Often when we think about going sustainable, we picture tearing out everything we have and starting all over again. The prospect can be so exhausting that the project simply never begins, and so we just keep watering our lawns and cursing the water district.
We imagine that changing our landscape will be like organizing our closets, another large chore that no one leaps to do because it seems so monumental, so overwhelming, such a Hercules-cleaning-out-the-Augean-stables undertaking. For this myth, I blame the shelter magazines and their photo spreads featuring makeover magic—the spaces utterly, and sometimes unrecognizably, transformed in the final reveal.
The truth is that you don’t have to take a closet or an outdoor space down to the studs; doing so is enormously time-consuming and expensive. You can instead take it one corner, one bed, one patch of ground at a time. You can chip away at the lawn without the chaos and rumpled look of a work in progress.
One way is to consider putting in big things (plants, pots, hardscape) where once there were thousands of little things (blades of grass). Taking out a few feet of lawn and replacing it with a bed of larger, waterwise plants can be strikingly beautiful and will reap benefits almost immediately (do keep in mind that plants have to establish first). If you have money and the inclination for hardscape, it’s another way to take up large amounts of space that won’t require water. Covering an area with bark, mulch, or gravel is another option.
One of our neighbors is taking the little-bit-a-time approach by cutting big curved beds into what used to be lawn, and planting the new spaces with New Zealand flax (phormium), grasses, and succulents. You can see by the photo that the owners really have a good eye for what works; as a person who doesn’t necessarily have that same gift, I look, and remember, and try to incorporate the principles into my own little-at-a-time planning.
These artistic neighbors, Matt and Denise, very generously let me take pictures and told me how they’ve gradually gone more sustainable over time. Matt says the reduced lawn requires almost 50% less water, and the beds of flax and grasses (obtained for free from a friend—my favorite kind of plant shopping!) get no supplemental water at all. Water-wise, money-wise, and still beautiful–that’s the best kind of sustainable.
The benefits of walking your neighborhood really can’t be overstated. You get ideas of what to do (and the occasional insight on what not to do); you see for yourself what really works in your immediate location, and you realize you can change to a more sustainable gardening style a little bit at a time. And best of all, you meet the nicest people.