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Master Gardeners Teach Luscious Lawn Alternatives
updated: Sep 20, 2014, 12:00 PM

By Billy Goodnick

The Santa Barbara area is blessed with a tirelessly proactive, knowledgeable, well organized Master Gardener program. This all-volunteer group has stepped up to the plate as our drought woes increase, offering free workshops and providing solid, scientifically-based landscape survival tactics. Their good works were apparent when a standing room only crowd of about 100 people packed the Louise Lowry Davis Center on a recent toasty Saturday morning.

Photo by Steven Lewis

Combining forces, Lesley Wiscomb – Master Gardener, chair of the Park and Recreation Commission, and retired landscape architect – joined Madeline Ward from the City of SB’s Water Conservation Program to present “Luscious Lawn Alternatives.”

So Much to Know

Wiscomb started the ball rolling with a tightly focused PowerPoint presentation covering:

• The benefits of lawns that serve as recreational “flooring”, cool the surrounding area, offer a moist buffer in high fire areas and allow rain and run-off to soak into the soil – and it smells good, too.

• On the subject of artificial turf, she outlined the pluses – no water use and minimal maintenance (other than cleaning up after pets), as well as the many downsides, which I covered in my last Edhat offering, Lawn’s Gone. Now What?


Dymondia between stones
Dune sedge meadow


• A comprehensive overview of 10 types of less thirsty grasses and lawn substitutes. Among the star performers in our area…

  • California Bent Grass (Agrostis pallens), a California native that’s now being grown commercially as sod.
  • Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) that can be seen up close and personal at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Home Demonstration Garden.
  • Grass-like sedges (Carex tumulicola and C. divulsa) which can be grown as informal, meadow-like clumps or mowed, are adapted to sunny or shady areas.
  • The now-ubiquitous Dymondia (Dymondia margaritae), a cool grey, mat-forming groundcover with tiny yellow daisy-like flowers that also tolerates moderate of foot traffic.
Photo by Steven Lewis

Wrapping up the lawn discussion, Wiscomb shared turf care tips that everyone and their gardening services should embrace and put into action now.

• Reducing the overall size of the lawn to the minimum needed for your recreational uses. The areas where the lawn once grew can be transformed into ornamental plant beds filled with low-water-using, colorful plants (check out the Virtual Garden Tour free website), raised beds for growing edibles (yes, they use water, but you get something back), outdoor living areas, or simply covered with bark mulch or crushed rock to keep the soil permeable, weed free and absorbent.

• Watering wisely by figuring out how much water your garden actually needs. Use the “Landscape Watering Calculator” and “Watering % Adjust” at the City’s website. Note: Most people overwater their gardens by at least 30%, needlessly sending water deep below the active root area or causing wasteful run-off.

• And probably most important, checking your irrigation system regularly to detect leaks, mis-aligned heads or broken sprinklers. And since many irrigation systems come on while most of us are in bed, you’ll want to run the stations through their paces during daylight hours. And in my humble opinion, if your gardener doesn’t know how to operate your controller, you’re paying the wrong person to oversee your garden.

Wave Bye-Bye

For those ready to give their deep fried lawns a full send off, Wiscomb presented removal strategies. If the existing, or remnant lawn was a healthy, free- of-weeds swath of fescue, the simplest, cleanest way of removal is renting a sod cutting machine or grabbing a sharp, flat-nosed shovel and peeling the grass and surface roots up, sort of like a sod installation video played in reverse.

But if you’re like most lawn owners, some nasty, gnarly, tenacious unwelcome guests have infiltrated and removal won’t be nearly as easy. There’s no nice way to say it: Bermuda and Kikuyu grasses are The Devil’s Spawn! Your apparently dead, crispy lawn might look like it was sent to the sun and back. And you’re thinking, “Jeepers, I’m in luck! It died all by itself!” If only. The stolons (horizontal runners that spread out and send down roots) are playing possum and lulling you into a false sense of success. Actually, they’re just waiting for a little irrigation water from your new garden. In an instant, they arise, zombie-like, and undo all your good work.

Photo by Julie Orr

Wiscomb covered other lawn removal methods like solarization: Covering the soil with clear or black plastic (differing schools of thought) during warm weather and waiting six to eight weeks to cook seeds and roots in the upper soil.

Another technique, known as sheet mulching (or “lasagna gardening”) starts with a layer of cardboard or a few thicknesses of newspaper laid on the grass and moistened. That layer is covered with a 4 to 6 inch layer of wood mulch and left to compost the underlying vegetation, weeds and all, in four to six months. Yes, this is only for those who are in no particular hurry.

Pluses: The soil is enriched, no chemicals are required, and the mulch and cardboard decompose, allowing you to plant right through them while leaving the mulch in place. Minuses: Finding enough cardboard can be tough; prepare to Dumpster dive. Also, the resulting soil level can be quite a bit higher than where you started.  

