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After the Lawn: How to Design Your New Garden

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Readers, fire up your drawing pads. It's time to design the part of the garden formerly known as lawn. For those just joining the series, you missed the murder. Each step of this now six-part series has been a test of whether or not you are ready to kill your grass. The theme: Think. Part One discussed the damage to streetscapes and shade trees done by ill-considered rebate gardens. Part Two looked at how to start planning for a rebate project. Part Three allowed anyone queasy about ripping up their grass to slip out a metaphorical exit and meet their conservation goals by learning to appreciate seasonally, ahem, "tawny" turf. Part Four looked at how to kill grass. Part Five sent the class on garden tours and piled desks high with a classic set of good garden books.

Going into Part Six, it's pointless to tell anyone what they should want out of a new landscape. That's personal and site-dependent. It may be raised beds with kale and carrots, or it may be 800 square feet of urban chaparral. The schematics for this installment are not instructions for what anyone should necessarily do, but examples of how to establish a new garden design brief, then to generate drawings that satisfy it. The drawings are based on the sample site plan first pictured in Part Two. This placed an imaginary 1,200-square foot house on an imaginary 5,000-square-foot lot on an imaginary street lined by imaginary jacarandas. And it's just about to have an imaginary lavender patch out front.

If the imaginary homeowners had lived in the City of Los Angeles, where combined regional and local turf rebates have pushed the bounty on lawn up to $3.75 per square foot, they could have afforded a designer to do it for them. But they live in a city without its own rebate program, so they were limited to the still generous $2/square foot that is being paid for local water companies by the regional wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The imaginary homeowners put time into a site plan because they thought that the best way to immunize themselves against expensive mistakes was to draw first, dig later. The bullet points in their brief as they downloaded the online drawing program SketchBook were: Save water. Reduce maintenance. Increase rain capture. Improve tree care. Stress safety on tree and hardscape alterations. Deliver beauty. Finally, excluding the sweat equity they themselves put into lawn removal, the Metropolitan rebate would have to cover the cost of the replacement landscape.

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Once they were done drawing, the imaginary homeowner's design removed a bit more turf than envisioned in Part Two -- roughly 800 square feet. Their design costs: $100 on a rain barrel; $150 for a rain chain; $200 to remove a foundation hedge, including grinding out the roots; $70 for 14 small lavenders in four-inch pots (or other similar herbaceous shrubs); $75 for weed cloth; $50 for three cubic yards of Shaker gravel; $150 for three cubic yards of decomposed granite; $200 for four cubic yards of mulch, $200 for delivery of the gravel, mulch, and granite; $500 for consultations with an arborist and engineer.

The total came in at $1,695. With $1,600 from the baseline Metropolitan $2/square foot turf rebate, and a possible $75 for the water barrel, the imaginary homeowners overshot their budget by $25. They may go simpler on the rain chain.

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This is not all they want to do. Down the line, the imaginary projects of the imaginary couple include breaking hardscape in the front, reworking paths, putting in berms and swales, maybe curb cuts, elements that this series will address in subsequent installments. Yet, as a first step, they are wary of becoming overwhelmed. They've got imaginary kids, an imaginary dog and two imaginary jobs. So, while designing, they removed only half the turf in the front yard. Then, after asking themselves why they were irrigating soil right next to the foundations of their house to make bushes grow that blocked their windows, they also took out the imaginary foundation hedging.

The lot was always graded to drain away from the foundations, but after grinding out the foundation hedge roots, they called a landscape architect to consult on the grading and installation protocols for the new enlarged play area around the house. Anyone working near foundations of their home should follow suit. If work is structural, or near structures, only take advice from licensed professionals.

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The northerly segment of lawn was reduced from both western and eastern ends -- at the west to expand a path, at the east to mulch under a segment of the jacaranda's canopy line. A symbolic move. They did not take up all the turf here because it's a relatively shady spot, perfect for play. They can now sit on their stoop or in a pair of Adirondak chairs and watch their imaginary children riding around on tricycles.

When it came to the sun-baked southerly half of the lawn, where keeping the former grass hydrated was hardest, they decided on a drift of lavender. Simple. Classic.
Beautiful. They remembered that the designs that they liked best on tours often involved striking masses of fragrant, hardy herbaceous shrubs. They would have been equally happy with Cleveland sage, purple sage or rosemary. Because the plants are so hardy, they decided against installing a drip system -- they will reserve money for that for the vegetable garden planned for the rear. Rather, either occasional hand watering with a nozzle or putting a light wanding sprinkler on them for an hour once a month in summer would keep them going, clean their foliage and volatilize their scent.

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The couple considered bedding the lavender in pea gravel; lavender is one of the few plants that appreciates that setting. But they stuck with wood mulch, which won't be a rocky remnant in succession gardens and that enterprising types can source for free.

In common with many real life settings, the imaginary street has trees so mature that they are on the verge of outgrowing their parking strips, where they have traditionally been dependent on the kindness of sprinklers. Ideally the tree would have been planted in the front yard, not the strip, or the strip would have been wider. The tree is worth saving, so the imaginary couple call an arborist. Following the expert's instructions, they remove the lawn under the canopy line, including a fractioned segment in the front yard, and replace it with mulch. In dry seasons, they will move a dripping hose around to deep water the tree every four weeks or so.

Surprisingly, the imaginary couple leave turf where most people remove it -- in the parkway. Their thinking: they don't want their imaginary kids careering on tricycles headlong into the tip of an agave spear. They want their imaginary elderly parents to be able to get safely out of their car. Leaving grass here was a placeholder decision. The next installment of After the Lawn will look at parkway treatments.

Their drawings also leave turf along the southern property line. This grass is just begging to come out. Their thinking? It can get by with little water and occasional edging until the imaginary next door neighbors remove their turf, too. Until that happens, recurring grass under the fence and along the property line would constitute a weeding nightmare.

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One of the most satisfying changes was the removal of an unsightly gutter downspout that used to bisect the front clapboard and then dump water into the yard for discharge into the driveway. By switching that to a rain chain dropping to an imaginary 55-gallon barrel perched on a stand, because their yard grades gently away from the house, the imaginary couple can now direct that rain water pretty much anywhere they want it in their front garden. When rain is forecast, all they need to do is to connect a common garden hose to the barrel, open the spigot and point the hose where water is needed and can be absorbed.

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Given the work that the plan gives the imaginary couple removing their downspout and foundation hedge, widening the path and removing turf under the tree, they have plenty to do before planting the lavender. They won't do this until next November, when the plants can become established when nature intended -- in rainy season.

Next week: After the Lawn will take a closer look at parkways.

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
How to Design Your New Garden