In the midst of drought, our home’s well-watered green grass was the source of comment from our ecologically minded friends and neighbors. Early-morning water was seen cascading down our slope into the gutter, subject to comment.
My husband, Dale, and I turned off the water and watched the lawn turn brown. We didn’t know how to make it better until we saw an ad for a free workshop on water-wise gardening given by the city of Napa.
Over four meetings in Napa’s Kennedy Park, we learned how to change our lawns to less thirsty plantings; how to install a drip system; how to choose water-wise trees, shrubs and other plants; and how to apply for funds from both the city of Napa and the state of California to fulfill our goal.
The next step was to find out if we qualified for the “Cash for Grass” program. Patrick Costello, water resource analyst from the city of Napa’s Public Works Department, whom we had met through the workshops, came to look at our yard and measure the grass. We had more than 3,000 square feet.
We qualified for both the local “Cash for Grass” and the state “Save Our Water” turf- replacement rebate. We began by removing an overgrown and diseased cottonwood tree and other diseased trees on our property. We piled the wood chips in the front yard to the delight of a few neighborhood children, who used them to play “king of the mountain.”
We hired a landscape designer knowledgeable in water-wise garden design to help us choose plants with maximum color and attractiveness to hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. She suggested adding a curving walkway from our back patio to a circular stone pavilion with a fountain and a view of the mountain. We constructed the walkway and pavilion early in the process.
We purchased a long roll of cardboard and scrounged large use cardboard boxes that required removal of tape and staples. These we double-layered, overlapping them across every inch of grass. We ordered 15 cubic yards of screened compost and topsoil and spread those on top of the cardboard. Then we quickly spread the wood chips from our trees to cover and secure the compost. (We were told that arborists and tree cutters will sometimes deliver wood chips at no cost.)
Then we began planting. Most of the plants we chose need little water once established; others require a little more, but the important thing is that we grouped them by water need.
For the front yard, we chose a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’); a dwarf male gingko (Ginkgo biloba ‘Jade Butterfly’); hyssop (licorice mint); Agastache ‘Kudos Yellow’; winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’); white coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Pow Wow White’); California fuchsia (Epilobium canum ‘Calistoga’); bishop’s hat (Epimedium warleyense ‘Orange Queen’); dwarf maidenhair (Miscanthus sinensis); dwarf dusty miller (Jocobeae maritima ‘Silver Dust’), the only plant that did not thrive in our soil); Provence lavender (Lavandula intermedia ‘Provence’); dwarf fringe flower (Loropetalum); bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa); hardy Jerusalem sage (Phlomis russeliana); and autumn sage (Salvia greggii).
Into the backyard went an ‘improved Meyer’ lemon tree; a persimmon tree (Diospyros kaki ‘Hachiya’); coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’(tickseed); more winter daphne, autumn sage and California fuchsia; white coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’); lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus); and bamboo muhly around the future fountain and garden swing.
With help from our yard-maintenance man, we removed the sprinklers and converted the sprinkler system to a drip system with valves just below the same control box to reduce the water pressure. We have yet to know how much our water bill has been reduced because, along with all of the preceding, we extended three of our vegetable garden beds with their own drip system. While it does use a fair amount of water, this garden has given us many baskets of tomatoes, kale, onions, rhubarb, chard, thyme, oregano, peppers and corn.
The final touches were a thick layer of redwood bark—not strictly necessary but pretty—and a fountain in the shape of a large colorful urn in back of the swing and the pavilion.
Today our yard is filled with hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and an occasional dragonfly, flitting among the flowers, while Muhlenbergia (a native bamboo-like grass that does not replicate or spread) waves in the breeze. A neighbor brought us an orchid and lucky bamboo plant to thank us for improving the neighborhood and for returning her family’s view of the mountain when we cut down the cottonwood tree.
No longer embarrassed by wasted water, we proudly answer a multitude of questions from neighbors and friends on how this beautiful landscape came to be.