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Choosing sustainable landscaping — and facing a fine

Since the publication of this story, there have been signs of progress in the City's water conservation efforts. On Aug 1, 2014, the City adopted a resolution that restricted landscape watering to no more than every three days. The resolution also prohibited residents from watering between the hours of 10a.m. and 5p.m, hosing a sidewalk or driveway, washing vehicles with a hose that does not have an operating shut-off valve, and refilling pools and spas. Two months after the resolution was passed, a drought-tolerant lawn was included as one of the ten winners of the "Alhambra Beautiful Award," which recognizes lawns for their aesthetic value. On May 12, 2015, the council was presented with a proposal for drought-tolerant landscaping around City Hall. The proposal was taken into consideration, but so far no action has been taken.

Since I moved with my family to Emery Park nearly three years ago, I have walked my dogs several times a week, exploring the charming architecture of the 1920s homes and the creative landscaping that many homeowners have created. These yards, often built by my neighbors themselves and using native or drought tolerant plants, reveal the values and character of their creators: a Buddhist mandala planted with succulents with a shrine to Quan Yin; beautiful poppies, succulents, herbs and veggies, along with rainbow spinners. I have also seen a wonderful professionally designed woodland garden, and several Southwest inspired landscapes with succulents, cactus, and gravel.

An example of a drought-tolerant garden in Alhambra | Photos by Nathan SolisMeanwhile, my yard was a tedious patch of grass with no flowers, and few shrubs or other plants to break up the monotony.  In my eyes the lawn was neither attractive nor useful.  Because the yard has a slope, it is not a good playing surface for my son. I longed for a yard that would be attractive to birds, bees and other creatures and that would provide beauty, color and movement to all who saw it.

Inspired by our neighbors and our own sense of environmental responsibility, my husband and I decided to let our lawn die so that we could replace it with landscaping more appropriate for our usually dry climate. Eight weeks later we received a note on our door. We were shocked to receive a warning from the City telling us that we had a few weeks to get our lawn green again or we’d face a fine of no more than $100 for violating the Alhambra city code § 9.70.050 which requires “All residential yards abutting streets must be maintained in such a way as to keep all plant life alive, thriving and displaying its natural colors and shall be properly trimmed and cut.” We were in violation because we chose not to use the irresponsible amount of water, fertilizer and chemicals needed to keep the lawn “thriving”.

Moreno standing next to plants in her garden | Photos by Nathan SolisWe’re not the only ones. Another family with young children on our street also received the same warning when they decided to let their lawn go brown, in preparation for a drought tolerant do-it-yourself yard makeover. Alhambra’s policy is: “All residential yards abutting a public street must be covered with an acceptable ground cover. Acceptable ground covers include, but are not limited to grass, ice plant, ivy, flowers and similar plant life. Decorative stone, brick, gravel, and decorative bark will be considered acceptable ground covers only if combined with at least 50% live vegetation.”

In our cases, though, there was a contradiction. The code also mandates that “The use of drought-resistant planting materials shall be encouraged.” ('86 Code, § 9.70.030). But the code violation warning we received from Alhambra seemed, instead, to be discouraging our attempts to replace our thirsty lawn with more sustainable coverings.

A drought tolerant lawn | Photos by Nathan SolisWe decided that we preferred to avoid paying a fine and took a gradual approach to replacing our lawn. We are watering the lawn to keep up its appearance while we are slowly creating an abundant, colorful and edible front yard. We started by planting a Fuji apple tree and have started an herb garden with lavender, rosemary, garlic, cilantro, parsley, sage, thyme, oregano and fennel. As our resources allow, we plan to remove more grass and add more life and color to our front yard with wildlife-friendly and drought-tolerant plants, such as Mexican sage and Orchid Rock Rose.   

