Garden grasses are for more than lawns

ornamental grass design

Mixed grasses offer textural and colorful effects that move gracefully in the breeze.


Gardens love grasses!

The number of garden grasses is awesome. They are more than lawns. We tend to think of grass as the accepted way to grow a lawn, but although most lawns are comprised of low-growing grass types of plants, not all lawns have to be grass based.


You can have a lawn of other green groundcovers, like Dichondra or even thyme or mint. Tough grass lawns have been cultivated for resistance to heavy foot traffic and different mixes are adapted to a wide range of climates and uses. All require a fair amount of water to grow well. Lack of rain and the need to supplement water have encouraged the development of new drought-tolerant mixes. Look for brands like Pearl’s Premium Lawn Seed and EcoLawn. Less formal varieties have also found their place in lawns like Blue Grama, Buffalo and Black Gamma that have afforded a resilient lawn with less irrigation, even if they are less neat and low-growing.


In addition to low-growing lawn grasses there are all kinds of ornamental kinds available. You can use them in flower gardens, in like-kind gardens, wild lawn effects or even as focal points in the landscape. Ornamental varieties look perfect near rocks, dry riverbeds, water features and fountains. They can be lined up like soldiers to define the edge. Or use them to outline a formal garden. They can also ramble over the landscape creating a completely natural look.

Although they do not have colorful flowers, some have dramatic inflorescences (arrangements of insignificant-looking blooms). Some inflorescences fluff out decoratively and make splendid 10-second cat toys! Pampas grass is probably one of the best known ornamental favorites. But as it self-seeds so readily in some parts of the country that it has been declared a garden pest.

Use for interesting foliage

There are, however, many other garden grasses with better manners that you can try.  Try Miscanthus for tall colorful foliage that comes in varieties with a great selection of marvelous patterns and colors. Fountain grasses come in reds, greens, and even black-flowered, as well as large and small sizes. (Watch out for the large green ones: they self-seed like crazy!)  Blue tints are available in fescues, oat and lyme grasses. And the Carix family offers plants with blades fine as hair, thick as a finger, curly, straight and in almost every color.

Consider adding garden grasses to your landscape. They are easy-care plants that sway gracefully with breezes, adding motion to your landscape design. Look for decorative grasses that will grow well in your climate and exposure. Some stay small, others grow wide or tall. There are so many interesting types, you are likely to find the vertical growth habit will be an asset to your landscape, no matter what design you have. Enjoy the possibilities of grasses, for lawns and for much more!

Water-wise gardens bloom with nonliving materials


mixed garden flooring

This geometric design shows a range of nonliving garden materials to mix artistically with succulent plants. Water-wise gardens can double as living areas.

Although we tend to think of a garden as a gathering of plant materials, much of the landscape is taken up with noniving materials. This is helpful space in the water-wise garden. There is the soil between one area and the next, a front pathway, and probably a driveway in the front of your home. But even these prosaic members of the landscape need not be dull. Permeable paving has become popular in recent years. It allows water to sink into the garden rather than sheeting off flat surfaces, gouging out erosion gullies and wasting water. More than simply creating flat surfaces for foot traffic or for setting things on, consider that non-living areas can add more color and texture .

Unlike a few decades ago when everything was covered with cement or brick, the choices for paving areas have exploded – both for flooring and vertically. Now there are colorful types of stone in a wide range of designs and finishes as well as woods, vinyls, metals, glass and more, all perfect for integrating into the new landscape.

Becoming creative about landscaping offers a chance to think about more than the usual ground surfaces for non-living garden décor. Any space is now a place to have fun with.

With the cost of materials rising and landfills overflowing, this is the time to put to work all that stuff in your home, garage and yard that is just taking up space.

recycled sculpture

Recycled old auto parts make a decorative garden sculpture


Recycling has donned the elite title of ‘up-cycling’ when you re-use old items for new purposes. Look for all those pieces of left-over building materials: pieces of wood, pipe, PVC, screening, odd tiles or latticework hanging around your yard, garage or home. These can be formed into safe-houses for growing vegetables to keep out pests, fashioned into trellises or cobbled into artistic fencing. Old concrete chunks stack into fine retaining walls.

