Color shows commitment. In our Pacific Northwest lawns, it reads from the considerate sandy hues of unirrigated dead grass to lush lawns verdant with disregard for community water budgets. Most lawns show our seasonal weariness in their slow dance toward death before autumn rainfall arrives. It’s the time of year when with a glance you can tell who irrigates their lawn. But lawns are still an easy choice for people because everyone knows what a lawn should look like and how to care for one. We’ve received the American dream memo quilted with green grass. People work from the subconscious assumption that anything other than a lawn requires even greater amounts of labor and resources. The script needs to be rewritten because dreams aren’t real life.
Abandon your lawn in favor of one of the alternatives: artificial turf, a blanket of bark with a few knobby shrubs, a biodiverse mixture of shrubs and flowers, or a productive vegetable garden. Not all are good ecological trades, however.
Artificial turf is green and looks like grass, but it is the same stuff as plastic bags. What happens to it in twenty years when its useful life is over – it gets sent to a landfill or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? No thank you, we can’t even recycle our week old food containers. Artificial turf cuts water use, but it represents a huge waste stream problem and only has negative impacts for biodiversity.
Even our yards seem to be consumptive. In Asia there are few lawns. I’ve spent time in Japan and lived in both South Korea and China. In those countries, even when people have free standing homes, they don’t have lawns. Instead, the land is productive. Vegetables are grown year round to supply the kitchen, and this even extends to growing their own dried grains like rice, beans and corn. There are steps we can take to change our yards from consumption to bounty.
On the continuum, a summer-green lawn is nearing the most wasteful use of land. Lawn is like an ecological desert; it benefits very little biodiversity beyond giving us some joy (this is only when you aren’t the person mowing it). If you have young kids and need outdoor space to kick a ball or so you don’t kick each other, some lawn can be useful. Grow it without irrigation and take the opportunity to teach your children about ecology and the environment. A step up from lawn, only because it uses less water but still an ecological desert, is the yard covered with bark studded with a few non-native shrubs. A front yard converted to vegetables is the most productive, even if it uses as much or more water than a lawn, the food it produces is a positive for its family. Vegetable and fruit gardens fill with animals and insects, and they engage the interest of the whole neighborhood in ways a lawn never can. Few children will comment on your green lawn, but they will all want to wager on how large and how many pumpkins you can grow.
Planting native and drought tolerant plants is an option for everyone. With increasing biodiversity as the goal, in the Pacific Northwest there are lots of choices. Let’s look at shrubs that bloom in the off season, then move into summer and end with a perennial and an annual.
The genus Mahonia has tough, drought tolerant, evergreen shrubs with showy yellow flowers loved by hummingbirds. Oregon grape, M. aquifolium, flowers in spring and has attractive edible if sour blue fruit in summer and autumn. The flowering season is easily extended over the whole winter with several commonly available Asian Mahonia. Flowering begins with ‘Arthur Menzies’ prior to Christmas, overlaps with ‘Winter Sun’, and finishes with ‘Charity’ in February. They are large growing and have prickly foliage, but they aren’t eaten by dear and grow back after some clipping; they are a great alternative hedge. Mahonia grow in full sun or bright shade and the ground-covering species, M. repens and M. nervosa, do well in dry shade.
Offering evergreen presence with total disregard for summer drought, manzanita, Arctostaphylos species vary a lot from the common low growing groundcover kinnikinic, to upright growing and even blue foliaged selections. Some, such as ‘Howard McMinn’ have small dark green foliage and white winter-time flowers on a medium sized shrub. As the shrubby and upright growing varieties mature smooth shiny stems are exposed. The papery bark peels away in thin curls and ribbons the color of rusted steel. It’s a very attractive ornamental feature. The small white to pink flowers borne in winter are both very showy and the object of fierce hummingbird competition; their nectar is so sweet. Manzanitas tolerate careful pruning and make fine informal hedges. After these are established, they never need more water. Grow them in at least an afternoon of sun.
Related to manzanitas – they both have hanging urn-shaped flowers - the genus Arbutus offers several varieties with extreme drought tolerance and season extending bloom. Strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, blooms in autumn with clusters of showy white flowers, also loved by bees and hummingbirds. It is native to dry areas of Europe, over the summer its showy red fruit, the size and color of strawberries ripen. Brilliant and edible, they do have an odd sandy texture. It’s all too common to see this plant pruned into a blob which is sad because left alone it forms a large shrub with an open canopy exposing attractive exfoliating red bark. If these features sound interesting and you have space for a full sized tree consider planting a Pacific madrone, Arbutus menziesii. While the strawberry tree can be irrigated, madrone is intolerant of summer irrigation, so site it with care. But when a yard is large enough or owners committed to natural drought gardening, a madrone becomes a beautiful specimen tree. Its bark is smooth, rust colored, and exfoliates during summer exposing new pale green bark. There is not another native tree with showier bark in the West. In early spring clusters of white fragrant flowers are offered to bees and hummingbirds. Red berries follow in late summer and are good food for birds. It’s difficult to grow in the nursery and establishing it at home be can tricky. For success start with a small plant, plant early in spring irrigating only during rainy periods and do not water it in the summer.
You’ll hear the buzzing of bumblebees from quite a distance - Ceanothus are loved so much. They move our care for pollinators from winter blooming shrubs and trees through the spring into summer with blue flowers. They grow large and clip well making great informal hedges that only need irrigation for establishment. And unlike hedges of laurel, they offer nectar without threat of habitat invasion and there are many varieties to choose from.
Pollinators love daisies because they offer lots of nectar and pollen. They are important for maintaining biodiversity. Oregon sunshine, Eriophyllum lanatum, covers its low growing silver foliage in a mound of golden daisies in early summer. It does this without a single drop of supplemental water. They are perennial and slowly spread in full sun. And when garden conditions are correct, they reseed and establish a natural meadow. Another summer blooming native daisy, Madia elegans, showy tarweed is an annual. Its bright yellow flowers are pretty, and its seeds are loved by goldfinches. It’s easy to use in the otherwise unproductive margins of a garden.