Loving the Chaparral

Chaparral at Eaton Canyon

Chaparral at Eaton Canyon

Lawn forking is one of those pranks that children always talk about but rarely actually attempt.  The idea is to stick a bunch of forks into someone’s lawn and then break them off, leaving the tines stuck in the ground.  Like all good pranks, the principle is that it’s relatively quick to carry out but very difficult and time-consuming to undo.  That’s what I’m reminded of as I laboriously, bit by bit, remove our lawn.

As Europeans colonized America and other parts of the world, they brought with them many unexamined conventions.  These included ideas about what gardens and woodlands ought to look like.  Thus, for instance, the deliberate release of first house sparrows and then European starlings in New York City in the 19th century, both for frivolous reasons.  Both are now invasive pests that threaten to displace many native species of birds.  (My bird book could find nothing kinder to say about starlings than that they provide a steady food source for hawks.)

An alpine meadow at Logan Pass, Montana

An alpine meadow at Logan Pass, Montana

So too with lawns.  Year-round, everyone must have a lawn of plain green trimmed grass.  Even in places where lawn grass grows, this is wildly unnatural.  In real meadows, grass grows long; it goes to seed at certain times and dies back at other times and it’s mixed with wildflowers and other plants.  Hence mowing, weeding, and watering, a battle to keep the grass from returning to its natural state.

Here in southern California, matters are even worse.  It takes constant effort to make lawn grass grow at all.  Most people install expensive automatic sprinkler systems to ensure that their lawns get the constant supply of water required.  These sprinkler systems often turn into geysers when lawn mowers accidentally run over sprinkler heads.  Growing grass from seed is especially difficult, so people pay hundreds of dollars for sod held together with plastic netting.  The one part of the process that no one can be bothered to do is preparing the soil.  Instead, they roll the sod out over roots, rocks, trash, and hard-packed clay, compensating later with more water and fertilizer.  And all because a lawn just doesn’t look right unless it has grass.

I’m reminded of lawn forking as I rip out all that netting, laid down in a few hours and now requiring weeks to remove.  I’ve found other bits of netting from the previous lawn, too.  There are two partial sprinkler systems, one laid right on top of the previous one without removing it.  Sprinkler pipes run under the concrete path where they can’t be removed without breaking up the concrete.  I know that, with all the care I’m putting into it, I still won’t be able to undo all the damage that was done.  I wonder if anyone involved with the process at any stage thought about this.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden

Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden

Some people put in the effort to keep their lawns looking socially acceptable; others can’t be bothered and let them turn into half-dead, half-overgrown weed piles.  But, despite the enticements of never having to water, mow, or fertilize, hardly anyone is willing to plant natives instead.  Why?  The initial effort needed is no doubt part of it (especially for anyone who’s been watching me), but, in my experience, the biggest factor is simply that everyone thinks that a lawn should look one way, and they think that our native plants (aside from oak trees and the beloved California poppy) are unsightly.  I remember my college’s brief attempt at xeriscaping* ending in failure; the popular opinion was that it was ugly.

But is it really?

Blue-eyed grass, Point Reyes National Seashore

Blue-eyed grass, Point Reyes National Seashore

The chaparral is tough and hardy and, like any wilderness, can look wild and untidy when it grows uncultivated.  But as I wander around the Theodore Payne nursery, choosing plants to replace my lawn, I don’t find myself chagrined by a small selection of dull plants. Instead, I’m almost overwhelmed with options.  There are grasses and shrubs and herbs, delicious berries, flowers of every color and season.  Many of the plants are evergreen.  The lawn replacements are far prettier than the spiky grass that most people grow down here.

When they’re put in pots with price tags and little notes describing their size and flowers and water requirements, the native plants of the California chaparral look like wonderful choices for any garden.  Maybe all it takes to make something valuable is to assign it a value.  Or maybe they have always been beautiful plants and it’s only our bias in favor of grass lawns and plants from wet continental climates that make us overlook them.

*Xeriscaping, which focuses on reduction of water usage, differs from natural landscaping because it allows the use of nonnative plants such as cacti.

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