Lawn options

His back yard contains too many plants to be water-saving, but

Alternatives to traditional lawns come in every conceivable
approximation to the real thing, from lush green swaths of
specialty turf designed to slash the cost of lawn care to rock
gardens that give homeowners the feel of a warm desert oasis.
Alternatives to traditional lawns come in every conceivable approximation to the real thing, from lush green swaths of specialty turf designed to slash the cost of lawn care to rock gardens that give homeowners the feel of a warm desert oasis.

There’s even artificial turf, and it’s not the Astroturf you’re thinking of. Today’s synthetic grass isn’t even distinguishable from the real thing until you try to pick its long, plastic blades, according to landscaper Paul Swing of Techcon Landscaping of Morgan Hill.

“It’s a simulated lawn that’s very realistic,” said Swing, who noted that the artificial turf does not grow, develop weeds, brown or fade. It also comes in a variety of green shades to complement any outdoor decor. “We’re telling people that you could go 10 or 15 years without replacing it, but it’s very expensive because it’s installed completely differently than a normal law. The material itself is more expensive, but the labor that is so intensive is the real reason for the cost.”

Simulated turf is installed for $12 to $15 per square foot, but there’s a reason. In order to lay the turf, a crew must remove all plant material from the selected area plus the first 6 to 8 inches of soil in order to lay down a well-drained layer of rock and decomposed granite, which the artificial turf is then rolled over.

As a finisher, the edges of the lawn are buried under dirt to lend the substitute a natural look, and silica sand is layered into the entire swath to make the individual blades stand up.

The application is best suited to areas where a lawn will not grow or where water is scarce, but for those looking for something a little more affordable, plenty of options exist.

Allen Dinsmore, owner of Alpine Landscapes in Gilroy offers residents water-saving options that also require little in the way of maintenance. Low-growing landscape plants like myoporum and ornamental strawberry provide low, leafy green foliage that can simulate the look of turf, but never need to be mowed and only require edging about once a month to contain their spread.

The only drawback to these plants, both of which are very drought-tolerant, is that neither one is meant for much foot traffic, said Dinsmore. Both will offer year-round green, but the myoporum is brittle and the strawberry, while able to absorb some foot traffic, can be trampled.

“If you want something that’s going to be able to be used as a play area and have lots of foot traffic on it, it’s going to be pretty difficult to find something other than turf,” said Dinsmore. “But a lot of people are trying to get away from turf because of the water use issue, and with this you’re probably talking about a 30 percent reduction in water for each of them.”

But for those who simply want the water use reduction, it’s still possible to keep turf, according to Swing.

New varieties of turf, like the slow-growing and drought-tolerant double dwarf fescue he buys from Delta Blue Grass, coupled with advances in watering techniques like Rainbird’s underground watering system – an interlocking series of rubber tubes buried beneath the sod that moisten the ground but not the grass above, losing nothing to evaporation – can reduce water consumption by up to 75 percent, he said.

And during the winter, the grass stays green even as it goes dormant, stopping growth for nearly four months of the year, said Swing. During its fastest growing time – summer – it must be cut once every two weeks.

For that kind of reduction of consumption without the upkeep of turf, even if it is only in the summer, homeowners are best off with an attractive combination of rock forms, decomposed granite, and boulders arranged to look like a dry creekbed or, perhaps, a desert oasis, said Dinsmore, who can also reduce consumption by as much as 70 percent by installing rock forms and assorted plants that can be watered through ground-based drip lines.

Such installations can still incorporate lush colors, according to Oscar Lintag, owner and designer for Miracle Designs in Hollister.

Wild grasses usually don’t require trimming, and those native to the area are also very drought-tolerant.

There are also colorful groundcovers like capitatum, commonly known as pink knotweed. Throughout the spring and summer, this low-lying bush is a blaze of red sprinkled with small pink pompom-like flowers, he said.

“They only grow to the maximum height of about 2.5 inches,” said Lintag. “But the knotweed will sort of turn brown in winter, so you need another groundcover that will take over and keep the aesthetics nice.

Myoporum parvifolium stays green year-round and in the summer it turns dark green with white flowers. It basically doesn’t need much care at all. In fact, I don’t even water mine.”

The space-saving structure of a rock-strewn back yard is also appealing, especially considering the small lot sizes that come with many tract homes.

“Grass takes up a lot of space that you can’t do much on,” said Michael Dam, a Morgan Hill resident who had the area landscaped by Lintag. “Most new houses nowadays don’t have a very big back yard. Here, my son, who’s three, can ride his little bike around. At the same time we have plants and the fountain for us.”

There is a minimal level of maintenance involved with each of the plants, though, warned Lintag.

“They’re fast-growing, so maybe once every three years you can prune it,” he said.

And while they’re not known for being low-maintenance, ponds can also be a refreshing part of a non-turf landscape, easily filling in large, empty areas in a yard, said Lintag.

For the lowest of low-maintenance ponds, he suggests a fish-less space kept clean by the addition of one cup of bleach each week, plenty to kill off any algae developing in the liner as well as to deter mosquitoes and other bugs from taking up residence, he said.

One thing that is important, however, is getting such an item built right the first time, Lintag said.

“If you just want the aesthetic appearance and the sound of water, if you have a pump and a skimmer, you can have a clear surface by just pouring a cup of Clorox in it once a week,” said Lintag. “It’s beautiful. You have beautiful water. But if you do a feature like that you have to do it well or it will be an eyesore.”

Lintag recommends integrating a waterfall and stream into the design using a flexible pond lining roll rather than a hard surface like concrete.

Not only will homeowners enjoy the sounds of a babbling brook, but the bounce of the water over the stones will aerate it, requiring you to clean the pond less often. Now that’s yardwork.

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