Fly into San Diego you can’t help but notice the number of pools and spas decorating our landscapes. Designing these areas, along with the patios, structures, and plants that go near them, come with some basic do’s and don’ts to consider. Most of these precepts are common sense, yet it is surprising how often they are not followed. Here are a few important guidelines in designing a pool and spa areas.
Removing the grass lawn has become the poster child to creating drought tolerant landscapes in San Diego. Landscape professionals now recognize that reducing or complete removing lawn is a huge incentive to people wanting to renovate their outdoor environments. Residents who have purchased new homes on lots of bare dirt are not subscribing to the idea of the traditional lawn either. Local governments in regions of water scarcity actively discourage the planting of lawn, actually paying homeowners to remove it. Like the low-flow shower head of the past decade, it seems that the public has accepted the notion of little or no lawn as the new norm.
Despite its villainous portrayal, lawn can serve both aesthetic and functional purposes. Yet lawn alternatives do exist – from dozens of low-growing plants to rock and gravel surfaces – that make eliminating lawn from the landscape a viable option. Some folks are even choosing to mimic the look of lawn with artificial turf – a green synthetic surface that does not require one drop of water. Lawn has become one of the dilemmas of ethical and sustainable building: reduce the size of the lawn or eliminate it altogether?
Why install lawn at all? To be sure, this is an individual choice. Turf adds a horizontal component that visually provides horizontal space, allowing plants and other landscape components to be seen. The rich green surface is cooling to the eye. It literally cools the temperature a few degrees on hot summer days when compared to hardscape surfaces including artificial turf. As for function, it is a living surface that can be walked upon repeatedly. For a family with children and dogs, lawn can be an important space for recreation and play. And in fire prone areas, it serves as a non-flammable border around a home.
Lawn is not going to totally disappear from most neighborhoods, even in dry regions, because it offers families with children and pets a functional surface for activity. But those folks should specify a few hundred square feet of turf for the landscape plan, not the wide expanses of lawn common in the past. Those days are gone. The kids can walk to the local school to kick and throw a ball; the money saved on the water bill can go instead to their college fund.
It’s the height of spring in San Diego and our gardens look as beautiful, probably more so, than at any other time of the year. Flowering plants droop heavy with bloom, fruiting trees hold armloads of maturing summer fruits, ornamental plants sit with fresh canopies of leaves, and lawns stretch before us as verdant blankets of green. Wouldn’t it be nice if these iconic spring scenes would last throughout the year? They do not. Take photos in memory because, as we know, the beauty of spring is fleeting. As soon as the first prolonged heat spell arrives, the spring look fades much too quickly as plants brace for the summer.
The first sign of summer heat often shows in the lawn. Swaths of browning turf can be seen from home to home within a few days of sustained heat. The top of the soil profile dries rapidly and the tiny root systems of lawn grasses can no longer slurp moisture. It is a sign that irrigation timers are not programmed to account for the heat, or in many cases, these irrigation systems have not been correctly designed and installed. With patches of brown inching into the ocean of green, it is the perfect time to either replace or at least reduce the size of the lawn. But with what? The solutions to replacing lawns vary from landscape to landscape and can be a worthy challenge to professional designers. If lawn alternatives test the pros, they can bewilder homeowners.
Solving the lawn replacement puzzle is not an easy task and there are experiments gone awry in every neighborhood to offer as proof. And like a puzzle, there are many pieces or components that need to fit together to design an effective lawn alternative landscape. Unlike the lawn, where thousands of the same plant blades are massed and installed as easily as carpet, the landscape without lawn often needs a mix of dozens of different elements to be effective. Lawn provides a horizontal surface that can be used for walking and play, the landscape without lawn must take into account how to provide low surfaces not only for aesthetics but also for pedestrian access and use. Removing the lawn is a no brainer but replacing it with the right mix of landscape takes time, thought, and a bit of skill.