Since then, I have thought a lot about Alhambra and its policies regarding water and landscaping — elements that help to shape our immediate environment and have an impact beyond our own home. I know that Alhambra, unlike most cities in LA County, draws upon its own aquifer for our municipal water supply. During the drought last year, I was surprised to see that Alhambra did not institute any regulations on watering as did neighboring cities, like Pasadena or Los Angeles, where residents could only water during certain hours on odd or even days. I have noted that the new Gateway Plaza Park on Fremont and Valley has roses and other ornamental plants that are not very drought tolerant. While other cities have promoted gardens suited to our Mediterranean climate, Alhambra seems to be behind the times. 

While researching this story, I talked with a neighbor who shared that when she creating her drought-tolerant front yard garden, a city inspector insisted that she could not remove grass to install paving stones and other more environmentally appropriate plants and materials. Besides being environmentally unsound, it seems that the City’s enforcement around lawns is very unfriendly to those of us who, by choice or necessity, would take on remaking our front yards as a do-it-yourself project.

Water succulent plants | Photo by Nathan SolisI would love to one day see the City of Alhambra go beyond current efforts like the water saving page on the city website to adopt policies that promote, or even reward, water-saving. The City could offer landscaping classes, rebates for water use reduction, or replacing the lawn in front of the police station. For residents, rebates or grants could provide incentives for a total lawn makeover or just reducing the size of the front lawn with some beautiful (low water) border plantings or other features. Alhambra is in a unique position with our own municipal water supply and we should be doing our best to be wise stewards of this precious resource. There are many fine examples of responsible gardens that enhance the beauty of our historic neighborhood in Emery Park and many local resources for the curious gardener, including Alhambra’s own xeriscape demonstration garden, classes at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia, and the desert, herb and ranch gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens. My personal favorite is the Arlington Garden in Pasadena (see link below).

For more information on the history of front lawns in the US, ideas for other plants to use in place of grass, or local demonstrations of waterwise gardening, see the following links:

Alexis Moreno is an Alhambra resident who tends a small herb garden in the front yard of her Emery Park home with her husband and son. She dreams of one day having the entire front lawn replaced with a garden inspired by the garden at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The Alhambra Source encourages comment on our stories. However, we do not vet comments for accuracy or endorse links to posts in the comment section. The thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the author of the comment.

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6 thoughts on “Choosing sustainable landscaping — and facing a fine”

  1. Thank you, this is helpful. I just moved here and we’re sorting out what we can do as far as permaculture growth for food, herbs and sustenance.

    Is there anyone within the City of Alhambra working on these issues, or would anyone in the city like to talk to other cities like Riverside or LA that have worked with amazing nonprofits to offer classes, workshops and opportunities to learn together?

    1. Hi Evonne, I'm into permaculture and have done the LA Master Gardeners program and have worked on some neighborhood gardens (in Monterey Park) and starting a school garden in Alhambra. There's a new chapter of Slow Food SGV starting up too, but there aren't a lot of us from the west SGV (though I know some of them out east). I started a Monterey Park “Green Garden Group” but we haven't done anything collaboratively yet, mostly sharing tips, produce, and seed/seedlings. San Gabriel has a monthly Neighborhood Garden Exchange where gardeners meet to exchange seeds, produce, and ideas too. What do you have in mind? Maybe it wold be good to talk!

  2. A. Marina Fournier

    Perhaps cities with this contradiction should allow its residents who are transforming lawns into more drought-tolerant and sustainable alternatives, or to an edible landscape, ought to allow a sign saying “landscaping in progress” or “garden in transition”. That should signal intent and prevent stupid notices about the condition of one's browning-in-preparation-for-transition lawn.

    With proper drip irrigation, weedcloth and mulch (gorilla hair worked well for me), one can have healthier roses who use much less water. My yard had rosemary and lavendar at the edges, and they got on very well from whatever reached them from the drip system and from winter rains. I never saw ANY overflow on pavement or in the street gutter, nor rust on the roses.

    We had a small bit of lawn, in the back, for a play area for our son. We added more trees there for shade. In the “way back”, I had a 49×49 sq' garden with raised beds, an older Golden Delicious apple tree from before the plot had been divided in three, and antique variety fruit trees espaliered around the fence. I would have liked to have plowed up the ground and made it more level, but plant thymes and chamomile instead of a lawn..

