Driving through my west Portland neighborhood, I see many lawns gleaming like straw in the August sun. And I wonder – are the owners environmentally conscious, frugal or both?
In a city where the top 15 residential “hydro hogs” are named and shamed annually, it stands to reason that there are lots of “green” homeowners who choose to forego green lawns in the dry summer months.
At the same time, Portland is known for high utility bills. With the annual rate adjustment that took effect July 1st, the average household water bill increased by 7 percent, reaching a monthly total of just under $32.
Whatever the reasons for parched lawns, two things are clear. First, there are very good reasons to practice low-water landscaping or “xeriscaping” (pronounced zeer-i-skey-ping). And second, that can be done without sacrificing beauty.
Against the backdrop of a drought emergency in 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties and a rash of wildfires, stewarding water resources has never seemed more important. Though the tri-county area and its water supply are not affected by drought, population growth in our corner of the state will strain water resources in the future.
While conserving water and reducing utility bills, xeriscaping offers other benefits: reduced fertilizer and pesticide use and a healthier watershed, fewer weeds, lower energy use and less maintenance.
Since grass requires more water, maintenance and chemicals than most other plants, re-seeding, reducing or eliminating lawns is a key step toward xeriscaping. A generic name for alternative seed mixtures that are environmentally friendly, ecoturf is sometimes faulted for looking like a meadow. Sunmark offers turf varieties that compare favorably to the look and feel of traditional lawns – without all the water and fertilizer.
Reducing or eliminating lawns is the other way to go. Ground covers and mulches can look neat and appealing with little maintenance. Pathways and patios made of wood, rock, gravel or permeable concrete add interest and function to your yard while allowing water to drain to the soil below. For example, the photo top right shows a Mediterranean gravel garden designed by Portland’s Creative Landscapes, Inc.
Plant species that require little water are also a key element of xeriscaping, such as these Oregon natives: Madrones, Blue Blossoms, Western Columbines and Western Hemlocks. Click here for a manual on the subject.
You can keep down the costs of adopting low-water landscaping by doing much of the work yourself. For a list of professionals who can help with design and planning, click here. To enroll in OSU’s online, self-paced “waterwise” gardening class, click here. You can also visit low-water demonstration gardens at Metro in Portland, Tualatin Valley Water District in Beaverton, Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, or The Oregon Garden in Silverton.