So You Want to Kill Your Lawn and Create a Sense of Place – an Interview with Michael Cook

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An arid summer is a fact of life for North State gardeners. It’s the dry side of our Mediterranean climate. But ever-increasing awareness around the need for water conservation and creative use and re-use of water (as well as all of our resources including time and money) is a fact of life no matter where you live or garden. Photo: The dry creek bed and its planted edges in Michael Cook’s Sense of Place and Lawnless garden in Chico.

Northern California-based landscape designer Michael Cook recently completed a sweeping overhaul of the front yard of a Chico home at the end of a cul-de-sac in an older Chico neighborhood. And for it he transformed 10,000 square feet, 7,000 square feet of which was sad-looking, resource guzzling and unused sod into a naturalistic, habitat garden of light, movement and beauty – and which requires far less water, far less maintenance time and money. On top of that, the garden also incorporates many of the on-site materials into its design and creatively re-uses rain when it does fall. All told – this approach creates not only a beautiful garden, but a garden with a strong and compelling sense of place – our place – the North State garden. Photo: Garden designer Michael Cook.

When Michael Cook was first approached about working in this Chico garden, the owners made it clear that they both work full-time and commute in and out of the area so they had little time to spend on the garden. Nature lovers both, they also made it clear that they wanted a space that was pollinator friendly, low-maintenance, but lovely. The wanted to have the garden design work for them well into their retirement years and so the garden and its pathways, entrances and exits needed to be fully accessible. They did not ask Michael to remove the 10,000 square feet of sod, but that’s the proposal he brought to them and they were thrilled. Photo: Front pocket garden with ornamental grasses and regionally inspired fence, gates and gabions in Michael Cook’s Sense of Place and Lawnless garden in Chico.

“I started with the idea of a sense of place,” Michael told me as he walked me through the project. “I wanted materials and a plant palette that very clearly spoke to where the garden is located and the agricultural and natural history interests of the owners. I also wanted it to conserve as many resources as possible.” Photo: California fuchsias and Nasella are some of Cook’s plant selections for this Chico garden.

A young married man, Michael is quick to acknowledge that lawn has its place. “Lawns are cooling, that fresh dark green color in the midst of our summers can be very refreshing aesthetically as well,” he said, “but there should be a specific reason for sod – for your kids to play, your pets to play, as a frame or a border to other plantings. You should not just SETTLE for sod because you have no other idea what to do. We are on the edge of a great paradigm shift in terms of how the mainstream of people see their gardens/yards, and projects like this help to push us as a culture closer to that edge of more thoughtful, resourceful and beautiful expectations.” Photo: Front pocket garden with ornamental grasses and regionally inspired fence, gates and gabions in Michael Cook’s Sense of Place and Lawnless garden in Chico.

For the Chico garden project, Michael and his crew, including Alvaro Garcia of Nayo’s Landscaping, started with removal of the old sod, which had been left unwatered for several months before work began. He then began a process of forming swales and topography of the otherwise flat space to create some visual interest as well as good drainage for dryland plants at the tops of the swales and water efficient micro-climates at the lowest points in the swales. It was at this land-forming stage in the garden that Michael installed low-water use drip emitters and landscape lighting. But not too much landscape, lighting: “Just enough to give a sense of safe passage at night. Light pollution with a lot of up-lights, etc. would have been inconsistent with the goals of the garden.” Photo: Gaura and ornamental grasses catch the light and add nice movement and drama in the garden.

“The suggestion of water is always a good idea in a dry garden, and of course this garden will indeed have water sometimes pouring through it during the winter months,” Michael points out. With both the dry months and the wet months in mind, he designed a series of two pools on either side of the entrance ‘bridge’ to the front door of the house. “The bridge helped us deal with the stair issue at the front entrance, and the two small ponds which recirculate water allowed for a feel of water and lush plantings year round in a small and contained way.” Flowing ‘down stream’ from the two self-contained pool gardens, is a long rock arroyo or dry creek bed, which is in fact the outlet for water from the roof which is piped from the roof gutter, under a garden pathway and over to the rock bed. “The winter roof water fills this creek bed, which then filters and allows the water to percolate slowly into the ground, rather than eroding the front garden area and being wasted run-off in the street and into any storm drains.” Photo: Entrance bridge and recirculating water gardens.

The swales and berms and dry creek bed all have a nice curvaceous feel to them and reflect and work visually in harmony with the way the lot sits at the end of its cul-de-sac. As some of the land work was being done, and the many, many tumbled rocks from ancient creek beds were exposed, Michael determined that he would incorporate the rounded rocks into gabions as fence posts throughout the garden. Harkening back to the rounded rock walls that punctuate our countryside in the North State, these gabions look both rustic and agricultural at the same time as they are have a modern, urban feel with their nicely proportioned metal framing – all built by Michael with the help of his father. The now rusted metal rail fencing that marks the front of the garden provides a similar look and feel, and was also designed and constructed by Michael. Metal artist Jeff Howell added other metal touches such as the oak leaf emblazoned metal bands across garden gates. Photo: Rusted metal fence designed and built by landscape designer Michael Cook.