Battered car parts, sinks, toilets, tubs or cracked fountain bases make unique container gardens. Broken dishware and pots can add color and texture as mulch over small garden areas where no one will be digging or walking. (These can have sharp edges.) Repurpose young tree stakes or poles into low fences, an archway or a series of pee posts over a washable gravel area for male dogs you don’t want marking your favorite plants. (Paint them bright colors for fun.) Hey, one designer even used bowling balls from an alley that closed down to cover open soil areas. This was one material guaranteed not to float or blow away even in the most aggressive winds!

metal landscape effects

Corrugated metal makes an interesting addition to this nonliving part of a landscape.


Even mulch offers more interest and color in the water-wise garden than ever before. Bark pieces come in colors, gorilla hair (shredded bark) clings to hillsides, gravel and decomposed granite can come in a wide range of colors – even greens and purples – or mix your own blends. Find durable colored shredded, recycled tire chips. They are bouncy for running, sitting and playing as well as just covering exposed soil. Go glittery with colored tumbled glass. Invite imaginative materials into water-wise gardens.

unusual stepping stones

Have fun with cast critters as stepping stones.

Form paths, edgings or designs with bricks, stepping stones, flagstone or a wealth of precast concrete blocks.

water-wise gardens

Gravel and stone in gray hues make for an artistic combination of living and nonliving materials in this water-wise cactus garden.


Floor a patio with slices of tree trunks for a rustic look. Check out some of your local industrial plants. You can find extruded waste materials in vinyl, metal, plastic and glass that may be ideal for decorating surfaces of your landscape. (Just make sure the material is not toxic, sharp or anything that could degrade into an undesirable form.)

Get creative or hire a designer or artist to help you make your space special. Decorate walls, furniture and even cement areas with murals or paint them with your favorite colors or designs. Hang outdoor curtains. Spread around colorful outdoor pillows or create gardens of metal or colorful pots.

Add a trellis, pergola or a screen. Lay down outdoor rugs.  Or paint your own yellow brick road on recycled materials to lead you on a winding path that tours your garden. Place sculptures. Dangle wind chimes. Post colorful fabrics to be spun by the wind. Mix living and nonliving materials for the widest range of effects and for a healthy, eco-friendly, easy-care landscape.

Assorted stone floor

Assorted nonliving stone shapes create their own floor design

As you can see, there is an endless supply of nonliving materials you can use to make your landscape into a work of art. Partner your creations with drought-tolerant plants, some comfortable furniture and turn your yard into a water-wise garden/work of art that invites you to live in it.

Why water wise gardens need plants


mix plants and nonliving materials for a balanced water wise garden

Water wise gardens need plants for good health, balance, usefulness and beauty.

In areas suffering from drought, homeowners and businesses are allowing lawns to die and open areas are being covered with gravel. The attempt to waste less water on landscaping is laudable. But sometimes taking the cheapest and easiest route to being water wise – like keeping a dead lawn or paving over everything with gravel – can create additional serious problems.

weeds in dead lawn

Weeds are the only beneficiaries of dead lawns.

There is a reason why experts encourage drought-tolerant gardens. Water wise gardens need plants. Green is good — not just meaning it’s good to be eco-friendly. But green growth is also good. Life and non-life are balanced on this planet. The systems can be quite complex, but simply put, all life needs water and most life naturally adapts to its environment. We humans have taken a path of our own by changing our surroundings to fit our needs. Sometimes we do what we like without considering the consequences. But since most people prefer their homes surrounded by plant life and Mother Nature concurs, we should be able to create landscapes both we and the ecology can love. We can find balance. Landscape is not an “all or nothing” proposition.

Open areas with no plant life become big absorbing grounds for solar heating. These spaces then radiate back heat into the air, further drying it. Low humidity makes it harder for anything to grow. So when dead lawns remain in place or spaces are covered with nothing but stone or gravel, heat islands are formed. This heat will raise the temperature not only of ambient air, but of the house itself, adding to your discomfort and air conditioning bills. This is not water wise, it is unwise.

