Gravelscaping & The Emperor’s New Clothes

The Emperor's New Clothes

Persian or Bearss lime

Persian or Bearss lime

calamondin

calamondin

“To Create a Garden is to search for a better world. In our effort to improve on nature, we are guided by a vision of paradise. Whether the result is a horticultural masterpiece or only a modest vegetable patch, it is based upon the expectation of a glorious future. This hope for the future is at the heart of all gardening. Anyone who toils away at the soil must think a few weeks ahead or envision next year’s garden, for most gardeners are convinced that improvement is on the way. Thus gardening is an exercise in optimism.”
~Marina Schinz (courtesy of averygoodlife.blogspot.com)
The above sentiment, which so beautifully captures the gardener’s mind set, is at odds with some of the garden alternatives, encouraged through DWP rebates, that have recently been embraced in our fair city, alternatives that are all about scarcity, pessimism, and death.  Artificial turf, the most widespread of these alternatives, has been around for a while.  I am not talking about Astroturf, the sort of stuff you see in miniature golf courses, but the newer synthetic turf that, from a distance, looks just like the real thing.  I would rather have a yard full of weeds than artificial turf.  With weeds, at least, you have living, vibrant vegetative growth and an occasional wildflower or two, accompanied by visiting insects and birds.
And then we come to gravelscapes.  In order to save water, or virtually eliminate its application, an alarming number of homeowners have taken to razing their entire yard — lawns, gardens, planter beds, everything.  This radical undertaking is followed by a monotonous makeover, where every square inch of ground is smothered in gravel. A few pint-sized plants are plopped in here and there, appearing as if they are lost orphans hanging on for dear life amidst the tsunami of gravel that is rapidly closing in on them.  I have seen these new gravelscapes here and there and all I can say is, to use a quaint expression, “What in tarnation were they thinking?”
I know there is a rebate from the DWP that is awarded for gravelscaping , but it seems that the accompanying loss of curb appeal, as well as potential loss in property value, would more than nullify the rebate.  Studies have shown that tasteful landscaping adds significant value to a home.  Gravelscaping, on the other hand, might have the opposite affect. (Note: you do not need to resort to artificial turf or gravelscaping to receive the DWP rebate.)
When eyeing a gravelscape, I feel like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  This Hans Christian Andersen classic tells the story of two con artists who approach a clothes obsessed emperor with a proposition.  They are going to create a suit so special that only intelligent people will be able to see it.  The so-called tailors, who have been handsomely paid, duly finish their work and dress the emperor in his new outfit, which they say is as silky and refined as a spider’s web, and so virtually invisible.  Then, while he is being paraded in front of a large, serious, and approving populace informed that only intelligent people can see the suit, a child suddenly steps forward and cries out, “Look, the emperor is naked!”
Luckily, if you have gravelscaped your yard but suddenly have gardener’s remorse, there is a simple remedy for your angst. This remedy is citrus trees, which will nicely fill up your yard without undo exertion.  Most front and back yards, provided they are sunny, are perfectly capable of supporting the growth of five to seven citrus trees.  With rare exceptions, citrus trees available in today’s nursery trade do not exceed 10 or 12 feet in height at maturity so that their maintenance is minimal.  Valley friendly cultivars include ‘Eureka’ lemon, ‘Oro Blanco’ grapefruit, ‘Satsuma’ mandarin, ‘Bearss’ lime, and semi-dwarf Valencia and navel orange trees.  Ornamental citrus selections, even more care free than the edible types, would include kumquat, limequat, and calamondin trees.
Why citrus trees?  In addition to their manageable size, they are evergreen and offer a lush contrast to the dry look of the gravel.  And citrus trees, once they mature, are surprisingly drought tolerant.  At maturity, they should not need to be soaked more than once or twice a week.  Even as young trees, you should not have to water gravel-mulched citrus with a hose more than a few times a week or you can install a drip irrigation system for further water savings.
To transform your gravelscape, just clear gravel away from those spots where you intend to plant your trees.  The holes should be two to three times the diameter of the trees’ root balls and the same depth.  The ideal planting hole has been described as resembling a satellite dish.
Tip of the Week:  If you choose to remove your lawn, you do not have to resort to chemicals or heavy equipment. All you will need are wet newspapers and compost.  Mary Beth Fielder, in the mid-Wilshire part of town, converted a lawn of Bermuda grass into a garden of California natives. She spread newspapers, six pages deep, over her Bermuda lawn and then saturated the newspapers with water. The newspapers were then covered with composted mulch, courtesy of the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation. The mulch was free even though there was some expense associated with her gardener hauling and spreading it. Once the mulch was in place, she let everything sit for one year before planting natives. She thought she would have a problem with the Bermuda grass growing back but, after several years, that did not happen.
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