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FALL PLANTING : The Shrinking Lawn : Southern California's Most Forward-Thinking Landscape Architects and Designers Face the Challenge of Limited Water

October 02, 1988|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

ON NOV. 5, the Los Angeles Aqueduct celebrates its 75th anniversary. The opening of this huge waterway initiated the greening of a very dry Southern California. With recent drought conditions, however, the pressing question for gardeners today has become: How much longer will our gardens remain green? Will we still be watering our lawns when the Aqueduct turns 100?

As the fall planting season (the best time in Southern California to plant everything, from ground covers to trees) nears, it becomes relevant to consider the future. Some say that Southern California will eventually revert to desert. Others predict we will soon be raking gravel mulches instead of lawns. Just what is the future of gardening in this hot, dry corner of the country where we depend almost entirely on imported water?

This much we know: We cannot take rain for granted in California anymore. We are experiencing the second period of drought in recent years, and although drought does not affect Southern California as immediately as it does Northern California and other parts of the country, water shortages are certain to affect us in the future. As Southern California's population continues to grow, our sources of imported water are shrinking because of demands made by other Western states. In many areas, the price of water is expected to double in the next 20 years. Drier gardens are coming; it is only a matter of time.

Although new lawn grasses and irrigation technology will help, less lawn is inevitable and may even be mandated, as communities limit how much of a garden can be planted to lawn. Several have already placed restrictions on commercial and multifamily developments. Goleta, near Santa Barbara, has actually limited what can be planted in a home landscape--only 20% of the garden can be grass.

Santa Monica-based landscape architect Doug Campbell, who works with his wife and partner, architect Regula Campbell, speculates that "the drought may be the best thing to ever happen to California garden design. It forces us to rethink the entire thing, and many of the possibilities are very exciting."

"I don't think there is any question that gardens are going to change," affirms Thousand Oaks landscape architect Ken Smith, who has worked with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and other water agencies to identify water-conserving plants and to develop better gardening practices. "But not suddenly," he adds. "How can we design water-conserving gardens while people still want bluegrass and birch trees?"

Plant materials such as those bluegrass lawns and birch trees--known for their unquenchable thirsts--are still the signature of an elegant garden. "One of the real luxuries of garden design," explains landscape architect Bill Evans, designer of several Walt Disney theme parks, "is a great sweep of lawn. There is just no substitute."

Lawns are the garden's open space: a family's personal park or meadow that can be walked on, played on, laid on. But they also are the consummate consumer of water. In Southern California, grasses that remain green year-round are as unnatural as indoor-outdoor carpeting. Native grasses originally were perennials that dried up in the summer, giving California its Golden State image.

The basic problem with water usage in Southern California gardens stems from the general rules of garden design here: Lay out the largest lawn possible; then plant the perimeter and add other features. That is a simple way to design a garden, but its heritage is found in the normally rain-soaked gardens of our East Coast, and before that in even wetter England. In California such lawn-centered design is not what many now would call "an appropriate landscape."

Southern California has a Mediterranean climate, which means that the weather is wet in winter and dry in summer, with temperatures moderated by a nearby ocean. Good sources for garden ideas for California, then, are the gardens in other Mediterranean-type countries, including Chile, South Africa, Australia, Portugal, Spain, the south of France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Israel and the coastline of North Africa. A wealth of plants similar to our own natural vegetation hails from these areas.

To illustrate new ideas in drought-resistant gardens, we have designated today's typical garden, one designed around a lawn, as Plan A (top left). With some of Southern California's most forward-thinking landscape architects and garden designers, we have come up with Plan B (bottom left), what we think the design of tomorrow's garden might look like.

PLAN B BEGINS with less lawn. Dividing the yard into smaller, more manageable areas is an effective way to deal with space usually occupied by lawn. These areas would be like a series of what Santa Monica garden designer Nancy Goslee Power calls "garden rooms." Classic Mediterranean gardens are laid out in this manner.

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