Another problem with turning lawn or garden areas into dead zones is the dust that is created and pollutes the air when windy (often triggering allergies). Also, these spaces are uncomfortable on the feet, glaring and ugly to the eye and are an anathema to wildlife.

wildlife loves a well planted garden

This little hummingbird loves succulent flowers.

Dead lawn is depressing to look at and will fill with noxious weeds as soon as rain can germinate them. Gravel and stone can be gorgeous when designed by someone with an artistic eye and installed correctly. But when dumped and spread flat over open areas, it becomes dreary and a waste of resources – as well as creating heat islands. (Gravel and stone may be abundant on this planet, but it is still a non-renewable resource and if too large a human population demands it, we can create price gouging and damage to the environment as we have done with so many other natural resources.)

So what to do?

colorful drought tolerant plants

Plants add color and texture to the drought-tolerant landscape

Think of all the interesting useful spaces you can create in your landscape — like extending your living space, playing games, entertaining, growing edibles, building a relaxing retreat or watching wildlife in a colorful native garden. Create a garden that uses lawn only where it is useful. Replace the rest with adaptable plant life and well-designed non-living materials. When well designed, non-living materials, practical spaces and greenery (that can bloom in a rainbow of colors) can all work together to complement each other. Use non-living materials swirled and punctuated with water wise or native plantings that harmonize visually and practically. A mixed landscape is not only more functional, it is comfortable for living, works sustainably with the surrounding environment and it can be decorative — and even downright gorgeous.

Growing the ‘New Climate’ garden


rain clouds

A well designed garden will thrive with rain or drought.

As the weather becomes more extreme all over the world, polar ice caps melt, technology shrinks distance with instant communications and the biggest population of human beings ever to walk the earth are now traveling from one place to the next transporting lifeforms of all types planet-wide, Mother Nature is finding her own ways to adapt to a changing world. We can individually reclaim harmony and sanity with a sustainable garden to adapt to nature’s changes.

mixed vegetables

A crop of mixed vegetables from a small garden

We need to look at the bigger picture. Gardening, something too many people are ignoring in the frantic demands of everyday scheduling, is quietly becoming one of humanity’s greatest tools for survival. Food production is changing. Profitability has thus far triumphed over sustainability and long term human health. So avoiding chemical and hormonal additives as well as eating nourishing fruits and vegetables is now a project for each individual. Chemical pollution (plenty of which is added by the home gardener) threatens water resources – again something we individuals can impact. And so many diseases are being traced back to the stress we impose on ourselves – another area where our gardens can help us heal.

Whether your local area is experiencing cold, heat, dry or wet weather, you can grow a garden that will help you and your family to grow a ‘New Climate’ garden that can make a difference to your quality of life. You can deal with extreme weather by designing good drainage and places to trap and store water.

rain barrel

Rain barrels can blend with attractive landscapes.

You can build in protected areas to shelter your favorite plants from too much cold or heat and even recycle old tubs and glass shower doors, turning them into protective vegetable gardens or cloches to extend your food growing season. (Recycling will save you from having to buy new materials while increasing trash in your home or in landfills.) Add decorative umbrellas or overhangs to provide shade from hot sun. Or plant in pots (or creative recycled containers like old sinks, broken fountains or even old toilets for a bit of humor) in sunny spots in gardens that have too much shade.


Comfortable outdoor chairs

These outdoor chairs beckon visitors to relax comfortably in the sunshine.

