by Lockwood de Forest, Jr.
from Garden Magazine and Home Builder, 1924
NOTE: The current drought has posed many issues of concern, but it’s hardly the first time in our city’s history. Our friend and occasional contributor, Kellam de Forest, often offers much-needed context to community discussions. Here, Kellam provided us with this 1924 article written by his father, Lockwood de Forest, Jr., the noted landscape architect. He and his wife, Elizabeth Kellam de Forest (Kellam’s mother) wrote and published The Santa Barbara Gardener magazine from 1926-1942.
This article questioning lawns offers some insight about the thinking behind Santa Barbara’s early landscaping, and remains timely 90 years later, although most of us have no estates to plant and maintain, the drought-tolerant suggestions are helpful for the gardener of even just a few potted plants—and practical information about alternatives to our increasingly brown lawns, a longtime issue in our community.
Almost everyone is familiar with the advertisement showing the world in the process of being covered with paint. The same effect results when lawns are spilled indiscriminately over our California hillsides.
Lawns have become so much a part of the garden scheme that they are used without adequate thought by most of the people who buy our estates in Southern California. Because of the low annual rainfall, which comes only during the winter months, the natural scenery is brown for most of the year.
The easterner accustomed to much green grass feels this to be an objection and plants lawn indiscriminately over his estate. The result, for most of the year, if the grounds are on a hillside and visible from a distance, is of an overturned can of green paint.
The lawn as a foundation for a naturalistic garden scheme in Southern California is based on a false note. In England, where the naturalistic style of gardening originated, the lawn is the natural expression of the country and was the logical foundation of the naturalistic gardens there. But here in the South West, it is as foreign and unnatural as the most formal development.
The climatic conditions of Southern California are not dissimilar to the Mediterranean coast of Spain, France and Italy. A study of the older gardens in Italy will show very little use of lawn. To be sure, most of the old gardens were of a formal character; it was not until the English gardenesque style swept Italy that so-called naturalistic gardens were made and lawns were used.
A study of the gardens in Italy shows that this older type of arrangement brings about a greater harmony between the house and the natural landscape. Surely the lawn is a foreign element in the countries just mentioned and is as surely a foreign element here. No foreign element can be used as a successful part of a purely naturalistic treatment. No formal or semi-formal treatment makes a suitable foreground to an entirely foreign near middle-distance. If these facts are kept in mind the proper use of the lawn in the gardens of Southern California is assured.
The practical consideration of lawns in California imposes many more limitations than the artistic. Lawns have to be artificially watered most of the year. This becomes a high upkeep expense in labor and means a high installation cost of a sprinkler system to take care of the watering. In many communities, lack of water or low pressure makes a sprinkler system out of the question. Our lawns are not permanent; they do not improve from year to year until they make a glorious sod as in England. Every so often they die our or get into such a condition that it is advisable to replace them.
These considerations make a large lawn prohibitive to most people and inadvisable to many more. A perfect lawn makes an unequalled green carpet, but a weedy, half-green lawn is only one degree better than bare ground, the one degree being the prevention of dust. Don’t plant more lawn than you can take care of.
The problem of an artistic use of the lawn resolves itself into screening it from an inharmonious natural landscape of bare brown hills. The problem is simplified somewhat if the garden is located in a valley or on fairly level ground, Tall shrubbery of any kind will hide all but the mountains, and in Southern California, the variety of shrubs obtainable is so great as to make any combination of texture and color of foliage possible.
A screen in a formal development is most easily obtained by a wall, or fence, or hedge. Large hedges can be produced quickly here by using Monterey Cypress. The effect is similar to the Italian Cypress screens used in Italy, but are started very much more quickly and with much less expense. There are numerous other satisfactory hedge materials, but none as rapid growing or as cheap as the Cypress.
The problem of the lawn area on the hillside or hilltop estate is when the most difficult to solve satisfactorily. One of the most common solutions is the lawn terrace ending in a balustrade or wall. There is no better setting for a somewhat formal residence. An objectionable middle-distance can be screened by a planting of trees below the terrace. There are many varieties of trees that grow so rapidly that the expense of screening from below is nominal and amply repays the time spent in waiting for a finished effect. From a practical standpoint this is an ideal arrangement, as tree or shrub roots are eliminated from the lawn. Trees of rapid growth are of necessity gross feeders and only with difficulty can the ground beneath them be kept attractive. By having the trees planted below the lawn terrace, the unsightly area of the roots is hidden.
The more common of the drought-resistant, rapid-growing trees that require little or no attention after planting are: The varieties of Eucalyptus, most of the Acacias, Monterey Pine, and Monterey Cypress. Another customary solution is the Mall or Alee, of lawn bordered by flowering shrubs or flowers, backed by ornamental trees or an orchard, and ending in a pergola or some architectural feature.
If the slope of the hill is not too great, this makes a very attractive scheme. The upkeep of such a development is greater than that of the lawn terrace although the first cost is often less. The informal lawn on a hillside is very difficult to handle. It can be very beautiful where it makes a background for the shadows of large oaks or other trees, but unless the feeling of nearness to the glorious purple and gold hills is removed, a semi-formal development will rove more in keeping than absolute informality.
The most logical place of the lawn on the Southern California estate is immediately around the house, as a ground cover where the surrounding planting cuts it off from near-by elements, or as a carpet in a completely enclosed area removed from the house. The small economical lawn leaves a large area to be developed in some other manner. A succession of gardens is often effective but always expensive to build and maintain. There can be rose gardens, flower gardens, herb gardens, vegetable gardens, Spanish gardens, and varieties of formal and semi-formal gardens without end. Lawns may be used effectively in many of them and no expense be spared.
But a problem arises when the owner of an estate wishes to work out an effective planting that can be maintained with a minimum of labor and expense. Drought-resistant shrubs are the most economical ground cover to maintain here. They make an interesting transition from the house and lawn to the native hillside. The material that is most natural is, of course, the native shrubs themselves. Ceanothus in variety, the California Holly or Christmas Berry, the Wild Cherries, the Wild Sumachs, and the Coffeeberry are among those most often used.
There is a wealth of material that harmonizes well with the foregoing imported from all over the world, including Pittosporums, Bottle-Brushes from Australia and New Zealand; varieties of Cotoneaster and Pyracantha from China; Rosemary, Spanish Broom, the Strawberry Tree, Mediterranean Heather, Portugal Laurel, Butcher’s Broom, from the south of Europe, and others from Africa, Asia, South America and Mexico, It would take volumes to mention them all, but it is easily seen that the greater part of the Southern California estate can be successfully, attractively and economically planted without lawns.