In June 2014, Michael Kaplan of San Luis Obispo stood beside his front lawn and asked himself, “Am I going to keep watering this lawn four times a week or shall I take it off life support?”
He factored in the ongoing drought and the fact that his college-age children no longer needed the lawn for play, and decided to let the lawn die a natural death through the summer.
Kaplan, who is fund development manager for Transitions-Mental Health Association, contacted Craig Wilson, program manager at Growing Grounds Farm for help planning a new drought-tolerant front yard.
The nonprofit farm and wholesale nursery has been a program of Transitions-Mental Health since 1984, established to provide employment and job skills training through therapeutic horticulture for adults diagnosed with mental illness.
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Growing Grounds also serves as an important resource for local landscapers seeking low-water and areaspecific plants, succulents, herbs and locally collected native plants and seeds for restoration and erosion control.
Vision for drought-tolerant front yard
Wilson’s vision for the collaborative project was to create a front yard that Kaplan and his wife, deputy county counsel Susan Hoffman, “could happily look at and enjoy a variety of colors and textures.” He selected Mediterranean and native plants from the Growing Grounds farm, where plants specific to our area are cultivated and then sold in local nurseries and at the Growing Grounds store in downtown San Luis Obispo.
In October, a small tractor was used to dig up the dry turf, extending four inches deep to remove all of the roots. Wilson then spread a thick weed mat over the entire area and let it sit for two weeks before planting. Planting began in November, with each plant placed in a cutout “X” in the mat.
“It’s important not to overcrowd the space, giving the small plants plenty of room to grow to their mature size,” said Wilson. He noted that the mistake many do-it-yourselfers make is to place new plants too close to each other.
Kaplan then made a trip to Farm Supply to learn about converting his overhead sprinklers to a drip system. He purchased the parts necessary to take five dripper lines to the new plants and cap off four unneeded sprinkler heads along the front.
“When you need to find something out, just ask at a local nursery, where there is a wealth of knowledge and a willingness to share it,” Kaplan said.
Once the drippers were strategically placed for careful water management, Wilson and Kaplan covered the new area with a thick layer of gorilla hair, which is shredded redwood mulch. The mulch covers the weed mat, provides a pleasing red background to the plants and assists with water retention.
One year later, Wilson and Kaplan’s visualized front yard project has become a reality. Fourteen species coexist in the small area to create a lively and visually interesting display.
Tall Anigozanthos ‘Orange Cross’ Kangaroo Paws provide a focal point, with a Phormium ‘Pink Panther’ sending up vertical spikes and gray Festuca lining the driveway. Snaking along the ground between native Erigonum ‘California Buckwheat’ and red salvia is another California native, the low-growing Artemisia californica ‘Canyon Gray.’
Wilson chose Russian sage with airy spiky blue flowers as a contrast to the bright yellow Achellia ‘Yarrow’ and pink Echinacea ‘Cone Flowers.’ A grouping of the interesting Euphorbia and Muhlenbergia ‘Deer Grass’ define one side of the yard. Helianthemum ‘Rock rose’ which loves a dry, sunny area, lines the sidewalk and clumps of Heuchera ‘Coral Bells’ bring color to the shade under a spreading Mimosa ‘Silk Tree.’
For Wilson, the transformed area serves as a showcase demonstration garden for others considering lawn removal. Homeowners Kaplan and Hoffman have found the redesigned landscape to be more interesting and easier to care for than their former lawn.
“Our new front yard attracts birds, butterflies and bees and presents a changing color palette through the different seasons. Even though it’s small, we have the satisfaction of knowing we’re doing our part in the effort to conserve water here in our community,” Kaplan said.