Look to your garden to extend your living space, add a place for rest and relaxation, meditation, play, hobbies, entertainment, outdoor rooms, sports and whatever else can give your mind and body a chance to heal from daily stress. There is always some nook you can fill with herbs, a dwarf fruit tree in a pot, a favorite vegetable – or a whole vegetable garden for fresh, healthy food. Surround yourself with beauty. In our fast-paced techno-society we are losing the magic of fine arts, replacing them with quick, cheap forms of immediate gratification and we seem to be finding ourselves more impatient, angry and frustrated than ever. Surround yourself with the shapes and colors of nature’s garden and in will fly birds to supply natural music and butterflies to brighten your heart. We are learning how very important ‘mindfulness’ is to our mental and physical health. Ironically, we have everything we need provided for us naturally. We can then add our human ingenuity to create works of art, spaces for fun and activity and centers for delicious food, rest and relaxation and places to share our ideas, laughter and love.

backyard entertaining

Design your yard to entertain.

Yes, the ‘New Climate’ may be changing the weather, but it’s larger than that: it is a loss of being grounded to the bigger picture of life. There are so many great ideas to help you create a thriving garden despite changes in weather. You don’t have to look far to enrich your life by balancing the speed and demands of the changing technology and social climate with the secrets of wisdom mankind has known for thousands of years. Look to your own garden. You may find you can thrive better with your own version of a new climate to grow in!

Will El Niño save California gardens?


Sustainable garden

How can we grow sustainable gardens that look good with rain or drought?

It seems to be an amusing quirk of human nature: we tend to believe that the way things are now is how they will always be. Even though we have brains that allow us to understand abstract thought like past and future and how nothing in the existing world stays the same, we conduct our lives conveniently forgetting to use this ability. Californians have been resisting the concept of our being in overall drought conditions for the past decade. We didn’t have time to worry about it, and there was at least one year of memorable high rainfall (yes, a moderate El Niño) several years ago. But with the last three years offering such dismal precipitation it’s becoming difficult not to notice dying trees, high water bills, drying wells and disappearing water storage levels – along with all the high profile media warnings.
California gardens are feeling the impact of the drought on landscapes, and, of course, the water boards have made everyone sit up and pay attention with escalating water bills and irrigation restrictions. Still, there are people who deny there is any climate change. There is no guarantee that they are wrong and things could turn around in the first of a series of rainy winters. With the expectation of a coming El Niño year, everyone wants to expect weather will return to normal (or within previous climate expectations) and everything will go back to the way it was. Magic. One year of rainfall and everything is all better.

But reality is that we don’t know what the future climate will be over extended years and some damage (like the permanent lowering of land where too much subterranean water has been extracted) cannot heal. Mother Nature always has some variety to offer each year so even if we are in a permanent or temporary cycle of drought, it is inevitable that some years will offer breaks in the pattern and offer rain – maybe even lots of it.

We need to look at the larger picture. For the last three years experts forecast El Niño rains in California that never materialized. The latest predictions seem pretty convincing. Only time will tell. But even if we have huge rains in a single season, much will run off of drought-hardened soil and wash into the ocean. If rain continues and starts to soak in, we could see mud, erosion, slipping hillsides and flooding. But those same experts also warn it would take several consecutive years of heavy rainfall to replace all the water that has been denied over the past decade. So if the winter of 2015- 2016 does offer heavy precipitation, it will still not be enough to return all our resources to normal storage limits – not with the demand of our large and ever-expanding population.

Whatever happens with coming rainy seasons, the best thing we can do is to be ready for…anything. Rather than discussing drought-tolerant gardening, I’d prefer calling it water-wise gardening. We need to be wise about how much water we use when there is a limited amount available and how we can store it when faced with excesses. A water-wise garden has excellent drainage to protect all structures from water damage in heavy rain, cisterns – like rain barrels, underground storage or other provisions for saving extra water, permeable paving to resist erosion, and plantings that drain well with rain yet remain firm in hot, sunny drought. We can build these landscapes. If design well they can be stunning to look at. With changeable weather they can be durable. Gardening with forethought of the bigger picture will avoid expensive disasters, create sustainably with the environment, offer outdoor spaces that not only look great but are useful and fun, and are easy to maintain. We can be victims of the weather or we can act now to turn our landscapes into gorgeous protectors of our homes, lifestyles and the environment. This is an opportunity to come up with better-than-ever gardens.

