Leah was such a sweet dog. I never heard a peep from her, and she was always friendly in a calm way.
We met when I bought a duplex in Boise’s East End, and she was living in one of the units with her owner. I moved into the unit next door after the sale closed, and gradually she warmed up to me.
But Leah was brutal on the lawn. Dead spots pockmarked the turf from where Leah, um, relieved herself. The grass was having a hard enough time as it was — being on a slope in the dry Foothills, and the strip of grass on the north side had zero shade.
In this climate, as many of you know, maintaining a decent looking lawn can be a struggle — even without a dog. If you pay for your water like most of us do, it can also be an expensive endeavor. I didn’t like wasting money on water and fertilizer. I also didn’t like spending my weekends mowing, and I didn’t like how hard it was to keep the lawn looking halfway decent.
So I decided to kill some of the lawn. One July, I mowed that strip on the north side down as short as I could and watered it thoroughly to increase the humidity. Then, I covered the whole thing with a black plastic tarp, securing the edges with landscape staples every few feet.
The idea is to cook the grass under the tarp. I turned off the sprinklers in that area and left the black plastic on the strip for the rest of the summer and through the winter.
As spring began to thaw the ground, I peeled back the black plastic. The technique had worked. The grass was brown and thoroughly dead.
Spade by spade, I turned the turf over so the dead grass would decompose into the soil. I manually broke up the clumps of dead turf with the shovel. This was tough work, but it gave me a good canvas on which to start planting.
I really struggled with what to put in the space. I’ve never been good at making household decisions. What color should I paint this room? Um, I don’t really know, there are so many dang swatches. What kind of carpet would be best? Well, uh, what’s on sale?
I took a class on native and xeric plants, which provided lots of ideas. But that was part of the problem: The possibilities seemed endless. What would give me a nice-looking yard with minimal maintenance? The answers were plentiful, and therefore elusive.
With the encouragement of my then-girlfriend and now-wife, Jessica, I dedicated the top of the strip to a vegetable/herb garden. She took charge of this area. The zucchini went crazy, and so did the tomatoes and thyme.
I dedicated the bottom portion to native/drought-tolerant plants. I purchased some of the plants at the Idaho Native Plant Society’s annual sale. The group’s sale is great. The plants at the sale are organized by the watering and environmental needs of each so you can match the plants to your site’s needs, and the prices are reasonable. (I’m so dedicated to their sale that I even went this past year on my wedding day before the ceremony!)
I focused on plants that need very little water and like lots of sun. These are the plants that have done especially well on my north-facing, sloped strip of former grass:
▪ Snow buckwheat
▪ Hot rock penstemon
▪ Colorado Blue Columbine
▪ Chamaebatiaria millefolium fernbush
▪ Fringed sage
▪ Dwarf rubber rabbitbrush
The fringed sage and the lavender in particular have really thrived. They’ve put up volunteers all over the place, including an adjacent rock garden and even in a seam on my driveway.
I water these plants occasionally, but I can go for a week or more in the summer without watering, and they’ll be just fine. After a few seasons in the ground, they are already taking up a fair amount of space and look pretty nice, despite not being precisely organized.
Lawn will always have a place in our landscapes. When I was a kid, ours was the outfield grass for wiffle-ball games, and the grass got beaten up good during neighborhood football games. But if yours doesn’t get that kind of use, there are a lot of options that are less expensive, less time-consuming, less wasteful and more aesthetically pleasing than standard turf.
Joe Jaszewski has been a visual journalist with the Idaho Statesman since 2003, and lives in Boise’s East End with his wife and son.
Idaho Native Plant Society sale and more
Saturday, April 29: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Idaho Native Plant Society sale, MK Nature Center, 600 S. Walnut, Boise. For information, visit idahonativeplants.org/pahove. The website also has many resources for gardeners. (Members-only sale is Friday, April 28. See website for details.) Watch for a list of available plants to be posted on the website about the second or third week of April.
Thursday, May 11: Idaho Botanical Garden Plant Sale for members from 4 to 7 p.m. Any leftover plants will be for sale on Friday, May 12, at National Public Gardens Day (see below). Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise. Information: idahobotanicalgarden.org.
Friday, May 12: National Public Gardens Day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise. Information: idahobotanicalgarden.org. Celebrate National Public Gardens Day with free admission to the Idaho Botanical Garden.
▪ Follow the Statesman gardening calendar on Saturdays for updates about local plant sales that often benefit nonprofit groups.
▪ The Treasure Valley is also home to several amazing gardening stores and nurseries that specialize in plants that grow great in our area. Their experts also can help you find what’s right for your yard.
Yard and garden classes
Take a free class like the one that Joe, the writer of this article, attended to get ideas. Many gardening stores, landscape shops, libraries and more offer classes and advice. Here are a few options:
April 11: Get inspiration and tips for landscaping with native plants from Ann DeBolt, member of the Idaho Native Plant Society and botanist at the Idaho Botanical Garden. 7 p.m. Boise Library Hillcrest Branch at 5246 W. Overland Road. Call 208-972-8340 for more information.
April 11: Bert Bowler, “extreme gardener and native plant buff,” will talk about the Table Rock fire that decimated the popular area in East Boise last year. Bowler lives near the fire site and will talk about how growing native plants (and combating cheatgrass) helped save his house. The talk, sponsored by the Idaho Native Plant Society, is at 7 p.m. at the MK Nature Center, 600 S. Walnut, Boise. Email email@example.com for more information.
April 12: Landscape Design, 6 p.m. at FarWest Garden Center at 5728 W. State St., Boise. Introduction to design of gardens and outdoor living spaces. Learn the basic principles of landscape design — form, function, flow, aesthetics. RSVP to save your spot as space is limited: 208-853-4000.
April 22: Earth Day Essentials: “Get Xerius: Water and Firewise Gardens,” “Hey There Pollinator: How to Attract Native Pollinators”; “Get the Mix Right: Soil Amendments; Planting Perfection: Best Practices.” 11 a.m. at Madeline George Garden Design Nursery, 10550 W. Hill Road Parkway, Boise. RSVP for classes at 208-995-2815 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boise City series
The free classes below are part of a special series presented by the Boise Community Forestry/Boise Parks and Recreation:
March 22: Tree Selection and Planting with Ryan Rodgers, city arborist and nursery specialist with the Laura Moore Cunningham City Arboretum.
March 29: Tree Problems with Debbie Cook, city arborist.
April 5: Lawn and Irrigation with Dave Beck, city lawn maintenance specialist, and Danny Roop, city irrigation mechanic.
April 12: Roses with Andrea Wurtz, Master Gardener, and landscaping with landscape technician and Toby Norton, who is the city landscape architect.
Other classes in the area
The Statesman is keeping track of free classes for gardeners presented by organizations and gardening shops in the Treasure Valley. Find the detailed list online at IdahoStatesman.com/gardening.
We also run a list of gardening events (free and otherwise) each Saturday in our weekly gardening calendar. Know of a free class or gardening event we should add to the list? Email Michelle Jenkins at email@example.com.