When I started my first garden in California in 1987, it was the second year of what was to become one of the longest droughts in the state’s history. This drought lasted until 1992. I hired someone to put in an irrigation system and he recommended a drip system, which is the best for conserving water. He also recommended replacing our dead sod with drought-tolerant plants. Once established, these plants would require little watering.
I followed all his great advice and, within a year, had a wonderful garden with many colorful and flowering plants. Moreover, a majestic live oak tree in our backyard came back to life with this new watering regime. About five years later, both state and municipal agencies began offering property owners grants to replace their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. Even with these incentives, it took many more years before Californians, in significant numbers, replaced their lawns with water-conserving gardens.
Monoculture in any form, including lawns, is a bad idea. To keep lawns “healthy” and attractive requires not only a lot of water, but repeated applications of herbicides and fertilizers, which pollute ground water and kill important pollinators. Even without the chemicals, mowed lawns deprive birds, beneficial insects, and other wildlife of plant food sources they need to survive. The removal of leaves and other decomposing plant materials from lawns depletes the soil of nutrients, and thus begins the energy- and water-wasteful vicious cycle of mowing, blowing, and fertilizing, and then poisoning any non-lawn plant that pops up in this moist environment.
Without a lawn, my yard required some pruning, and occasionally replacing a plant or adding more wood chips and mulch. We replaced concrete walkways with decomposed granite, so rain water could be absorbed better and not run off into the street. We could choose to let fallen leaves decompose in place on the mulch, or rake up large ones and add them to our compost bin. During the years when California rationed water, my yard was full of flowers and attractive perennials, while my neighbors’ lawns turned brown. Birds and butterflies regularly visited our yard, and a sizable population of lizards helped with insect control.
Now I live in Central Florida and, in most months, there is plenty of rain. But the first thing I did when starting my garden here was to get rid of my lawn. Even with lots of rain, lawns contribute to the loss of habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Also, the fertilizer run-off from lawns, in Florida, contributes to toxic algae blooms in our lakes and rivers. By covering my yard with wood chips, and by letting the chips, leaves, and other plant debris decompose into my soil, I do not need to use synthetic fertilizers. I add compost to areas where I have fruit trees and other food crops, and I plant mostly native flowering plants to support pollinators, which also helps with growing vegetables and fruit.
I started my garden a few months before the pandemic shut everything down. Working in my garden kept me outdoors a lot during the last year, and provided needed breaks from zoom meetings and catching up with the increasingly depressing news and death toll. Finding bees, caterpillars, butterflies, birds, and other visitors in my yard is a continuous source of entertainment and inspiration. Finally, the ongoing tasks and routines of gardening helped me feel productive during the days I found it difficult to get other things done.