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Lawn Care During a Drought: An Interview with Chris Jacobson of GardenArt Group

By Chris Jacobson

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

I started my career as a gardener after high school, and one thing led to another. 40-some years later, I am still at it, although now I design landscapes and run a landscape architecture firm called GardenArt Group, here in the San Francisco Bay area. Even though my projects have been published in many books and magazines, and I have done some very large landscape projects over the years, I have always wanted to keep the word "gardening" in the name of my company as that was my first love, and I still like to get out once in a while and prune or plant something, just for the fun of it.

What are some common landscaping/gardening practices that are harmful to engage in during a drought?

Well, here in the west we just plain use too much water, period. I always tell people that if they want to kill their native oaks, all they have to do is water them in summer and they will soon start to croak. Of course they say they don't want to kill them, but they often go ahead and water them anyway, hoping by some miracle their oaks will be different and survive summer watering, which of course doesn't really happen. It takes years, however, to kill an oak, so by the time they actually die, no one seems to remember why.

Our drought may even be good for our native oaks for that reason. But Californians still need to get over the idea that we can imitate the green, water-soaked landscapes of the rest of America. We live in a desert, but we don't seem to notice. Or maybe we just don't care. During this drought we should practice the same water-saving strategies that we should be using all the time. If for no other reason, water is going to be increasingly expensive in the future.

What are some common landscaping/gardening practices that are helpful during a drought?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Monitor your water use: Make sure that there is no run-off from your garden going down the street and into the sewers. We need it here on land.
  2. Run your irrigation system once a month so you can see if there are any leaks or any misplaced jets of water.
  3. Cut back the number of days and the amount of time you water. Even lawns can be over watered, which makes them weak and disease-prone.
  4. Install hose-end valves on all your outdoor hoses. People waste a great deal of water when they are washing their cars, or watering their lawns (once again the culprit) and just leave the hose running while they take a break, or answer the phone. A hose-end valve is very cheap, and can save lots of wasted water.
  5. Start thinking about cutting back on the amount of lawn you have. Does anyone other than the gardener ever actually use or walk on the lawn? If it is just there for show, or because the neighbors have lawns too, give this some deep thought. There are many beautiful gardens that have no lawn at all. Take a garden tour with the Garden Conservancy, for instance. They usually try to include a drought-tolerant garden or two along with other types. The native plant societies always give garden tours in the spring when you can see natives used to great effect in California gardens.
  6. Most of all, be aware. Open your eyes to the beauty of the world, and try to be a part of the solution. In trying to shape our gardens to some preconceived ideal, we often ruin the beauty that was here before us, for instance, killing native oaks which may have been here for hundreds of years.

Please describe your ideal drought-manageable garden:

In my "best of all possible gardens" dreams, lawns are gone from most residential gardens. We need to go back to the old concept of the Boston green, where the people gathered in public parks in order to enjoy open air, well-manicured lawns. Our gardens might well benefit by raising food and useful items, such as herbs and fragrant plants. California has some of the best soil and climate in the world for growing wonderful fruits and vegetables. I always like to break up as much old concrete as I can and add some sort of food-growing element to a garden. Not only are we adding to the air quality with greenery, but most of our fruit trees use very little water. Some need no summer water at all. I do insist, however, that if my clients want to raise food, they had better understand it is not as easy as they think. Farmers just don't stand back and watch the corn grow. Growing food is an interactive event.

Do you have any interesting statistics or information about droughts in the Bay Area?

It is important to understand that drought is nothing new. Here in California, we may have been in an unusually wet period for the last hundred years or so, we are now discovering. Dry is the norm. More than 100 years ago, a seven-year drought wiped out the original Spanish ranchos here. As the cattle died from lack of food and water, there was no longer a source of income to support the ranchero lifestyle.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you and your company?

I always ask potential clients to go to my website. There they can see many different examples of the variety of our gardens. We work with our clients to create a highly personal space that is tailored to their needs, dreams, and tastes. We try to do this always with a sense of respect for nature, and for the processes of what we now call sustainability. In my opinion, sustainability is just a rather fancy word for common sense. Take what you need and leave the rest for the future. Destroy your future, and you will pay a terrible cost.

Chris Jacobson
415 722 0615

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