7 plants that will immediately transform your dry lawn

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Lawns are notoriously thirsty, accounting for as much as 70% of total residential water usage. With that in mind, you’ve decided to replace your lawn with a garden. Great. But where do you start? It’s important to select plants with moderate to low water needs – California-friendly plants use 50% or less water than grass does; they’re your best options. Luckily, there are many to choose from to start your new garden.

“The one that I would recommend for urban gardeners would be native plants from the chaparral community,” advised Douglas Kent, the author of several books on eco-friendly gardening. Plants in this group include the blue oak, which is native to California. “By far, there’s more success with plants coming out of that community than any other community coming from Southern California. Urban soils tend to be a little richer in nutrients and more acidic. And this plant community can tolerate both of those.

Kent’s favorite plant from the chaparral group is the toyon, a large shrub. Its white flowers and red berries attract welcome visitors to your garden.

“You really have great success with the chaparrals,” Kent said. “The plants live a long time, up to 30 years.”

Replacing your lawn with California-friendly plants doesn’t just conserve water. It also eliminates the need to run a gas-fueled, pollution-producing lawnmower.

It’s vital to match your plants’ sun and water needs in shrub and flower beds to avoid overwatering plants. A good way to do this is to keep the thirstiest varieties in areas that are protected from heat and wind and therefore don’t lose as much water to evaporation.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that plants alone are not a water conservation device,” said Pamela Berstler, a Los Angeles-based environmental consultant for Green Gardens Group, who’s purpose is to transform the environment by motivating people to use their landscape to save soil and secure water supplies. “The water conservation device is the plant in the healthy living soil, with rainwater directed to it in the winter time.”

Replacing your lawn doesn’t have to start and end with plants, though. The garden can be accentuated with pathways, swales to capture rainwater and perhaps even a patio created from pavers. The important idea is to make sure the surface allows rainwater to soak into the soil instead of run off into the street or gutter.

“In 18 years of landscaping in Los Angeles, I have never had a client or heard of a client wanting to go back to a traditional lawn after switching to California-friendly plants in a landscape that has been contoured to capture rainwater and in which the soil has been built up to be healthy living microbial-active soil,” Berstler said.

Berstler believes every L.A. garden should have an asclepias fascicularis (narrow leaf milkweed), which is essential for the monarch butterfly life cycle.

Here are five more of her favorites.

Fragaria chiloensis (beach strawberry evergreen): Moderate water use. “It’s a ground cover strawberry that grows super fast, tolerates foot traffic and holds up in sun or shade — perfect for parkways.”

Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon or Christmas berry evergreen): Low water use. Described as a tall shrub or small tree, toyon has white flowers followed by red berries that feed wildlife in winter. It can even be used as a hedge, Berstler said.

Muhlenbergia rigens (deer grass): One of Berstler’s favorites, this low-water-use grass spreads about five inches wide and tall and can be used to hold hillsides or fill in low spots in the landscape.

Galvezia speciosa (island bush snapdragon): A low-water-use, medium-sized evergreen shrub with “nonstop red and orange flowers” that attract hummingbirds — “a brilliant flowering border plant,” Berstler said.

Arbutus “Marina” (hybrid strawberry tree): Moderate water use. This tree is more commonly used as a medium-sized landscape tree. “It looks great as a standard (one trunk) or multi-trunk tree with red-brown bark, captivating bell-shaped flowers that attract pollinators and edible vitamin C-filled red-orange fruits,” she said.

— Tribune Content Solutions

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