Let's just admit that conserving water isn't the sexiest of topics. Because I am in the middle of purchasing a series of cisterns to tuck under my new deck in order to collect the rain for the gardens that have yet to be planted, water conservation is very much at the forefront of my mind.
Given the drought, I think it's front and center for most of us. Whether it's shorter showers or fewer car washes (or as in my husband's case, the reason he doesn't mop the floors) we're clearly all in this together - at least until the rains return to refill the lakes and reservoirs once more.
While weather forecasters predict an El Nino year ahead (wouldn't that be nice?) running short on water isn't new to most of us who have been down this dusty road before. In truth, much of California is a desert state that's highly irrigated, leaving us fairly vulnerable to a snow pack that's all but gone away. Forget the lack of good skiing and the impact on boating, what about simply having enough water for the state??
What's more, homeowners seemed to have received the message loud and clear as more and more lawns give way to drought tolerant landscapes and flower beds usher in California natives (as they should). In reality, keeping a lawn green not only demands copious amounts of water, it usually requires a fair amount of pesticides as well and that's never good for anyone, no matter the measured rainfall.
As a gardening buff, the biggest myth is that a sprawling lawn is low maintenance. It isn't. From mowing to grooming to watering, it's highly time AND resource intensive. As such, succulents and native grasses have never been more popular and with good reason; they're not only drought tolerant, they're incredibly interesting, especially in bloom.
But what about the kids?
Take them to the park. It's been my experience that the moment a child is old enough to hit the ball over the fence, they've already outgrown the backyard (even when it's quite spacious.) Moreover, today's young kids are so heavily scheduled with after-school activities that they're probably not spending much time in the garden anyway. With all due respect to "the land," my closest adult bonds were forged with other mothers (and fathers) at the park and playground in those early child-rearing years. (That's where my sanity returned as well.)
Hopefully, these photos should inspire you to think twice about the space out front and back. For those of us fortunate enough to own a patch of green, you'll find there are many terrific solutions that still allow you and the kids to enjoy the gardens as much as ever. Think hardscape, paths and borders instead of expansive lawns and you'll be on your way to a more carefree and far less thirsty garden (honest). Plus, with stringent rules and heavy fines in place about how often one can actually turn on the sprinklers,you'll have much better results as well.
Finally, avoid the red lava rock and juniper look that was favored in our parents' day and steer away from ivy, which serves as a verdant ground cover, but also invites all kinds of rodents into it's cool leaves. With so many fabulous offerings at your local nurseries, there's no absence of sustainable choices. And as a bonus, even the brownest of green thumbs should be able to easily maintain a drought-tolerant garden. So enjoy your garden and think "vignettes." I guarantee you'll use your yard MUCH more when the lawn gives way to outdoor rooms instead of lawn . . .
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 17 years and has published more than 650 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.