Lawn Substitute: California Meadow Sedge

California meadow sedge (Carex pansa)

California meadow sedge (Carex pansa)

With the forecast of yet another dry winter, the idea of creating landscapes without lawns is news once again. Lawns guzzle water without conscience as compared to many water-thrifty perennials and ground covers that will fill the space occupied by a lawn just fine.
Thaya duBois, who specializes in landscapes without lawns, has created an alternative landscape that is fresh and green yet without a burdensome water requirement.
The secret to duBois’ success is a plant with the unglamorous name of sedge, botanically known as Carex, a plant that looks very much like grass but is not. In fact, clumps of California meadow sedge (Carex pansa) will remind you a lot of Mondo grass, that sea-green mainstay of the shade garden, which is also a grass imitator, belonging in truth to the lily family. In any event, a front yard full of California meadow sedge will provide an undulating green expanse without the attendant anxieties of nonstop irrigation and fertilization that accompany the upkeep of a typical lawn.
California meadow sedge is not as drought-tolerant as cactus. It will require regular watering, but not nearly what a lawn demands. It grows both in sunny to partial shade exposures and prefers sandy soil but can exist where soil drainage is imperfect.
In a front yard in west Toluca Lake, what was once a lawn has been transformed by duBois into a greensward of California meadow grass. In the middle of the yard, a mature orange tree is underplanted with Sedum spurium “Bronze Carpet,” a delicate succulent plant with rust-colored leaves and pink flowers. Assorted drought-tolerant plants are placed close to the front curb, including Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), catmint (Nepeta x faassenii), several varieties of creeping thyme and Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans).
In a Studio City front yard, duBois has planted several different sedges under birch trees to create a woodland meadow effect. It is a harmonious display of Berkeley sedge (Carex tumulicola), catlin sedge (Carex texensis) and European meadow sedge (Carex remota), with the somewhat taller Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus) added for good measure. Sweet flag has been named in tribute to its foliage, which waves bannerlike in the breeze and emits a pleasant fragrance when rubbed.
In both yards, duBois has created a curving path of either stone or brick between the front curb and the front door. Such a path is fundamental in creating the feel of a garden. A garden is not just to be looked at, but to be walked through and appreciated with all the senses. A garden that has no path going through it is like a life in which no movement, no experience, no journey ever occurs.
DuBois has planted bulbs, which will come up in the late winter and spring, in between her clumps of sedges. This is an excellent way of adding color to the landscape without having to obsess with a constant resupply of annuals. She has used Narcissus bulbs in great numbers, which makes sense since they will come back in ever-burgeoning drifts each spring, adding to the woodland meadow effect as they naturalize among the sedges.
Dubois has utilized carpet and miniature roses in borders along her curving path. Miniature and ground-cover roses gain in popularity from year to year as they are used increasingly as everyday landscaping plants. Traditionally, the thought of roses has evoked visions of constant pruning and spraying. But miniature and ground cover roses offer a full spectrum of color as well as integration into the garden as unfussy ornamental plants.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Several readers inquired as to how they might locate the butterfly rose, Rosa “Mutabilis,” mentioned in last week’s column. Alternatively labeled as Rosa chinensis “Mutabilis,” this plant is available through San Marcos Growers, a production nursery that supplies neighborhood nurseries throughout Southern California. Any established neighborhood nursery in the Valley should be able to special order Rosa “Mutabilis” as well as the various sedges mentioned above.

EcoCenter at HHP / Foter.com / CC BY

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