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Sustainable gardening: how to get started with rocks, native grasses

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Ripping out the front lawn and its bordering rhododendrons and replacing them with a landscape of native grasses, groundcovers, succulents and rocks once seemed an unfathomable act of defiance. No longer.

As many parts of the United States grapple with drought and rising water bills, "The thought of an English garden in the Central Valley of California is sheer madness. It wasn't meant to be, and it's sucking up precious groundwater we need for agriculture," said Ann Savageau, a design professor at the University of California at Davis, who recently traded in her lush green lawns for a desert look.

Instead of scoffing, neighbours stopped to ask her landscaper for his business card. Other California towns, including Sacramento and Menlo Park, have begun offering rebates to homeowners who remove their lawns.

Gardeners nationwide are feeling the effects of climate change. In the East, and other areas where heavy downpours have become more intense, a sustainable garden might include native grasses and other plants that do well in heavy rain and the dry weather that can follow.

"Awareness is changing in a way that is here to stay," said Brian Sullivan, a vice-president for landscapes at The New York Botanical Garden. "Yard by yard, region by region, the overall environmental impact of this trend, which I think is very positive, is substantial."

Mowing and watering a traditional lawn requires a lot of time, money, water and fertilizers. Increasingly, many home gardeners want to focus instead on edible gardens, and rethink the rest of their landscaping in a more environmentally sustainable and low-maintenance way.

It's sometimes hard to know where to begin, however, and few people have the funds or time to tackle a total garden makeover all at once.

Some strategies:

TAKE IT IN STEPS

"Transitions should be made at your own pace and you do these things in small steps," Sullivan said. "Lawn has utility. We play on it, sing on it and look at it. You can still enjoy your lawn, but cut it down by a third or half, or go with groundcovers you can walk on. They're not the same, but it's about shifting expectations."

Susan Middlefield, horticulture editor for the Vermont-based National Gardening Association, said "less lawn means you're putting less carbon into the atmosphere. Lawns are fertilizer hogs, and a lot of fertilizer also contributes to oxygen depletion in local waterways."

Savageau retained a small circle of lush lawn about 12 feet across for her grandson to play on. It's surrounded by agave and desert grasses.

CONSIDER YOUR SITE

When taking your yard in a new direction, experts say, the first step is to know your site. Do you have a slope? Is it shady or sunny?

Plants on the top of an incline will be drier and plants at the bottom will be wetter. But when the water dries up, the plants at the bottom need to be fine when it's dry, too.

TALK WITH LOCAL EXPERTS

Many arboretums, botanical gardens, native plant societies and local extension services offer brochures, online help, and classes on suitable plants and landscapes for various climates and regions. Many also maintain native plant gardens to inspire home gardeners, and some communities offer incentives to homeowners making the shift toward more sustainable yards.

Melanie Sifton, vice-president of horticulture and facilities at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in New York City, suggests that homeowners start with Landscapeforlife.org, an interdisciplinary effort toward sustainable gardens led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.

CONSIDER A RAIN GARDEN

Rain gardens are "a great idea for any part of the country. ... You take out a small area of lawn and make a depression into which you direct the rainwater coming off your roof. Instead of rainwater running down the driveway and overwhelming sewers, it goes into an area planted with occasionally heavy downpours in mind," explained Middlefield.

In Vermont, she said, rain gardens often include summersweet, inkberry, shrubby dogwoods and purple coneflower.

"When there's a big thunderstorm, you know all that water will be going somewhere useful," she said.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden's new rain gardens, planted with varieties of blue star, switch grass and black gum trees, have been successful and provide stunning fall colour, Sifton said.

WHERE LAWNS ARE VIABLE, THINK SUSTAINABLE

"In areas with sufficient water, I'm not anti-lawn," Sifton said. "Just be aware of water use, use organic fertilizers and aerate the soil a lot."

Sustainable lawn varieties being used successfully in New York City include tall fescues mixed with Kentucky bluegrass, she said.

COMPOST

"Composting yard waste and putting out a bucket for rainwater are huge in their environmental impact, and are both very easy ways to start gardening more sustainably," Sifton added.

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