Taking out turf and trading up: landscaping the La Rue Road median

Group photo of some UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden team members just after completing the first planting along the La Rue Road median.

Group photo of some UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden team members just after completing the first portion of sustainable landscaping along the La Rue Road median.

(Note: This content also appeared in the Davis Enterprise on March 6, 2013.)

The change was gradual—the grass once blanketing La Rue Road median between Russell Boulevard and Garrod Drive faded then disappeared completely in the winter of 2011 leaving a large strip of bare earth exposed along the high-profile UC Davis campus beltway. The change left many wondering, “What is going on there?”

Like many community residents forced to question the feasibility of managing their landscapes, UC Davis budget cuts required campus leadership to get creative and transform high-water, high-maintenance lawns to attractive, low-water, easy-care landscapes to reduce operations and maintenance costs.

“For such a bland-looking landscape, the hours and resources spent caring for the median just didn’t make sense,” Bob Segar, assistant vice chancellor of campus planning and community resources. “Regular maintenance like mowing required our teams to re-route traffic a couple times a month, not to mention the amount of water required to keep the grass green and fuel to run the equipment.”

UC Davis will be taking on more of these types of landscape conversions as the result of a reorganization merging the campus’s professional outdoor design, care and operations staff from the Arboretum, Grounds and Landscape Services, Campus Planning & Landscape Architecture, Civil and Industrial Services and the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and Campus Naturalized Land into the UC Davis Arboretum & Public Garden.

Photo of planting UC Davis beltway La Rue Road median on March 5, 2013.

UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden team planting La Rue Road median on March 5, 2013.

“Taking out turf and designing a landscape to take its place is not as easy as it may sound,” Cary Avery, associate director of grounds and landscape Services. “Just getting rid of the Bermuda grass took about a year—it’s tricky. Bermuda’s extensive root system and winter dormant period meant we had to give the grass at least two growing seasons followed quickly by herbicide application and removal. We didn’t want to risk it coming back to roost in our new landscape.”

Yesterday, after almost a year and a half of planning and preparation, we can now begin to appreciate the final transformation. Teams from the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden planted the first third (from Hutchison Drive to Garrod Drive), of the almost 50,000 square foot area with plants evaluated by staff horticulturists and landscape architects to be regionally-appropriate for this space as well as suitable for our unique valley conditions. Landscaping for the rest of the median is scheduled for completion in early fall.

Andrew Fulks, director of the putah creek riparian reserve and campus naturalized lands, emphasized the water savings. “The shift from overhead pop-up spray irrigation to a sub-surface drip irrigation system will reduce our water use substantially. Once we have run the system for a few months in the summer we’ll know the exact amount of savings, which we can use to project future campus-wide efforts at water reduction.”

Ellen Zagory, director of horticulture for the arboretum selected the plant palette, “These plants demand little of our time yet offer a big return in form, color, flower and durability. They’ll stand up and sparkle even with little irrigation in hot summer sun.”

“Our goal is that this project will serve as a best practice case study of lawn removal for institutional landscapes everywhere,” Kathleen Socolofsky, director and assistant vice chancellor for the arboretum and public garden. “We are documenting our process and will report back on our resource savings from less labor, fuel, emissions and water use, as the landscape matures.”

For home gardeners interested in transforming their lawns into more sustainable landscapes, UC Davis Arboretum plant sales are a great resource. The sales feature a broad variety of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants and are staffed by expert volunteers and staff horticulturists who can help advise customers on landscaping projects. The Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum Member Appreciation Sale will be this Saturday, March 9 from 9 am-1pm at the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery on Garrod Drive across from the veterinary medicine teaching hospital.

“This sale is for Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum members, but anyone can join at the door. Members receive 10% off their plant sale purchases at all sales, an additional $10 off their purchase at the March 9 sale, free or discounted entry to hundreds of public gardens nationwide as well as discounts at local nurseries. The benefits far outweigh the cost,” Suzanne Ullensvang, resource development manager for the arboretum. “Members of the Davis Botanical Society are also welcome and receive the same discounts.”

Links for more information:

Lawn removal and design tips from the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden Team

Photo of Cary Avery, Associate Director, UC Davis Grounds and Landscape ServicesCARY AVERY, Associate Director, UC Davis Grounds and Landscape Services: "If you are trying to get rid of Bermuda grass, don't rush the process. Spray it with an herbicide, wait for it to die, remove it, then, if you can, give it another growing season to pop-up and repeat the steps above. You'll be glad you did."


Photo of UC Davis Arboretum Director of Horticulture Ellen Zagory.ELLEN ZAGORY, Director of Horticulture, UC Davis Arboretum: “Davis residents have a leg-up in the lawn-removal process living so close to the Arboretum Teaching Nursery. The plants we’ve selected for this conversion are available at our plant sales. Attractive, low-water, easy-care, region-appropriate plants, that’s our specialty…no need to reinvent the wheel! We’ve removed a lot of the guesswork typically associated with this kind of project.”


Photo of Andrew Fulks, Director of UC Davis Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and Campus Naturalized LandANDREW FULKS, Director, UC Davis Putah Creek Riparian Reserve and Campus Naturalized Landscapes: “Leaving a bare patch of dirt in your yard for a season or two while your grass dies can be difficult. Consider spreading wildflower seed over the area in the meantime, like we did on La Rue Road. The growth will provide a season of color and beauty as well as deliver necessary nutrition to your soil.”


Photo of Matt Forrrest, Irrigation Supervisor, UC Davis Grounds and Landscape ServicesMATT FORREST, Irrigation Supervisor, UC Davis Grounds and Landscape Services: “We switched our irrigation delivery in the median from spray to sub-surface drip line. Now, instead of measuring water use by gallons per minute, we’ll measure water use in gallons per hour! We’ll be providing moisture in the soil where the plants need it most instead of wasting water by spraying it into the air.”


Photo of Christina De Martini Reyes, Landscape Architect, UC Davis Campus Planning and Landscape ArchitectureCHRISTINA DE MARTINI REYES, Landscape Architect, UC Davis Campus Planning and Landscape Architecture: “Designing the median of a busy street requires a whole different way of looking at landscapes. The goal is to deliver engagement without distraction and consistency without monotony. For me the key to achieving this goal was incorporating one of the central valley’s most versatile native trees, the valley oak. It unified the median while allowing the landscape beneath to shift in pattern and composition.”

La Rue Road Median prepped for fall planting

The La Rue Road median project continued to move quietly forward over the summer and into fall. The wildflowers that found their home in the median through the spring were cut back and tilled into the soil as summer approached. Next, our teams intermittently watered the median to coax any remaining Bermuda grasses into a second round of growth which would subsequently be treated with an herbicide. (Landscape management best practices suggest this extended approach as an effective way to rid large areas of Bermuda grass.) Now that it’s gone we can move on!

Look for the irrigation installation to begin in a few weeks followed soon thereafter with a large-scale landscape installation. Ellen Zagory, Arboretum Director of Horticulture, is designing the plant palette. The plants, many of which will be Arboretum All-Stars, have been chosen for their “cast iron” qualities—they’ll be attractive yet able to withstand low levels of water and maintenance.

Read more about the history of project here.

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