"X" is for Xeriscape

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

      -Aldo Leopold-

by Robert Nanninga

s an environmental writer, time and time again I find myself returning to the work of Aldo Leopold. I did so for this column because I felt it important to support my renewed call for sustainable landscaping with the words of a conservation pioneer. Published in 1949, A Sand County Almanac features an essay entitled "The Land Ethic" in which Leopold presents an irrefutable defense for ecological preservation and balance.

A "must read" for anyone concerned about their quality of life as it relates to the habitat in which they raise their families, the Land Ethic, as proposed, "reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land."

Let's face it folks, the one thing missing in San Diego County is a Land Ethic that would require us to think before the bulldozers rolled.

In my not so humble opinion, I believe the first step in repairing the health of our region's biotic communities is a renewed commitment to the planting of native species. Not only will this be good for the environment, it will also be good for he economy. Without environmentally sustainable policies governing how we grow, sooner or later we will be forced to pay the price for our environmental indifference.

As all of us know, water is an issue in Southern California. It always has been.  And because of a limited supply of this life-giving element, the flora of this region have adapted to survive on what occurs naturally. Biologically unique, the native coastal sage scrub community is perfectly suited for life on the edge. Yet, we reject it at every turn.

Here in San Diego's coastal North County, one would think xeriscaping is the work of the devil, due to the way residents avoid it like the plaque. Natives species, considered too dull and unattractive, are shunned like a leper at a dinner party. We live in a desert, yet we can't seem to plant enough water-hungry lawns and ornamentals. When it comes to land management, we as a society have no ethics.

I live in Encinitas, where none of the commercial nurseries carry native species. Oh, sure, you might find the occasional riparian species such as an coastal live oak or sycamore. But try finding the plant from which the city takes it's name and you'll be searching long after the California gnatcatcher has become another extinction statistic.

According to the Dictionary of Ecology and Environmental Science, xeriscaping is landscape design using native and drought-tolerant species of plants. Native landscaping is, by design, xeriscaping, because our region is one with little annual rainfall. By planting natives, we not only will be conserving a precious resource, we will also be saving a great deal of money: water is not cheap now, and in the near future it will be worth its weight in gold.

 Anoter benefit resulting from native landscaping is the reestablishment of wildlife habitat in our neighborhoods. Currently, developers and government agencies are squabbling over how much native land to set aside for conservation purposes. If native species were used for all landscaping, not only would we be promoting environmental sustainability, we would also be creating suburban wildlife corridors that would only add to the forward-thinking policies inherent in the Multiple Habitat Conservation Program and the Multiple Species Conservation Program.

Now is the time for Coastal residents to look at the price they pay for heavily irrigated exotic landscaping. And, if you doubt that there is an environmental price to pay, you only need to look at the bluffs of Leucadia to see that lush landscaping, in soil unable to absorb the water to maintain it, is threatening the homes of many residents.

I remember a time in the seventies when local surf spots were posted with signs that said "locals only." It is time our yards, parks, roadsides, and commercial spaces reflected that sentiment. It is time to come to terms with the fact that our region lacks water, and to plan accordingly. If we fail to do so, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Robert Nanninga is a freelance writer, producer and environmental journalist. A native of Vista living in Leucadia, he Chairs San Diego ZPG, as well as representing coastal North County on the Green County Council.