Replacing the Lawn

The idea of drought-tolerant Pacific Northwest gardens seems counterintuitive, Seattle has a reputation for perpetual drizzle (if not downright downpour), and it’s true that summer is short and heat units low. But most years the Puget Sound basin receives less than an inch of rain from mid-July through September. That’s one long droughty period, more like Arizona minus the heat than what you’d expect from Seattle. Gloomy skies don’t equal meaningful precipitation, and it’s difficult, if not ecologically irresponsible, to keep lawns green in the summer.

Garden designer Stacie Crooks is ahead of the curve in facing up to climate change. In a quest to find out for herself which plants are most drought tolerant, she entered the realm of dry gardening. She ripped out 2,800 square feet of front lawn in her garden high above Puget Sound, just north of Seattle, and replaced it with less-thirsty plants. While most Northwest gardeners are just coming to understand (reluctantly) that they live in a climate more Mediterranean than English countryside, Crooks is enjoying her fourth summer of gardening dry. “It’s been a blast,” she says. “I’ve learned so much, including that things grow so fast in these conditions, I already need to divide the plants up.”

DRY AND DIFFERENT

For anyone who considers a dry garden less than abundant, Crooks’s efforts will be a revelation. Her front garden sports nary a cactus nor swathe of gravel, nor any other drought-tolerant cliche. Instead it is a thick mass of foliage and flower bisected by paths nearly engulfed in texture, color, and fragrance. Small shrubs, evergreens, grasses, and perennials coexist happily. Crooks chooses plants with the aim of providing no supplemental water once they are fully established. Since her dry garden is just in its fourth year, some plants still need a little extra moisture in midsummer, but she is determined to wean them from the hose.

Low maintenance has always been a goal for this busy mother of two, who practices what she calls fusion gardening. “Plant everything closely and it fuses together so you can’t see the weeds,” she explains. Besides pinching back asters, deadheading daylilies, and clipping spireas and ceanothus a bit, Crooks has few chores in the garden during the summer months, when she’d rather be kayaking anyway. And this casual attitude from someone brave enough to invite dozens of people to her garden over the summer, where she teaches classes for Seattle Public Utilities. The educators at the utility see the Crooks garden as a lesson in how gardeners can grow a satisfying range of plants while saving water. The classes sell out with a waiting list; the students, eager to learn from Crooks’s experience, hang on every word of her practical, do-it-yourself advice.

“FREE SOD”

Crooks isn’t a purist-she has left plenty of lawn in her back garden for her sons to kick a ball around, and for the family’s Jack Russell terrier, Rita, to romp. This back lawn is left alone to go brown and dormant in summer. Autumn rains revive it come November.

It’s the front garden, which faces directly west toward the ruffled blue waters of Puget Sound and the snowy Olympic Mountains, that has stirred up all the interest, because it is here that Crooks banished all lawn. She rented a sod cutter, and with the help of her sons and husband, Jon, sliced and rolled the unwanted sections of turf like an old carpet. She stacked the rolls alongside the street with a sign offering free sod, and it was gone in a few hours. Significantly sloped, in full sun, and with little privacy from the street, this hillside of dry dirt, sans grass, could have been a nightmare.

Crooks began enriching the soil by tilling in 25 yards of planting mix–a commercial blend of compost, sand, ground bark, and peat moss–culling out rocks and roots as she worked. Her first planting was a hedge of drought-tolerant shrubs and trees for privacy from the street below. In only a couple of years the plants have merged into a small-scale hedgerow of varying textures and colored foliage. Cistus, rugosa roses, potentilla, and golden-leafed catalpas (which she cuts down in winter) won’t need watering once established and should grow large enough to obscure the road, but not the view out to the water and mountains.

PLANTS AND MORE PLANTS

Crooks defined the expanse of front garden with paths, steps, hedging, and plants and more plants. The house as backdrop, a pair of Adirondack chairs, and a bright blue bench are the only constructed pieces. Perennials tumble with grasses to form a textural tapestry, but Crooks also preaches structure. Before in-dulging in a show of perennial fireworks in the big island bed, she planted a backbone of evergreens to carry the garden through the winter, employing Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’, V. davidii, bergenia, lacy nandina, rosemary, variegated dwarf conifers–including her favorite, golden mop threadleaf cypress (Chamaecy-paris pisifera ‘Filifera Mops’)–bronze phormiums.and Ilex crenata ‘Green Island’, a Japanese holly Crooks describes as a “three- to four-foot bump of texture.” She loves old-fashioned heather, planting ribbons of it through the beds for winter flower. And she added lots of her favorite deep purple color with barberries and the smoke tree Cotinus coggygria ‘Velvet Cloak’. Variegated red twig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) glows ruby, while mounds of Ceanothus ‘Victoria’ and ‘Julia Phelps’, Eucalyptus ‘Silver Drop’, and the narrowly vertical accents of skyrocket junipers (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’) clothe the garden in shades of rich green and metallic blue through the winter.

The true glories of the drought-tolerant border are Crooks’s combinations of grasses and perennials, all planted in swathes that are substantial enough for real impact. Crooks admits she overplanted to satisfy her need for instant gratification; the result is a garden that looks far more mature than its age. Iris, wallflowers, alliums, and Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii and E. martini start the border out with a burst of springtime color. Silvery artemisia, Brachyglottis Dunedin Group ‘Sunshine’ (Senecio‘Sunshine’), and Russian sage cool down red-hot Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and the long-blooming bright orange Geum ‘Mrs. J. Bradshaw’. The flowers of coppery-toned yarrow (Achillea ‘Terra Cotta’) play off purple-brown phormium. The narrow silvery leaves of the maiden grass Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and the blades of blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) fluff out the plantings. Burgundy barberries combined with lemony’Stella de Oro’ daylilies and striped phormiums such as ‘Apricot Beauty’ echo the purple and gold theme from the back garden borders. By late summer, willowy Verbena bonariensis and joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) swamp the paths. The garden has a fresh flush of bloom in autumn, provided by clumps of rudbeckia, sedums, and asters.

Like all good gardeners, Crooks is constantly tinkering. Many of the daylilies malingered on the dry regimen, so she pulled them out and replaced them with the orange New Zealand sedge Carex testacea, which weathers drought in full, fluffy color. “I’m not into bananas or that tropical look,” says Crooks of her dependably hardy (she describes her spot as “a good [USDA] Zone 8”), non-thirsty plant choices. Her living laboratory of a garden experiment serves as inspiration to gardeners weary of dragging hoses. Her example moves them beyond the ideal of flowery English borders to discover planting patterns that suit the realities of their own climate with easy-care beauty.

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Transform your front yard with The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt.

Check out How to Get Your Lawn Off Grass, a guide to replacing turfgrass with less needy plants.

Fritz Haeg has transformed 8 yards across the US, replacing their lawns with more useful landscapes. It’s documented in Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn.

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