Water Wise Advice From a Sustainable Landscaper

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After years of drought in the Southwest, sustainability is on many people’s minds, so we sought out an expert to get some pointers on water-wise landscaping. Jacky Surber is Vice President of the Greater Los Angeles District of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and founder of Urbafloria, specializing in sustainable landscape design. Her mission is to design gorgeous, innovative landscapes that give back to the planet, working with individuals who are ready to step into the role of environmental stewardship.

Water Wise Advice From a Sustainable Landscaper, Justin DiPego, Jacky Surber

We’d like to remove a lawn in favor of something sustainable but don’t know where to start for a lot of us. What’s the first step for a homeowner who wants to move in this direction?

My best advice is to educate yourself on the topic before tearing up the turf. I recommend you get inspired by visiting demonstration gardens and garden tours in your area that feature locations with drought-tolerant and native plant material. Take photos and notes about plant names if possible, so you can better recreate the designs you like at home. Look for books and one-day classes through your water district or native plant nurseries so you can learn about the unique traits of the plants and materials you will be working with.

Is putting in drought-tolerant landscaping a DIY project, or do you need to bring in a professional?

For individuals willing to get dirty and do some physical labor to remove the lawn (I recommend renting a sod cutter), plant, mulch, and water about once a week (or install a drip irrigation system), transforming your landscape can be a very rewarding DIY project. If you are the creative type, you can learn how to create a design, select materials and plants, and hire someone to install the garden for you. Conversely, if you lack the imagination to plan your new garden, you can hire a landscape designer to put plans on paper and focus on planting the garden yourself. As with any DIY project, an enthusiastic spirit and a little research can set you on the path to success.

Water Wise Advice From a Sustainable Landscaper, Justin DiPego, Jacky Surber

Water-saving goals are being talked about a lot by politicians, municipalities, and the media. Numbers like 15 percent and 25 percent reductions are being suggested. Can a homeowner achieve that?

Consider that the average home uses 50 percent of the water they pay for on their landscape versus an established native garden that uses little to no water. You can imagine how easy it is to reduce your water use by at least 25 percent. Many clients have proudly cut their water bill in half after taking out their lawn and replacing it with climate-appropriate plant material. If saving water is your main goal, I recommend installing rain barrels on all of your downspouts and using the water you capture to establish your new garden. Hand watering is very relaxing and saves you from having to spend your hard-earned money on a drip irrigation system, which will inevitably need repairs and, at some point in time, end up in a landfill. Many water districts now offer free rain barrels or rebates for them.

Water Wise Advice From a Sustainable Landscaper, Justin DiPego, Jacky Surber

How much maintenance does a drought-tolerant yard need?

A properly designed garden won’t need much maintenance at all, a few times a year at most. In the beginning, the maintenance consists of weeding (until plants fill in) and hand watering. If you install a drip irrigation system, you will have to check that you may regularly need repairs. The need for maintenance in a garden is caused by either lack of planning or a personal obsession for things to look overly neat. Common mistakes that lead to maintenance are planting too close to pathways, sidewalks, doors, and rooflines so that plants have to be constantly pruned. Always choose the right plant for the right place.

Water Wise Advice From a Sustainable Landscaper, Justin DiPego, Jacky Surber

Many municipalities and water districts are offering rebates for removing your lawn. Is this a complicated process, and will it pay for the transformation?

Applying for rebates is a simple process that anyone can do, with access to the Internet and a digital camera. If you complete the transformation from start to finish on your own, you will find that the rebate will be more than enough for all of the materials. Hiring a designer to create a plan that you will install yourself is also within a price range covered by the rebate. However, when you have to hire professionals to demo the existing lawn, and create the new landscape, expect to spend additional money beyond the rebate, especially if you have an irrigation system installed.

This is all very helpful. Thank you.

For more info on Jacky and her mission, go to her website at Urbafloria.com and follow her at Houzz.

Water Wise Advice From a Sustainable Landscaper, Justin DiPego, Jacky Surber