Category Archives: Lawn

How We Can Grow During a Drought…..

April 7, 2015

During any kind of adversity we tend to grow with leaps and bounds.  It may be slowly, but it is surely.  Being in a severe drought offers this same opportunity to grow.  How do we grow when we have less?  Well, we can look at what we have that needs excessive water and make separate those things that have no real value in our lives.  I have said in other posts that if the only person who walks on your grass is your gardener, then it’s time to let the grass / lawn go.  This frees us, as Californians, to create a landscape that is sustainable and uniquely ours.

We must reduce our water usage by 25%.  Why not make it 50%?  There is nothing wrong with using water, we do not need guilt as we create something beautiful.  By using water wisely we rid ourselves of that guilt…. and become part of a community of thinkers.

So,  how do we create a replacement for grass?  Can we rethink a false status symbol? YES!!! There are countless “soulutions”, but typically the front garden is part of the street-scape, an unused asset by the homeowner.  Let’s talk about what grass does for a landscape.  It is a mass of green, typically a fine texture that conjures a feeling of park like relaxation.  This is an opportunity to redefine how our homes look and feel.  Why not play up that park feel and create spaces for neighbors to want to congregate… build community through gardens.  This can be done with thoughtful design.

During the drought we must protect our trees by deep watering them.  This is a solution to a problem we all know we have—-tree roots that stay close to the surface.  The trees tend to fall over during Santa Ana Winds…. or heavy rains.  Trees planted in grass become use to irrigation, they spread their roots at the surface because that is where the water is.   By eliminating grass and having to water it, we have found a solution to those shallow roots.  Look around, look for trees planted in grass, and look for trees planted in a field.   You find that there is no bulk of surface roots in nature.

Another way we can grow during a drought is by changing our home climate.  Plant groves of trees.  Create shade!  And, by not having surface water your trees will develop proper roots.  If selected properly, trees can provide shade in the summer, warmth in the winter, seasonal color, flowers, attract wildlife and evoke that park like feeling we all love.

Finally, we can create community  gardens if we plant stone fruits, citrus and other trees with edible fruits.   If your neighbor has a lemon, then perhaps you plant a lime tree, an avocado tree, grapefruit, fig, pomegranate…..   this is an opportunity to build relationships who also want to conserve water and have a sustainable, beautiful garden.

Stephen Swafford

Landscape Architect, Indah Bulan

Lawn Substitutes…..

April  7, 2015

The whole great State of California has a mandate to reduce water use by 25%.  Although it is going to be diffuclt, we can easily achieve this–stop watering our lawns.   This will be a massive savings of water since about 9 out of 10 homeowners have lawn.

The design aspect of having a lawn, may seem simple, but that is because it is over used.   The real issue is complex.  First of all, lawns are a necesary evil, especially if you have children, pets or enjoy outdoor activities.  There is nothing like grass to take foot traffic.  So, not all lawns are objectable.   The issue is how we have all used grass as a ground cover, millions and millions of  Californians.   I say, if the only person who walks on your lawn is the gardener, then let that lawn go!  A lawn should be no more than 30% of your total gardening space.  As we are in a dought I would reduce that number by half.  We must sacrifice, there is no choice.  I also object to municipal medians and parkways that use grass as a ground cover.  Again, if the only person who walks on it is the gardener—-let it go!

At Indah Bulan, we tend to always remove lawns except where useful .  Here are some alternatives to having a lawn or lawn substitutes.

  1. Red Fescue (Festuca rubrum) This is a California native grass that grows well with little water.
  2. Mulch…. until you can figure out what to do, simply much the dead lawn.
  3. For areas to be used for entertaining, use pavers set in gravel.  This will allow the water to percolate back into the ground, create a pattern and most importantly define an area with style.
  4. Succulents, these can be planted year round and enjoy being dry.  Most tend to be more colorful with dry heat.
  5. Plant a Grove of Trees… fill your old lawn area with trees, turn it into a woodland.
  6. Create a path and planting areas.   This creates a garden that has visual interest and practicality if the paths are well thought out.
  7. Evergreen Ground Covers.  There are hundreds of choices.  If you want a look to replicate grass, choose a plant with small leaves.  A really good choice is Achillea milliafolium.  It is a low growning yarrow, that can take some foot traffic, being mowed, and has a flower.
  8. Create a riparian area with native rocks, trees, shrubs and design.
  9. Create a planting design that uses mass plantings of a single variety of low shrub(s).
  10. Do nothing until you have a plan.  Mow the grass down as low to the ground as possble, stop watering and take time to dream.  Use the drought to solve a problem thoughtfully.

There really are so many wonderful options.  When we design a garden for clients, we choose what is best for them, the architecture of their home and how they want to use it.  This is a great opportunity to create something that is special, practical, sustainable and gorgeous.

Stephen Swafford, Landscape Architect


Water Conservation …. Lawns

As a landscape architect, I see potential everywhere!  Many times that comes from identifying the problem first. We are experiencing a major drought in California.  The biggest problem I see are all those unused grassy areas in front of most homes.  I want my first blog to be about those lawns and grassy areas that could still be green, just in a different more sustainable way.

Having a lawn is not bad or improper in and of itself.  But, in an arid climate using a lawn as a default planting for 95% of a front landscape requires a staggering amount of water and weekly maintenance. Another waste is seeing grass in a municipal median that is only walked on as it is mowed.   There is nothing like grass for areas that are to be used by families for outdoor activities since, if healthy, can take heavy use. What I want to address is a grassy lawn that is just a visual.

Here are a few suggestions to make your lawn more sustainable.

  •  If the only people who walk on your lawn are the “gardeners”….. let it go. Place a thick layer of mulch until you figure out how the area is to be used.  Stop watering the area.
  • If you use the lawn occasionally for activities or parties, make sure you have a grass that is appropriate for your climate.  For instance, St. Augustine Turf is a tropical grass.  It requires much more water than a typical fescue.   Overseed your lawn with a mixture of drought tolerant seeds.
  • If you have a grassy area that will be kept, then trim it to the proper height.  Ask your gardener to raise his lawn mower blade to 3″, 4″ is better.   This simple task will help your lawn to retain more water.  The longer blades will provide shade for the roots. It will also look more healthy.  It takes more water to regrow from being scalped than it does to maintain a longer blade.  Of course the big problem with this is most gardeners seem to only speak Spanish.  Here is a printable statement you can simply hand to your gardener.  …..Maybe give him an extra $5 tip.

In English:

To help conserve water, please raise mower blade to 3″.  Thank you!

In Spanish: 

Para ayudar a conservar el agua, por favor, levanten la cuchilla de corte a 3 pulgadas. Gracias!  


  • Water less for longer.  Instead of watering 3 times a week, water every two weeks for 20-30 minutes…. or better yet wait until your grass looks like it needs water.  You will be amazed that having the grass trimmed at a constant 3″ requires less water.  …….Water only when necessary.
  •   If water is running over the sidewalk, there are issues with the water percolating into the ground…. If grass is what you want, this may be the perfect time to aerate or till and add organic material to the soil so it can retain the precious moisture it receives.
  • Make sure the irrigation system is fine-tuned to eliminate over spray.  Water early in the morning (remember water fewer times).
  • Plant a tree or a grove of trees to reduce all that hot sun on your house and as the trees grow seed a shady grass mix.
  • Replace the lawn with a ground cover (lawn substitute).

Next time……lawn substitutes

Stephen Swafford

Landscape Architect, Indah Bulan