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.