades of investment. They are the most valuable, most important elements in your landscape.

Only plan to keep viable trees. To calculate the health of a tree, call in an arborist. The consultation will cost you roughly $200 but it will be central to any decision making going forward. If tree trimmers have mangled a specimen, or if a tree is senescent, cracked by wind or assaulted by pests and pathogens, it may be time to remove it. In that case, your plan should include succession trees. Whatever you do, only allow a certified arborist to consult on this. Trees are the pillars to your palace. Don't let someone with little more than a business card and buzz saw anywhere near them. Ever. To find a qualified arborist, go to the American Society of Consulting Arborists.

This series will return to tree care in further installments. This week, however, the mapping has been done to determine where a turf rebate might safely be sought and a replacement garden might do well. In the sample drawings, for example, the southeastern quadrant of front yard lawn looks like a perfect place to experiment with a do-it-yourself rebate garden.

A more ambitious selection from the mapped areas might attack the hardscape, or move on both patches of front yard lawn and the parkway. However, for demonstration value, the quadrant was chosen because it met a number of criteria. Done right, it needn't interfere with roots of existing trees or their watering regimens. Even a busy person could take on five hundred and seventy eight square feet without becoming overwhelmed by maintenance. Or a completely busy person could fold the plot's care into the weekly duties of a standing garden team. It puts whoever weeds, waters and generally smells the roses out front in the meet-your-neighbors sweetspot. There's a good mix of sun and shade. It's positioned near gutters to benefit from rainwater. Moreover, the $1,156 to $2,167.50 that the rebate might produce could go a long way to covering a beautiful replacement.

This plot would be my choice of the place to start. You might make another. But, if you do it with a map, you'll be doing it thoughtfully.

The next installment of "After the Lawn" will look at how to tweak maintenance of an existing lawn landscape to meet the 20% by 2017 water savings goal set by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. If you have decided to remove lawn, the following installment will look at the best ways to do it.

Maps by Emily Green for KCET.

Follow the entire After the Lawn series:
After the Lawn: Part I
Designing Your New Garden
Caring For Your Turf
How to Remove Your Lawn
Planning Your New Garden

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