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.
Meanwhile, 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”.
We’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.
We 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.
I 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.