Gardening: Drought-tolerant yards need love, too

By Laura Simpson | Contributing Columnist | Master Gardener

Many Southern California homeowners have traded their conventional, grass-dominant lawns for some version of drought-tolerant or xeriscape landscapes. Giving up the weekly task of mowing and edging, along with the prospect of lower water bills and perhaps even a rebate, was appealing. The internet is full of beautiful photos of California-friendly gardens and instructions on how to design and install them. Unfortunately, guidance on maintaining these landscapes is difficult to find.

In my own neighborhood, I saw some very well-done (and some not so well done) yard conversions. A few were professionally designed and installed, but many were do-it-yourself projects. Now, a few years later, most of these landscapes have been replaced with artificial turf or extensive concrete work, or allowed to fall into disrepair.

What many failed to realize is that “low maintenance” does not equal “no maintenance".  Remember, gardens are living things and, as such, need at least a little bit of attention.

One of the underappreciated advantages of a lawn is that it is easy to maintain. Healthy turfgrass, due to its dense, fibrous roots, can easily out-compete weeds. Mowing and edging are easier than weeding and can be done relatively quickly if you have a small lot.

After removing turf grass, it is essential to remove all weeds before planting water-wise trees, shrubs and ground cover and topping with mulch. Covering weeds with weed cloth or plastic sheeting is ineffective and counterproductive. Weeds can emerge through weed cloth, and if you try to pull them, the weed cloth pops out with the weed. Plastic sheeting tends to shatter and tear, leaving unsightly chunks on the surface of the mulch layer.

Once the turf grass has been removed and weeds pulled, water the ground and wait for those sneaky weed seeds to germinate. You may have to go through several rounds of watering and weeding to create a relatively blank canvas for the new landscape. This is a tedious but worthwhile task.

Although heavy mulching and drip irrigation can reduce the need for weeding, it will not eliminate it. Keep in mind that if you install thorny or prickly plants, weeds will most likely pop up right next to them. This can make weeding a more exciting and dangerous task than expected.

The low-water plants that many people are replacing gardens and lawns with have a reputation for toughness, but they still need some care, especially early on. GETTYIMAGES

Newly planted gardens need extra attention to grow into healthy, established gardens. Even water-wise plantings need extra water until their roots can grow and spread. Once they’re established, they should be watered sparingly. Overwatering can cause rampant, weak growth and root rot. A plant that was supposed to only grow to 3 feet may end up spreading to over 10 feet if overwatered (or overfertilized).

Many water-wise shrubs are short-lived perennials. (If they’re overwatered, they’ll be even shorter-lived.) When that sage or penstemon starts looking scraggly, it might be time to replace it. For me, this is the best part of keeping an unconventional California cottage garden, since I frequently acquire more plants than I have room for.

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