Life Beyond the Lawn: Inspiration in Ecological Landscape Design

“Once neighbors and passersby see the changes happening as you begin the process of removing your default front lawn and replacing it with something more lively and interesting,” notes landscape designer Bernadette Balics of Davis, “curiosity gets the best of them, and they ask questions. I really like the social aspect of this gardening interaction, and my clients do too. If you plant something edible, the interest level really peaks. So consider replacing your lawn with some strawberries or artichokes, and meet the neighbors.” Photo: Bernadette’s gardens are frequently marked by creative pairings of common and less-common herbaceous perennials. Here a vibrant yellow yarrow and a radiant pink buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens) balance opposite corners of a rich planting around a drip-fed cut-stone birdbath. In this composition, strongly textural foliage and the focal-point of the birdbath create interest year-round – for people and for visiting birds and pollinators.

Now as a gardener and person, I am actually an advocate for some amount of lawn as long as it has a purpose. For me, “purposeful lawn” allows my children and dogs (not sure which should come first there) a place to romp. Throughout the year, purposeful lawn allows my eyes a peaceful, clear green place to rest before taking in the rest of the garden’s color and activity. Finally, and especially in the coolness of mornings or evenings that precede and follow hot summer days, there is the particular pleasure to walking barefoot across fresh, soft lawn grass. Photo: Purposeful and well-used lawn.

That tribute paid, lawn-by-default, because you can think of nothing else to do in that little-used side, front or even backyard area, is nothing short of ridiculous – and I have more than my share of lawn-by-default (which I am working on!), so I am not pointing fingers. Lawn-by-default is one of two things: 1. a barren and wasteful hog of resources and inputs including water, fertilizer, herbicides (which, even if “organic” or “natural” are still money and input intensive), petroleum or electricity to keep it mown-and-blown if the person mowing is not using a push-mower, and labor; 2. plain ugly. Photo: Unnattractive and neglected default lawn. PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNADETTE BALICS.

One of the troubles of course is that the amount of time, energy and creativity needed to re-imagine existing default-lawn into something more purposeful, lively, lovely and soul-soothing is often more that we as mere mortals can muster. But with a little thought and inspiration, the results are well worth – very well worth – the effort. Photo: The soft, silvery foliage of Spanish lavender and the bold lines of purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) embrace and buoy a simple bench on a seating area in the sun.

The gardens designed by Bernadette Balics are testament to many such worthwhile results. Where once there were default lawns, now there are creative gardens for living. Gardens that just might inspire you on your life-beyond-lawn journey. Photo: Bernadette Balics.

Born and raised in the Davis area, Bernadette has loved and studied plants since early childhood under the influence of two plant-loving parents. Her father was Hungarian-born and her mother Dutch. “I don’t remember a time without plants. House plants, vegetables, fruits and flowers. And the tree my parents planted in the back yard when I was born. I liked climbing the trees; picking honeysuckle flowers and sucking the nectar; taking the caps off of California poppy flowers; playing with seeds, seed pods and flowers of silk trees in the back yard, and gently cleaning the leaves of houseplants with some special formula. What is a home without a plant?” asks Bernadette rhetorically. Photos: Shown here, a small, irregularly-shaped urban backyard dominated by a large fig tree and bounded by a public walking/biking trail, had un-loved lawn sheet-mulched and turned into a circular edible garden. It is now full of bounty and beauty. Wanting a little of the look and feel underfoot of lawn, Bernadette left a slice of green “lawn” at the circular garden’s edge, and while it was once an assortment of grasses, it is now the soft, green, low-water, low-mow bunch grass Festuca rubra. LOWER PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNADETTE BALICS.

Exploring the nature of life, homes and plants, Bernadette joined the Peace Corps and served in Evodoula, Cameroon, Central Africa from 1988 to 1990, after which she went to the Netherlands for graduate school and received her MS in Ecological Agriculture. Having grown up in the summer-bone-dry-scorching-hot, winter-wet climate of the Sacramento Valley, lived without running water for two years while in Cameroon, as well as lived for a time in both France and Brazil, Bernadette’s choice of the word ‘ecological’ as part of the name of the business she founded in 2002, is not just catchy. Her work is highly attuned to how much of the rest of the world lives, and to the need for water efficiency and sustainability in any landscape. “I learned a lot about my approach to landscaping during my graduate studies in ecological agriculture, the way of looking at the existing land as a system, and attempting to create a closed loop (in which inputs are produced on site and outputs all stay on site). Plus, the idea that soil is the basis for all plant life – healthy soil, healthy plants,” she explains. Photo: Here a long narrow expanse of thirsty un-used lawn was reborn as a colorful, lively, inviting and yet very peaceful prairie-style garden that took advantage of existing mature trees and borrowed expansive views from flanking agricultural fields. LOWER PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNADETTE BALICS.

Healthy soil and healthy plants might also equal happier gardeners/people. Bernadette’s multiplicity of life experiences, her love of plants and the myriad ways people interact with plants, are all evident in her garden designs. A simultaneously thoughtful, insightful and playful person, her work seems to help people love living in their gardens.