To landscape our properties wisely means we don’t have to hope for El Niño to rescue our gardens while fearing the damage from heavy rain. We don’t have to flinch at water use regulations. We can see the ‘new gardening’ as an excellent opportunity to rethink habitual gardening that has been stuck in the same place for a century. This is not a bad thing. Instead it is a chance to extend the renovations we’ve been doing on the interior of our houses to the outdoors and make our lives better and easier.

Everything changes. Even the long-term weather. Will we be in store for more drought or flooding? We can worry about it or hope that El Niño will rescue our gardens this coming year and put out of our minds what might follow in the next years. Or we can use those creative, abstract-thinking minds of ours and take this opportunity to use our outdoor property to improve our living conditions, surround our lives with beauty, and work with nature to get the best out of our land, our lives and our homes.

Color your garden with drought-tolerant succulents


drought tolerant color

Succulents can add color with leaves and foliage. They work well with other plants, grouped together or alone.

Drought-tolerant succulents are plants that retain water within specially adapted stems and leaves. It gives them a greater ability to survive changeable climates where periods of dry would be lethal to other types of plants. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. The adaptation for water storage has given many of these plants interesting and even sculptural shapes and forms.
Beavertail cactus

Beavertail cactus is a native Opuntia cactus in Southern California — perfect for an easy-care garden and lovely in bloom.

Some naturally have evolved to have decorative coloring or very showy flowers. With the uncertain climate wreaking havoc with so many gardens, succulents have not only proved to be useful to grow where so many other plants are failing, but they offer artistic shapes and color to the landscape. With more and more demand for drought-tolerance in the garden, plant breeders have produced more colorful varieties than ever before.

Because these plants usually have small root systems, (they don’t need to constantly gulp down as much water as other types of plants) they are ideal to use in small spaces like cracks in walls, between stepping stones, for green roofs in sunny climates, in vertical gardens or container gardens. They can also create impressive effects when tumbling down walls or carpeting hillsides.

Because the shapes are so varied – strings of colorful pearls, big felt leaves (Kalanchoe beharensis) mats of fine foliage (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’), or a crisscross of pencil-like branches (Euphorbia tirucalli), they are ideal to use for textural effects or even eye-catching focal points in the garden.

succulents in vertical decor

With their small size and ability to tolerate demanding conditions, succulents are perfect for creating living wall paintings.

Some succulents are more colorful than the average garden flower. The Echevaria family offers a rainbow of pink, purple and blue leaves on the “Afterglow’ variety, Aeonium comes in dark mahogany shades that contrast like black with other foliage, and many of the artichoke shaped Sempervivum plants are striped, spattered or netted with colors. You can find foliage that stays red, orange, yellow, green, bluish, purple, black or white – fuzzy, shiny, toothed or textured – all the time; no need to wait for blooms.

Giant cactus flower

Epiphyllum orchid cactus plants can display giant flowers in brilliant colors

Some offer exciting flower colors. Blooms can be found in almost any color, some large and exotic looking, some small but smothering the plants in huge numbers. Various plants known collectively as “Ice Plant” are well-known in warm climates for blanketing hillsides with brilliant hues in early spring.
Agave bud

This is the bud of what will be a tree-like bloom on a healthy agave.

The Century Plant (Agave) is impressive sending up two-story-high flower stems that branch into predominantly green flowers that look like trees and can be seen from long distances away. Brilliant red, yellow, orange and coral flowers bedeck many aloes while some cactus plants (all succulents) can produce flowers that dwarf the parent plant.

mixed succulent groundcover

A patchwork of multicolored low succulents form an artistic groundcover.

Use succulents to add color to hillsides, gardens (on their own or mixed in with other plants), or in container gardens. Their colors and interesting sculptural forms can create interest when nothing else is in flower.

colorful succulents

These are just some examples of the wide range of color you can find in succulent plants.

Most succulents can take periods of drought, sun and shade. Some can handle frost – even hard frosts. Double check the plants you buy to make sure they will thrive in your climate and where you want to grow them in your garden. There are so many different kinds of succulents; you are bound to find a number of them that are perfect for your landscape.