Southern California is changing. The drought conditions that have been sneaking up on use for the last 5 years have reached an all time high, which has everyone thinking about their water bill and approach to landscape. For a number of years landscape architects have been pushing for more sustainable design and water conservation (whether wanted our not – AB 1881 requires all planting and irrigation plans to be meet minimal levels of water consumption), but have had to battle the historic SoCal notion of “give it water and it will grow”.

Now that change is upon us we must take care to avoid over-reacting to the conditions and giving in to the preconceived idea of what a water conserving landscape is in Southern California.

Some groups, such as Turf Terminators, are taking advantage of the fear and miseducation of property owners to create unsustainable landscapes throughout Los Angeles and Southern California. They are stripping out turf, replacing with beds of gravel and installing a limited “one plant here, one plant there” design that resembles fruit salad more than a composition of materials carefully chosen to enhance the quality and value of the property and its surrounding environment.

Sustainability in landscape design goes beyond aesthetics, although our communities are being negatively impacted on that level as well. Here are a few things to consider prior to making a dramatic change or contacting businesses like Turf Terminators.

1. Vast areas of gravel increase heat gain in urban neighborhoods. This means hotter temperatures and increased sun glare on a home or building, thus increasing the temperature inside. There are a number of traditional turf alternatives, such as Buffalo Grass (UC Verde) or Dymondia, to maintain a soft, green look and cooler temperatures than gravel.

2. Removing all plant materials has the potential to impact storm water run off and erosion. This impacts an already stressed infrastructure of our neighborhoods. Additionally, wide open areas of gravel without ground cover plants requires more weeding and increases the potential for more chemicals to maintain a clean, finished appearance.

3. Small plant materials installed at such widely spaced increments result in an inefficient irrigation design without bark mulch cover to assist in healthy root growth, these plants will suffer. Combinations of plant materials should be selected to work together and build a plant community that makes an attractive environment from the home/office, as well as the fauna of Los Angeles. Birds, butterflies and small animals require a collection of plants for a variety of pollination and homestead opportunities.

4. Existing, well-established plant materials typically don’t require a significant amount of water and should be incorporated into the new design. Removal of existing materials disturbs the soil conditions and water percolation on site. Pulling all existing materials from a landscape is a wasteful, unsustainable approach.

5. The current landscape installation rebate offered by LADWP for the home owner is being used by Turf Terminators to install a quick, cheap landscape design. Installing quality materials doesn’t cost any more than those that are selected from the limited, and insufficient, catalog on the Turf Terminators website. Existing irrigation systems can be easily converted to a drip system to provide adequate water for native and indigenous plant materials. Proper planning and consideration will pay dividends over the long haul.

Removing turf is only one solution to water conservation. There are many conditions to consider when making a significant change to a landscape. Consulting with an experienced landscape architect or design-build professional should be the first step to better serve your property and Southern California. They can assist in planning for a future beyond the current drought conditions, reduce our reliance on water in the landscape, and provide a foundation for a fully sustainable region.