Which brings me to what some people consider one of the most heinous acts in gardening – spraying glyphosate, better known as Round-up. I can already see the readers’ comments that will follow. But I really don’t think anyone is going to burn in hell for using it rarely and according to safety instructions to deal with extreme cases of nearly impossible to kill weeds and grasses. (Bring it on!)

Free Stuff!

Next, Madeline Ward stepped to the podium with what I can only describe as Santa in September for City of Santa Barbara residents – a list of free services, free mulch, free money, and free high-efficiency sprinkler nozzles. I’m running out of space in this article, so I’ll just skim over a few incentives and you can check out the rest at the website SantaBarbaraCA.gov/WaterWise. Pop in and you’ll get all the facts about a rebate program that can put as much as $1000 in your pocket to use toward water-efficient landscaping. (The program might be expanding soon to cover water-users in Goleta and Carpinteria, so check with your purveyor.)

Rotator nozzles increase efficiency by 30%

City of SB residents can trade in their wasteful spray nozzles – the ones that send gallons of water to their neighbor’s lot as windborne mist – for rotator nozzles that increase delivery efficiency by as much as 30%. Check it out at FreeSprinklerNozzles.com.

That free service I mentioned? All of our local water agencies have specialists who will schedule a free visit to assess your irrigation system and your watering techniques and pass along useful recommendations to cut your monthly water bill and protect our most precious resource.

Need more? Stop by your local public library and check out DVDs loaded with water conservation info. And tune in to Garden Wise at SBWater.org, hosted by Meg West.

Get Schooled

If you’re starting to glaze over from all this great info, stick with me for a few more paragraphs for a calendar of classes and hands-on events.

After (design by bgdc)

Me first: On two consecutive Saturday mornings, October 4 and 11 (9AM – noon), I’ll be teaching “Gone With the Wind: What to Do With Your Drought Stricken Yard” at the SBCC Wake Campus on Turnpike, Rm 26. The cost is $30 for both sessions and you’ll want to register in advance at the Center for Lifelong Learning website. I promise you’ll come away with lots of cool design ideas, lots of nifty plants and a better understanding of how to make every drop of water count.

Two weeks later, Sat. October 25, my Sustainable Garden Design Walkabout will start with a quick classroom presentation at the Schott Campus, then it’s off to Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden where you’ll learn about lots of cool plants and design techniques to bring a little Alice home with you.

Other offerings:

Graywater and Multifunctional Landscapes - Tuesday, Oct. 14th, 6:00-7:30 pm. Free.?Location: Faulkner Gallery, Central Library.?Led by “graywater guru” Art Ludwig, this lecture will show you how graywater can conserve thousands of gallons of water a month, save valuable plants during drought, and offer a host of other benefits.

Hands-on Drip Irrigation Workshop  - Saturday, Oct. 18th, 2:00-4:00 pm. Free.?Location: Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens.?Join the City of Santa Barbara’s Cathie s in a hand-on class focused on understanding drip irrigation systems and how they can improve plant health and increase water efficiency.

The Joy of Lawn Replacement – Thursday, Oct. 30th, 7:00-8:30 pm. Free.?Location: Faulkner Gallery, Central Library.?Led by Art Ludwig of Oasis Design and Barbara Wishingrad of Sweetwater Collaborative, this lecture will show you how to do much better than grass with less water, time, and money.

Rainwater Runoff Harvesting - Tuesday, Nov. 18th, 6:00-7:30 pm.?Location: Faulkner Gallery, Central Library.?Led by Art Ludwig of Oasis Design and Barbara Wishingrad of Sweetwater Collaborative, this lecture will focus on the benefits of infiltrating rainwater into the ground instead of letting it run off.

With so much good information and helpful programs out there, there’s really no reason not to take a dip in the water conservation mini-pool. Then do your part to save water AND reduce your water bill.

Up Next: September 28 is the annual Santa Barbara Beautiful Awards, honoring exemplary design and special people in our community. It’s also the perfect time for me to unveil my own annual Santa Barbara Not-So-Beautiful Awards (aka Crimes Against Horticulture: When Bad Taste Meets Power Tools), highlighting the inexplicably f’ugly things people do in the name of horticulture. You won’t want to miss it. Preview at Facebook.

Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
Contributing Editor and National Award Winning Blogger at Fine Gardening Magazine
Covering the region at 805Living Magazine
Pontificating at Edhat
Landscape Coaching and Design billygoodnick.com
Drumming at King Bee
Sharing my world at Facebook

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 554382 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-20 02:03 PM

Fantastic! Thank you!


 COMMENT 554500 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-21 07:34 AM

I live in Oklahoma but the article was still helpful. Excellent.


0% of comments on this page were made by Edhat Community Members.



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