Real Estate

Pro Tips: It's autumn

Time to fall back in love with your garden

It's time to get back in your garden. I give you full permission.

Ever since "gardening" has come to be synonymous with "letting everything in your yard die so your neighbors won't report you," I've been anxiously awaiting this time of year. Thanks to water restrictions and tsk-tsking passersby, we have all chosen to abstain from adding new, pretty little things to our yards. We've let our lawns turn a shade I like to call "tawny neglect," and we've stood proudly by as our parched shrubs and trees slowly drooped more and more, like Eeyore on a bad day. To this I say, "Oh bother!"

One gorgeously sunny Saturday, I jaunted over to my neighborhood garden nursery for some retail therapy. I found myself nearly alone there. Where were the weekend warriors who normally block the aisles with their carts as they pile in their pansies and petunias? Where was that happy-buzzy, everything's-right-with-the-world feeling I usually get when I surround myself with plants? Perplexingly, I found myself feeling guilty for being there. I came to buy a few new (drought-tolerant for heaven's sake!) beauties, but I just couldn't do it. With a sinking heart, I remembered that planting new plants in my garden would mean that I would have to water them during the drought. WWTNT? (What Would The Neighbors Think?) I left without purchasing anything and darted furtively back to my car, hoping no one would see me.

But now? Hallelujah. It's October. It's autumn. The weather is cooling. Some rain is promised to come our way. The days are getting shorter, the evapotranspiration rates are slowing, and most plants are entering a latency period wherein they require less moisture.

Now we can leave the guilt behind and get back in our gardens. This time, however, we have to be smart about it. We have to say our tearful goodbyes to the plants that just can't handle being cut off from the good stuff and put in some plants that can take drought like a boss.

It's time to come to terms with the fact that the half-dead lawn that we dutifully stopped watering months ago probably shouldn't be resurrected, no matter how much rain El Nino promises to dump on it. Drought or no drought, a lawn isn't really a good choice. We all know that. Coming to terms with that fact is another thing entirely.

The best thing to do with what remains of your lawn is this: SMOTHER IT TO DEATH. When I say smother, I mean sheet mulch. It's totally the hip thing to do these days. If you don't know how to sheet mulch, there are a bazillion sources online to learn from. The premise is simple: spread some newspaper or cardboard over your lawn, shovel some compost and then mulch on top of that, and voila! The beauty of sheet mulching is that you can plant new plants into the mulch and compost immediately afterward. And hey, if you want to keep the look of lawn, you could plant a green ground cover that politely sips instead of gulps water. Check out Kurapia (aka Lippia nodiflora), Dymondia margaretae or Trifolium repens (Dutch White Clover). All three of these ground covers are drought tolerant and can even take light foot traffic. Best of all, all three are way more chic than a lawn.

But don't stop there. Now is also the time to dig out the perennials and shrubs that haven't fared well in the drought. Hurray! This gives you an excuse to go plant shopping! Most nurseries have finally figured out that, drought or no drought, the Bay Area is no place for thirsty plants. It's getting easier and easier to find plants appropriate for our climate, whether they be California natives or plants from Mediterranean climates like ours. Check the labels for water requirements and purchase accordingly.

If you need a little motivation to transform your yard from drought-depressed into drought-lovin', here are a few pictures to help inspire you. All of these gardens are colorful, easy-breezy, pollinator-friendly and low water. No matter what style of house you have or what pleases you aesthetically, it's possible to create a garden using plants and materials that conserve water. Lucky for us, now is the time to do it. Thank you, autumn!

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This article appeared in print in the Fall Home + Garden Design 2015 publication.

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Dawn Engel is the lead designer and project manager for Samscaping, Inc., a landscape design/build firm in Mountain View. She is past president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers Peninsula Chapter and designer of many award-winning gardens throughout the Bay Area.

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