• 7
  • Feb
  • 2014

Check Out ELM Owner Greg Epstein Featured in the Ventura County Star this week.

Rising water rates push homeowners toward drought-tolerant landscaping

Lawns are out; natives are in.

Native plants, that is, as budget-conscious residents motivated by climbing water rates across Ventura County are ripping out their lawns and replacing them with plants that tolerate the increasingly dry conditions.

California’s drought and anticipated water-use restrictions are in the media spotlight, but recent landscape overhauls are largely a reaction to rising water rates and conservation-aimed incentives, say the landscape designers and their suppliers who are seeing more work as a result.

“There’s been a marked increase; it’s hard to keep up with it,” Ventura landscape designer Lisa Burton said. “People are getting hit in their pocketbooks with water rates going up.”

Water rates are rising for Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Ventura and Camarillo residents, although none of the increases are drought-related, according to city officials and the water districts. The cities do align somewhat with the areas that landscape designers and their suppliers say they are seeing business increase from homeowners, cities, golf clubs and homeowners associations.

Ventura this week asked residents to cut water use by 10 percent, and Gov. Jerry Brown has asked all residents to cut their use by 20 percent.

Outdoor water use accounts for up to 70 percent of total water use, a fact that Southern California water districts widely publicize. Lawns are a focus of the classes held by districts for years that tell homeowners replacing lawns will conserve water and reduce its runoff.

Many of Camrosa Water District’s roughly 27,000 mostly residential customers live on large estates with lots of lawns in eastern Camarillo and the Santa Rosa Valley, according to Business Manager Tamara Sexton.

After free classes have been on landscaping, irrigation, soils and plants for at least 10 years, attendance has picked up in the past two years, Sexton said.

“With water rates rising, customers are calling and asking: How can we reduce water bills, and how can we conserve water?” she said.

Rebates also are helping end homeowners’ love affair with lawns. Ventura County Waterworks Districts, Calleguas Municipal Water District and Camrosa offer lawn removal rebates through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

A lawn rebate helped Newbury Park resident Martha Ford when she decided a year ago to tear up her 3,100 square feet of lawn. New flowering native plants provide color all year around, birds and wildlife visit the new pond and waterfall, and a dry creek bed catches and disperses rainwater to the gardens.

“It’s the best thing we ever did,” Ford said. She’s using one-third less water, and the new plants will need even less once they are established, she said.

Burton, who has focused her 13-year-old business, Nature by Design, on “climate-appropriate” landscaping, is just happy homeowners are getting rid of lawns, whatever the reason.

“Lawns just take from the environment and give nothing back,” she said. As a contrast, native plants use little water and form a balanced ecosystem that becomes a favorite place for birds, bees and butterflies.

In cities where water rates are going up, replacing lawns or water-thirsty plants with drought-tolerant ones may not immediately reduce water costs because new plants need more water than older plants, landscape designers say. Over the next few years, though, water use will drop significantly.

Many residents have resisted native gardens because of an unappealing, and incorrect, image of drought-resistant native plants.

“They don’t want their front lawn to look like a dry hillside, or little pebbles,” said Bob Sussman, who owns Matilija Nursery in Moorpark. “Because of this prejudice or mindset, there’s been this reluctance.”

But the right plants can provide flowers and color all year, he said. Matilija Nursery’s website has a huge database of mostly native plants with photos and descriptions for viewing, such as vivid red, long-blooming California fuchsia and yellow-petaled chocolate daisies.

Business in Matilija’s retail portion, which sells mostly native plants, has picked up in the past two years, Sussman said, as it has for Ojai’s Euterpe Farms, which sells Ventura River basin native plants. Euterpe Farms has also seen business pick up from local cities.

Besides the colorful shrubs, and a pond or waterfall, what else can drought-tolerant gardens look like?

Mike Muscarella, a landscape designer in Camarillo, fills space with decomposed granite trails leading to small patios, hardscapes with materials such as brick pavers or flagstone and some synthetic turf “for more of a green look.”

Sales of the synthetic grass at Aqua-Flo Supply Inc. in Ventura, Ojai, Moorpark and other locations outside the county are “doing well,” said Manager Adam Hennigan, as are sales of nozzles that make sprinkler systems more water-efficient.

In Thousand Oaks, Greg Epstein, owner of Enhanced Landscape Management Inc., is keeping busy using those nozzles and other components to convert large sprinkler systems to more water-efficient ones for homeowners associations going through lots of water over the dry winter.

“We’re doing it all the time right now,” Epstein said. “It’s popular, and it works.”

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