Jennifer and Lawrence Kesteloot like to begin the day with breakfast in their San Francisco backyard garden. For the last several months, they’ve had guests: iridescent green-and-red Anna’s hummingbirds, drawn by wildflowers planted to replace what had been dead brown turf grass and concrete.
The Kesteloots hadn’t considered hummingbirds when imagining their garden. Mostly they were concerned about not using much water amidst the deprivations and uncertainties of California’s drought. The ecologically rich plantings, the beds of California poppies and wild lilacs, were the idea of a local garden company, which is part of a burgeoning industry that offers landscaping that is both water-efficient and biodiverse.
“Most people still look at their backyards as an aesthetic. They don’t think so much about the science of it, the activity and the life,” said Elisa Baier, owner of Small Spot Gardens, which designed and installed Kesteloot’s garden.
But as homeowners and property managers replace their water-hungry turf, increasingly many are finding that the moment is ripe to revegetate — paying attention not only to water, but to nature. With drought may come rebirth. Now, says Jennifer, the hummingbirds are a source of daily delight and her backyard is a striking example of the future’s lush possibilities.
To the Kesteloots’ credit, they’d been content to let their turf patch go brown rather than watering it for the sake of appearance. In California – and indeed throughout the drought-stricken south-western United States – few sights are so environmentally inappropriate as bright green turf grass.
Closely cropped bright-green landscapes are a powerful cultural fixation, but attitudes continue to harden against them. Environmentalist Michael Pollan has likened lawns to littering and public urination, and California governor Jerry Brown pledged in April to replace 50 million square feet of lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping. That figure amounted to slightly less than two square miles, or .04% of all California turf, but it signified the future direction.
But if lawns are to go, what will replace them? Drought-tolerant plants save water, but they’re not necessarily nature-friendly. Many non-native plants support few insects and animals. They’re green but barren, and some landscapers servicing the growing demand for low-water yards have been criticized for using non-natives with low habitat value.
Worse yet, some simply cover lawns with crushed granite or mulch, replace them with astroturf, even paint dead brown grass green. Which might not have occasioned much lament, had the drought happened a few decades ago — but urban nature is blossoming, with scientists and nature-lovers celebrating the bounty of life possible in cities and suburbs.
“Obviously having drought-resistant plants, whether they’re native or not, is good,” said Peter Bowler, an ecologist at the University of California, Irvine and director of the school’s arboretum. “But why stop there? Why not go the extra step and focus on native plants that benefit the whole ecosystem? I think this is a positive opportunity.”
At the arboretum, Bowler worked with the Tree of Life nursery, a native-plant specialist, to plant more than twelve acres of turf with drought-tolerant native coastal species, including cacti and buckwheat and sage. There’s a state-owned wildlife sanctuary near the arboretum.
Pacific pond turtles and roadrunners now nest in the sage scrub, said Bowler. So do threatened Pacific gnatcatchers. Songbirds stop to forage on their migrations from South America to the Arctic and back again. “It’s helping sustain intercontinental biodiversity as well as local biodiversity,” said Bowler, and campus-wide native plantings now save 750,000 gallons of water per year.
Some California municipalities now offer turf-replacement rebates, but the greatest obstacle to nature-friendly cities is cultural. Urban ecology is popular, but many people are just starting to learn what’s possible in everyday environments. “Lots of my clients go on nature hikes. They love to have a guide say, ‘Look at that bird! And this plant used by Native Americans!’ But they don’t yet think that way about their backyards,” said Baier. “With a little assistance, they could.”
Baier, of Small Spot Gardens, is less rigid than Bower about non-native plants. What matters most, she said, is picking species that insects and animals use. Ultimately the patchworks of gardens and parks will become rich regional habitats in what had been nature-impoverished.
The benefits are not restricted to biodiversity: plenty of studies describe nature’s positive health effects, from psychological well-being to lower rates of autoimmune diseases. But wildlife provides human benefits, too.
For Kesteloot, who has a particular interest in insects, her backyard is now home to a menagerie that includes monarch butterflies, Jerusalem crickets, bumble bees and honeybees. Watching the bees is another source of satisfaction, she said — though the hummingbirds, known for acrobatic aerial displays, remain her favorites.
“The boys go way up in the air, then nosedive straight down and make a little chirp noise,” she said. “You know they’re showing off for the ladies. It makes us so happy.”