    In our current house, we have about as much lawn as we did in the old house, with 50 yr old trees shading most of that. Lots of birds love it. Mostly flowers, herbs, and fruit trees in the back, all on drip. In the front where there had been privet (bleah) and landscape roses, there is now several varieties of rosemary and of lavender, behind named *real* roses. The garden had too much “generica” for my taste, and the curb appeal is considerably improved.

  3. Thank you for the story. I found it helpful and think it points to some places where the city can improve. That said, other residents may provide more resistance than the city when converting to drought tolerant landscaping.

    We received a notice a few years ago during August, right after a pretty gnarly hot spell. Our lawn was mostly green with a brown tint. But it was far from dead. According to the city, someone else in the community called to report the lawn. Other neighbors also received notices at the same time.

    I’m sure that neighbor is still kicking themselves right now. Instead of bringing our lawn back to life, we ripped it out and started working on a drought tolerant landscape. At first, we put in all native plants but that didn’t work out. So now we’re trying a mixed drought-tolerant garden with herbs, natives, and some roses. Our guess is that the person who reported us does not like the landscape because the city has received a couple more reports and we’ve gotten notices about weeds (ha!) and something else minor. Another neighbor put in a Tuscon-style cactus garden. 🙂

    To their credit, city staff worked with us to accommodate our needs. They gave us some extra time to design the drought tolerant landscape, install irrigation, and wait for the searing summer heat to subside.

    I think it is worth noting that roses can be drought tolerant depending on the variety. David Austin English roses require a lot of water, but others do not once established.

    If anyone is interested, I recommend California Fuschia to attract hummingbirds. It is a large family of very drought tolerant plants. The one we have has silvery foliage but they come in shades of green. The flowers on our plant are a pretty coral.

    @Omair: I think part of the problem is that converting to drought tolerant landscaping is an unknown at this point so it seems that the policies conflict and contradict each other. One thing I can safely say is that the conversion will take time. A year is not out of the ordinary. We’re still working on ours more than two years later.

    Even killing off a lawn takes a lot of time. One of the most common ways is to put black plastic tarp over the lawn for several weeks during summer to kill off the lawn and weed seeds. Add in time to rototill and plant and many months will pass. I’m not sure but I expect that residents will get notices for killing off their lawns in that way.

    To help alleviate some of the clashes that go on, the city should start a program that better helps homeowners migrate to drought tolerant landscaping. It can provide basic information on its web site about the city’s policies, when it will take enforcement action, how to best avoid enforcement action, and information about alternative methods of converting to drought tolerant landscaping. It should also allow us to register the conversion with the city so it knows what is going on, to expect reports of dead lawns, and to collect basic stats about residents converting to drought tolerant landscaping. The web site is pretty sparse right now. One other thing is that the web site can highlight some drought tolerant landscapes in the city that provide good ideas to those thinking of taking the plunge. Dealing with residents up front can decrease enforcement costs over time because city staff do not need to go visit the reported site if they know the lawn is actively in the lawn conversion program.

    Ultimately, Alhambra should actively promote drought tolerant landscaping to improve the security of our water supply. In the past, Alhambra has received about 20% of its water supply from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). MWD water comes from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers Delta. Neither of those sources is guaranteed to continue providing MWD with similar amounts of water due to reduced supply, affects on the environment, and an estimated decrease in available yield due to climate change.

    Converting lawns to drought tolerant landscaping is one of the easiest ways for the city to decrease its dependence on MWD water. Statewide, about 60% of municipal water use is for landscaping, mostly for lawns. Alhambra likely has similar water usage.

  4. Thanks for the story. Alhambra isn’t the only city that sends contradictory messages to its residents. Hopefully, cities and, where necessary, water agencies/companies must work together to address water conservation in gardens and yards.

  5. I don’t think there is a contradiction here. There is a big difference between taking out the grass and replacing it with another type of more sustainable ground cover and just not maintaining the grass. The reason you received the notice was because of lack of maintenance of the established grass, not because you wanted to replace it. If you had just completely taken out the grass and replaced it with whatever you wanted, you would not have received the notice.