When it came to choosing plants for the garden, Michael knew he wanted to incorporate a lot of natives as well as other year-round Mediterranean/drought-adapted plants. “The key is massing and repeating colors and shapes. When you have such a big space and close to a blank slate – if you are working on lawn overhaul in your garden, putting one of each thing you like will result in a disjointed and choppy feeling. Put 3 to 5 of each plant type in 3 to 5 different areas throughout your space. This will lead to a sense of flow. And spread them out – give them room to breath and show off as specimens.” Michael’s plant choices for this garden, which gets a lot of full sun each day, include: California fuchsia (Zauschnaria), achillea, bunch grasses, such as: Nasella tenuissima, Muhlenbergia, Calamagrostis x acutlflora ‘Karl Foerster’, and Fescue. Photo: Dry creek bed swale and its plantings looking over one end of a little water garden designed and built Cook.

Many gardeners I know have taken the leap and transformed unused sections of lawn into something more. One gardening friend has experimented with a few lawn alternatives, bit by bit over time so that now all of her garden looks decimated at once. She does not love just silver plants, and really wanted a lawn alternative that was a fresh green most of the time. In the front of her subdivision home she removed a large section of sod and planted out a low-growing creeping thyme ‘lawn,’ which takes very little water relative to a traditional sod lawn, needs no mowing and keeps a nice deep green color year-round. In the back of her home, she removed close to a quarter acre of lawn surrounding her swimming pool and planted the space in a spreading and low-growing oregano. The variety she chose was supposed to be a non-flowering selection, and while several of hers are flowering, they still look wonderful and though they started as 2 inch plugs spaced about 18 inches apart on center, they have filled in the space almost completely in less than 6 months. She is watering 1 to 2 times per week this first summer, but intends to cut this back to 1 or 2 times every other week as of summer 2011, when the plants will be nicely established. “The color is that rich green that I wanted, and when the plants are mowed every two to three weeks, the scent is fabulous and the clippings break down into amazing compost,” she enthused. Walking on the oregano in bare feet is also a pretty nice sensation, “although just after it’s been mowed, you can get a woody stem that’s less than ideal,” she admitted. Photo: Lovely and regionally inspired metal work details on entrance gates and gabions.

Another gardening friend, Gwen Quail, is deep into a long process of removing the sod from a sloping hill-side front lawn in a very traditional little development neighborhood. “I wanted to decrease my water use, by half and increase the visual interest of my front garden,” she told me. Trouble is, the sloping and highly compacted soil of her front garden meant that not only did the developer-installed sod do poorly because of low water absorption and high water run-off, but other plants were having a hard time surviving the situation as well. Gwen had the sod removed earlier this summer, and then had a load of rich compost delivered and spread it over the entire area. She has been watering this in lightly in the hopes of lightening the compaction below, but so far to no avail. She has also had three different reputable landscapers give her proposed designs and bids on solving the front slope and compacted soil, and got three very different solutions back – only one of which adequately solved the drainage issues in her mind. Photo: Young ornamental oregano lawn flanking a Chico pool. Lower: Creeping thyme ‘lawn’ in a Chico front garden.

So while Michael Cook’s words of wisdom stand: Don’t settle lawn; additional advice would be, especially if you are taking on the project yourself, consider the technical aspects of the area – including drainage, exposure and your personal goals and be realistic and patient – biting off only as much as you can handle in the time you have. Photo: Upper: Feather grass, gaura and Russian sage along a border in this lawnless Chico garden designed and built by Michael Cook. Lower: Cook chose to include this New Zealand Flax (Phormium spp.) as a nod to the home country of own of the garden’s owners. A dragon fly takes suns himself on one of the leaf tips.

To contact Michael Cook:’s new line of lovely little note cards are bite sized and ready to enjoy on-line or at local fine shops near you. As spring turns to summer and summer to fall, look for Edibles in the Garden blank journals, note cards featuring seeds and fruits as well as 2011 calendars and blank journals. A portion of all sales of the Edibles in the Garden note cards goes to Slow Food Shasta Cascade and the many projects it supports. All of’s cards are printed in Chico by Quadco printing using 100% recycled paper and vegetable-based ink.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar Chris Bennor says:

    Very timely. Just moved into a short-sale house with dead lawn both front & back. While I can't afford to do everything at once, I plan to do the landscaping in phases using plantings & hardscaping that will be low-maintenance & water-wise – no lawn for me!

    • Doni Greenberg Doni Greenberg says:

      Hey, Chris, congrats on your new home! I wish you and the boys times of joy and peace (and low-yard maintenence). 🙂 xod

  2. Doni Greenberg Doni Greenberg says:

    Another delightufully interesting article, Jennifer. Thank you! And thanks for the information, too, about your new line of cards, journals and other items. Readers, these will go fast, so if you're starting to think of holiday gift-giving, and you like to support local people who pass on the benefits to the community, these are perfect.

  3. Avatar Biff says:

    Awesome article! Inspiring to me because I've been working on installing a drought resistant landscape at my old fixer-upper house. I especially like the rainwater collection arroyo idea, like a dry creek bed. Now if I could just get Michael to design and build for my backyard…. 🙂