Bernadette’s work is not a one-size fits all solution to the lawn-replacement dilemma any more than there is a one-size-and-style fits all garden as a whole for us gardeners. We are not in fact all well-suited to an all-native habitat garden out our front (or back) door, or an all-edible garden in either place. Working closely with clients throughout the region, Bernadette has struck on many solutions to the dilemma of what-to-do-in-place-of-default-lawn. Photos: A sloping, un-used side yard of lawn is now a sophisticated and intensive kitchen garden and home orchard harkening back to the homeowner’s agricultural childhood. The young orchard at the bottom of the garden is irrigated with a laundry-to-landscape greywater system designed by Bernadette. LOWER PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNADETTE BALICS.


Bernadette’s gardens frequently feature rainwater collection or purposeful redirection into attractive, useful elements such as swales. Many also incorporate greywater re-use from home to landscape. (I first met Bernadette when she joined me last winter for a special one-hour call-in edition of In a North State Garden on KCHO’s I-5 LIVE! to discuss the creative re-use of water in the home landscape.) When it comes to removing existing lawn, her preferred method is to sheet-mulch the area with overlapping, recycled corrugated cardboard sheets covered by several inches of compost or other mulch. With this method, the existing turf is integrated into and feeds the soil beneath without use of heavy chemicals or the destruction of the soil ecology by scraping the area. It’s easy on the back, the wallet and the environment to kill existing lawn this way before planting the garden you ultimately want, she advocates. “However, it’s not the best method if you have a lot of bermuda grass,” she points out. In such cases, she suggests it’s “better to eradicate it (hand digging, spraying with glyphosate) before sheet mulching the remaining lawn.” Photos: A side yard leading from this urban home’s front door to the back garden is now an easy-care, beckoning pathway garden with tall native bunch grasses including Pacific reed grass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) and low strappy iris leaves leading your eye and feet. LOWER PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNADETTE BALICS.

When it comes to the garden you do want – the sky is the limit once you learn to think beyond the lawn. On two separate days of touring Bernadette’s gardens between February and July of this year, where once unloved-lawn grew, I was amazed by a sloping side yard turned into a kitchen garden with artistically situated diamond-shaped vegetable beds and a home-orchard on a greywater irrigation system. I was enchanted by a plain, flat square barren backyard turned into a sweeping, welcoming prairie, alive with the sway of grasses and pools of color pulling you out to them. I was awed by the creativity involved in the transformation of several small, non-descript, unwelcoming front yard lawns into oases such as a mixed succulent border, native shrubberies, tapestried gravel gardens and seating areas where contented gardeners take their morning coffee, their evening wine and meet their neighbors (when they want). Photos: This small, once-lawn front yard now boasts a sheltered seating area where the homeowner/gardeners sit any hour of the day. The front, central seating area off of the front door and low walls surrounding it was built out of ‘urbanite’ – reused broken chunks of concrete resulting from removing a patio from the home’s backyard. Gently curving pathways lead up to the seating area from either side and are planted with low succulents, as well as larger more architectural ones, including Aloe striata. Shelter from sun and public view for the home’s front windows is provided by two different varieties of mountain mahogany – a taller, more structural and larger-leafed Cercocarpus betuloides var. blancheae as well as a finer-leafed, shrubby Cercocarpus betuloides. Both bear curling, silvery seed heads that shimmer and catch the sunlight and the viewer’s eye. Apricot colored salvias (Salvia ‘Sierra San Antonio’) along the low wall add color and fragrance. LOWER PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNADETTE BALICS.

At each garden we visited, gardeners joined us and discussed their gardens in intimate, engaged terms and tones. They all beamed with garden pride, and enthused over the richness added to their lives as a result. Photo: A garden bench peaks out of a rich planting off a side path at the end of the prairie-style garden pictured earlier.

Shouldn’t we all feel that way about our gardens? With a little inspiration, we can.

Ecological Landscape Design can be contacted at www.ecologicallandscapedesign.com; 530-756-2078; info@ecologicallandscapedesign.com.

For more information on the whys and how-tos of replacing your lawn, you might try the following books, both available in-stock or by order from Lyon Books, an independent bookstore in downtown Chico:

“Reimagining the California Lawn – Water-Conserving Plants, Practices and Designs,” by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press, 2011.

“Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies,” by Owen E. Dell, Wiley Publishing, 2009.

Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook – become a fan today! Photo: Shown in the photos above and right, a once difficult-to-mow and inefficient-to-water sloping front lawn is now a rich tapestry of drought-tolerant plants in a textural gravel garden. BOTH HOUSE PHOTOS COURTESY OF BERNADETTE BALICS. Shown below, an interesting plant pairing of low-growing oregano and tall blooming agapanthus add an element of pleasing contrast to this front garden.

To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events in the North State region? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.

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. It is 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 jewellgarden.com. 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 jewellgarden.com. 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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3 Responses

  1. Avatar rmv says:

    VERY NICE, JENNIFER JEWELL!! THANK YOU 🙂

    WHOA, but wait a minute why all those native pines, firs, and others NATIVE to this area?

    NO BELOVED PALM TREES? The city (fathers? or whatever they are) and the (hilltop gang), might take offense to that!

    WELCOME TO NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, the next capital of PALM TREE STATE!

    Again Jennifer, thank you. Very beautiful! 🙂