Learning to Love California Gold : Part One

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Ask any Californian why they love the golden state and you’ll get a different answer every time – beaches, mountains, redwood forests, rolling hills, pleasant weather, fresh fruit and vegetables year-round, friendly people, good culture…it’s a place unlike any other. And as many Californians know, dry summers are a fact of life around here thanks to our Mediterranean climate. Unlike Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta (all of which average 3.5-4 inches of rain per month in summer) and so many other places around the country, California gets most of its rain during winter and hardly any at all during summer. Sacramento gets an average of just 0.1 inches of rainfall per month in June, July, and August. So whether or not this year’s predicted El Nino brings relief to our parched state, water conservation will always be an important goal in California, especially as we continue to strive to tread more lightly on the earth. As landscape architects, we are stewards of the environment and are uniquely skilled to improve our relationship with our great state’s natural resources.

If there’s a silver lining to this historic drought, it may be that it has brought our relationship with water to the forefront of our minds. Turf has received a particularly bad rap, especially as estimates show that at least half of the water used outdoors in California is used to irrigate lawns. But it seems that turf is here to stay; there’s little argument that it’s a great surface for picnicking, running, playing, and recreation. Instead of denouncing turf altogether, we should take a more nuanced approach and reexamine our relationship with the lawn – why is it so important and so ubiquitous?

Henry Coe Panorama by Bryce Edwards/CC by 2.0

Many of our early public parks were built with pastoral or picturesque landscape aesthetics in mind, bringing nature to the urban masses as a source of physical and spiritual renewal. America’s earliest parks (e.g. Boston Commons or Central Park in New York City) were based on a vision of nature as green rolling hills dotted with trees, and maybe some sheep – in other words, the local landscapes of England and New England, from which the pastoral and picturesque landscape aesthetics were derived. These were landscapes where turf grows and stays green year round with little effort, and parks soon became synonymous with open lawn, shade trees, and winding paths. In many places around the country, large expanses of lawn are beautiful, cost effective, and easy to maintain, sometimes even without supplemental irrigation.

But if you look around California in the summer, chances are that you’ll see a lot more gold than green – turf just doesn’t thrive in our hot dry summers. That’s true these past couple summers in particular, as many Californians and public agencies have let their lawns go dry as a way to save water. But that’s not a bad thing – in fact, it looks a lot more like our own native landscape. With the huge and beautiful array of drought tolerant or low water use plants available to us, we can create landscapes that are colorful, textural, sculptural, sublime, dramatic, and captivating in ways that a rectangle of green could never be. If a lawn isn’t going to be used for picnicking or playing (no one is going to play soccer in a median or picnic between the sidewalk and the street), let’s make it into something beautiful and resource-efficient. Now, as we Californians are forced to ask ourselves, “Why do I have this patch of grass?”, we can capitalize on what makes our great state unique and figure out for ourselves what makes a great California landscape. It won’t look like the green rolling hills of England, the verdant mountains of Appalachia, or the lush prairies of the Midwest, but that’s OK – let’s embrace what makes us Californians and learn to love our California gold.

Brenna Castro is a Job Captain in our Sacramento Office and is also one of our resident Plant Experts!



October 27, 2015 at 4:15 pm