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Ending the tyranny of our thirsty front lawn.

Landscaping for the future, when water will be a more costly and probably more limited resource, is a subject that has long been of concern to Sunset, particularly in the last three years. From articles on appropriate plants, to updates on more efficient irrigation equipment, we've brought you the latest information on how to save water on lawns, in vegetable gardens, and elsewhere in residential landscapes.

But water conservation is an important issue for all Westerners, not just homeowners. So last September we decided to redesign the front grounds of Sunset's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, in order to reduce our own water consumption.

Large lawns and an old sprinkler system added up to too much water

Sunset's two main buildings are on the north and south sides of Willow Road (see diagram below). Besides foundation plantings and trees, the fronts of both buildings were carpeted with thirsty bent grass lawn about an acre of it in all. The newer, north building had a relatively modern sprinkler system, including an automatic timer. The south building, like many older homes, still had its original manually operated system, installed in the early 1950s; here we had a chance to save a lot of water.

To find out how much water we were using, we audited the lawn in front of the south building. As we expected, the system was very inefficient. Some parts of the lawn were getting 10 times as much water as other areas. Near spots that received the most, water often ran off the lawn and into the street.

Besides the water waste entailed by using an old sprinkler system, we were spending a lot of irrigation on the bent grass. To look attractive, this grass must be kept very low, about 1/2 to 114 inch high, and it

must be given much more water than bluegrass needs.

Three ways to save: unthirsty ground covers, less turf, updated sprinklers

Next step was consulting with landscape architect Jack Stafford on a new plan.

Our main goal was to eliminate as much of the grass as possible, replacing two-thirds of it with unthirsty ground covers and converting the rest-areas around a flagpole and along walkways-to tall fescue, the deepest-rooting and least thirsty cool-season grass on the market. This goes along with our belief that any lawn that isn't actually used is too wasteful to justify the expense of irrigating it. All the turf we kept is walked on by someone other than the mower operator.

We also wanted to replace old sprinklers in front of the south building with a modern system using low-precipitation sprinkler heads and an automatic timer.

Which ground covers to choose? Consider each plant's growth habit

Deciding which of the many possible ground covers to plant was a challenge. We wanted plants that were relatively unthirsty and needed little maintenance, that looked good year-round, and that would not grow high enough to disrupt the openness of our front grounds. They also had to fill in fairly fast but not be overly invasive. Additionally, our ground covers would have to be readily available at nurseries, so we'd be testing plants homeowners could also buy easily.

We consulted horticulturists, nurserymen, and landscape architects around the West and came up with about 35 recommendations. From this list, we selected the five ground covers (in addition to tall fescue grass) that combined interesting texture, low growth, and good adaptability to shade and sun.

Because we needed to fill in the raw area as quickly as possible, we intentionally

spaced some of these plants more closely than is usually recommended. Later, we may have to go back and thin out shrubby plants such as juniper and rubus. The following descriptions include comments about how closer plantings worked out. (Climate zones refer to ones in the Sunset Western Garden Book.)

Hedera helix Hahn's Self Branching'. All zones. Reaches 3 to 6 inches high. Best as small-scale ground cover in partial shade. Recommended spacing: 9 to 12 inches. Spacing of 9 inches yielded 50 to 90 percent coverage in eight months. Shadiest areas were slowest to fill in.

Hypericum calycinum. Zones 2 through 24. Reaches 12 to 18 inches high. Produces bright yellow flowers in summer. Grows best in full sun to light shade. Spreads quickly by underground stems; can be invasive if not confined. Recommended spacing: 12 inches. Nine-inch spacing fully covered some beds in six months; others took longer. Mow every two to three years. Susceptible to rust.

Juniperus sabina 'Calgary Carpet'. All zones. Reaches 6 to 12 inches high. Soft green foliage in summer, purplish in winter. Grows best in full sun. Grows slowly to 10-foot width. Recommended spacing: 5 to 6 feet. We spaced plants 2 feet apart and got only 50 percent coverage after eight months. One bed of slightly larger plants did a little better.

Myoporum parvifolium 'Putah Creek'.

Zones 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, and 18 through 24. Reaches about 12 inches high. White flowers in early summer. Grows best in full sun; excellent in hot climates. Fast-growing to 8 feet wide. Branches root as they spread. Recommended spacing: 5 feet. Three-foot spacing got us full coverage in eight months.

Rubus calycinoides 'Emerald Carpet'. Zones 4, 5, 6, and 14 through 17. Reaches 12 to 24 inches high. Small white flowers in spring are followed by bright orange edible berries. Spreads by underground stems. In warmer climates, grows best in partial shade. Recommended spacing: 3 to 4 feet. Two-foot spacing yielded almost full coverage in partial shade; plants in full sun grew more slowly.

Other plants that would work well in similar situations include Acacia redolens,- Arctostaphylos 'Emerald Carpet'; Ceanothus gloriosus Anchor Bay', C.g. porrectus, C. griseus horizontalis Yankee Point', and C. 'Joyce Coulter'; Cerastium tomentosum; Coprosma pumila Verde Vista'; Cotoneaster dammeri Coral Beauty' and C. 'Shangra La'; Dodonaea procumbens; Dymondia margaretae,- Fesatuca vina glauca; Gazania rigens leuco- laena,- Limonium perezii,- Myoporum 'Pa- cificum'; Rosmarinus officinalis 'Lockwood de Forest' and Ken Taylor'; Salvia sonomensis,- Santolina chamaecyparissus and S. virens; Scaevola Mauve Clusters'; and Sedum confusum.

We cut water use by at least 60 percent. But sprinklers needed adjusting

Last June, we ran an audit on the new landscaping in front of our south building. By comparing application rates and watering schedules before and after relandscaping on both sides of the street, we estimated the tall fescue lawn to be using only a third to half of the water the old bent grass had received.

The new ground covers are receiving 85 to 90 percent less water than the previous turf. As they become more established, they will use even less.

But the audit also showed that even the

best sprinkler system can get out of whack. Our new system needed adjustment, done in late June, to increase its uniformity of application.

Now is the best time to relandscape. Here's help choosing a ground cover

September and October are the ideal months to plant ground covers in all of the West's mild climates. Set in the ground now, plants have the cooler weather of fall, winter, and early spring to become established. If all goes well, winter rains will help roots grow deep. This makes the plants as self-sufficient as possible the next year.

If you are looking for a lawn substitute, the list at left is a good place to start. But it is not all-inclusive. You'll also want to refer to the Sunset Western Garden Book or a new Sunset book, Lawns and Ground Covers (Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, Calif., 1989; $10.95) for more cultural information and suggestions on some regional favorites.

Some of the plants we considered are best used in larger areas and cannot be routinely walked on. Many more make excellent ground covers for smaller areas. If you are planting along a sidewalk, you should probably choose a plant that can take a certain amount of foot traffic.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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