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Center of Attention : A Garden Designer's Solution to the Problems of a Thirsty Summer Lawn

July 17, 1988|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

LAWNS PROVIDE a garden not only with the feeling of openness but also with a way to walk from one side of the yard to the other. They are, however, consummate consumers of water--especially in the summer. In her own garden in Santa Monica, garden designer Nancy Goslee Power planted two kinds of the drought-tolerant Mediterranean herb santolina instead of a lawn. The gray of the checkerboard pattern is Santolina chamaecyparissus , and the green is S. virens . Four plants occupy each square.

In a small, in-town garden, a hedge such as this is an innovative solution to providing the same sense of expansiveness as a lawn would, and the problem of getting from here to there is taken care of by the decomposed granite paths that ring it. If anything, the space feels larger than it might planted with grass; a lawn this tiny would verge on silliness and wouldn't have half the interest. The santolina hedge looks best from the house, which sits several feet higher than the garden.

Regular clipping keeps the santolina just about a foot tall. Cutting it back also eliminates the bright yellow flowers that some people find visually distracting (and their blooming leaves the foliage looking a little ragged). Finally, santolina does not require all the care that a plain, old lawn does.

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