We’ve lived in lower Mission Canyon in Santa Barbara for 40 years now. It’s a compound consisting of a small California bungalow and two larger homes. We bought it with friends from our university days and created an environment of pathways and open spaces that connected the residences informally. The common spaces were lawn and were perfect for children growing up and for hosting a few weddings and parties over the years.
Things have changed. The lawn that we depended on for our commons space began to grow tattered and tired after being compacted year after year. And beginning a few years ago, the water situation in our region was deteriorating fast after multiple years of severe drought. This year, as so many people have done in Santa Barbara, we simply let the lawn go and watched it turn to dust—a big and ugly sore in the center of our property. We also had several plants unsuited to the dry conditions. Recently we couldn’t take the blight anymore and decided we needed to do something.
But what to do?
Artificial turf was out. Converting several thousand square feet to stone would be very expensive, and would create a permanent hardscape that seemed over the top. We could lay gravel down, an attractive gravel. But gravel is hard on bare feet, and we all like an occasional walkabout bare-footed.
I took to visiting some of my favorite landscapes in the area that made use of succulents and hardscape in a handsome way. One of these is the Historical Society of Santa Barbara that features succulents and large expanses of decomposed granite, or DG as it’s known in the building trades. The Museum grounds are frequently used for weddings and other special occasions. What about using DG in our situation along with re-planting the growing grounds with succulents and other light-water use plants?
Well, that landscape in the sky is taking shape right before me and it has been a delight to participate in shaping it. The person doing the installation in Jose Rios who came to my attention as he trimmed our neighbors oak trees. He’s an artist when it comes to pruning, using the chain saw only as a last resort where the girth of a limb is too great to cut with a hand saw. I asked him if he would consider becoming our gardener as I gave him a vision of what we hoped to accomplish. He accepted the assignment, and I’ve been working with him now for several weeks on our transformative landscape project.
As I write, the drought-resistant plantings are in, inspired by a neighbor’s treatment down the street. And the DG will be completed within a few days. By this weekend we’ll have about 2,000 square feet of new space. Barren, yes, but I plan to put large planted pots about. I am also having a section of a redwood tree that we had to take down because of its close proximity to our house, milled and made into planks that I will make into benches. One or more of these, along with a table, will find its way into the DG space that I hope will give it a friendly feel and texture.
The shift to this new landscape borrowing a dominant term of our time has been “disruptive.” A sharp move away from lawns and plantings that speak of abundant water can rattle the mind and shake your sensibilities. I’m afraid that the term disruptive that has mostly applied to new applications of technology and business practices will become more and more applicable to our living environments as the impacts of climate change unfold. We humans, unlike much of our flora and fauna, are the most adaptable of species, so at least adaptation is feasible for us. But still, adaptation is hard when you’re settled in the way the world has worked for you for decades. I’m hoping that I’ll like my new creation, but at the moment it’s too new to tell.