Water conservation, for governments and individuals, is slowly becoming a part of the public’s lexicon. Through official mandates and sometimes of their own volition, homeowners throughout Southern California are beginning to rethink how best to implement sustainable features in their lawns and gardens.

The enactment of Assembly Bill 1881 in January, aimed primarily at new construction and commercial landscapers, gives specific guidelines for residents who want to create a more sustainable habitat in their homes using a variety of features.

The new law applies only to single family residences built by developers with gardens larger than 2,500 square feet, or to existing single family homes where the landscaped area is more than 5,000 square feet and are undergoing a renovation.

AB 1881 also mandates municipalities to adhere to a landscape and irrigation ordinance or to craft their own that is equally as restrictive.

In addition, it contains instructions for professionals who work on lawns and gardens that pertain to design systems to capture stormwater runoff, lawn grading and groupings of plantings, among other things.

Knowing how to begin an environmentally friendly existence is not as difficult as many would think, local green experts say. Understanding the concepts of sustainability and then putting them into action is the key, says Marilee Kuhlmann, a Mar Vista landscape designer.

“Most people don’t know how to (create) a sustainable garden,” Kuhlmann, who owns Comfort Zones Garden Design, said. “They know certain aspects, but in order to create a garden that has the kind of water conservation and retention features that make it sustainable, most people need guidance.”

The G3 Green Gardens Group hosts certification classes for homeowners and landscape professionals that teaches them what they need to know when beginning a project, which could mean installing native plants instead of grass or converting the front lawn into a green garden paradise, complete with stormwater runoff systems, upscale grading and hardscape. Kulhmann, who runs the courses, says they also teach homeowners how to capture and retain water runoff through programs initiated by the Surfrider Foundation called Ocean Friendly Gardens.

“Many things can be done by the homeowner,” Kulhmann said, “but for some projects you might need a professional.”

Not everyone is willing or financially able to spend a great deal of money to become greener, but that isn’t always necessary, sustainable experts say. In the certification classes, both professionals and homeowners learn who they need to hire if they want a professional or more extravagant renovation, and they learn tips on how to do small tasks themselves with very little money.

Nancy Hastings lives across the street from Kuhlman and her new, eco-friendly lawn, which has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat, did not set her back a great deal financially.

“Except for hiring someone to remove the grass, everything else you see in this yard I did myself,” she said.

The G3 Green Gardens Group also provides certification training on AB 1881 for landscape designers, architects, contractors water agencies and nonprofit organizations.

John Tikotsky of Tikotsky & Associates runs a landscape design firm that emphasizes sustainable lawns and gardens. He says AB 1881 is a topic that comes up in conversation frequently among his fellow professionals.

“It’s something that we need to become very familiar with, because it’s the law,” Tikotsky, who has worked with several clients in Santa Monica, said. “It would be very embarrassing for a landscape architect to have their plans rejected by a city planner because they did not meet the new regulations.”

Some of the guidelines under the state law include design to minimize irrigation over spray and runoff, the inclusion of landscape water budgets, design with the appropriate use and groupings of plants, provide soil assessment, soil management plans and landscape maintenance plans and encourage the capture and retention of storm water onsite.

The statewide water shortage has made AB 1881 even more critical to water conservation, according to Pamela Berstler, another landscape designer.

“California has had a landscape ordinance in effect for many years, but it hasn’t been imperative,” Berstler told The Argonaut. “With the water shortage, it has become very imperative.”

AB 1881 will not directly affect many urban properties, said Berstler, a Mar Vista homeowner whose company, Flower to the People, designs green roofs for residential clients.

“But many local or regional adaptations of AB 1881 have reduced the size restrictions of the properties, which actually make things more stringent than the state law,” she noted.

As an example, Berstler cited San Diego as a city that has cut back the size to 2,500 for all parcels.

“This is an indicator for the next round of what’s happening with the model ordinance,” she said. “The plan is to continue to issue updates to the ordinance, reduce the size and make the parameters more stringent.”

Tikotsky was reexaming the essentials of AB 1881 when he was contacted by The Argonaut because of a conversation that he recently had with a residential client.

“It really is about water conservation,” he said of the state law. “And it’s important to note that because most lawns tend to be overwatered, which can create problems for lawns and plants.”

Now that green living has become somewhat of a growth industry, there is some concern among green and sustainable professionals that newcomers will not always be aware of the new statures regarding water conservation.

“New people coming into the landscaping industry need to be fully prepared to look at a property and see how its fits into the ordinance,” Berstler said. “More importantly, they will be able to explain to homeowners why they have to do it.”

Kuhlmann says she finds that designers and architects often are not aware of the enactment of AB 1881.

“I don’t hear about many that are actually creating a water budget for gardens,” she said. “Many are not fully aware of these issues, but we find in our classes that when they find out about AB 1881, there’s a tendency to want to learn more.”

When Mar Vista residents Craig and Jasmine wanted to reconfigure their lawn last year, they were fortunate enough to have a friend who is a landscape architect, Heather Trillen. Trillen advised them how to plan the renovation of their front lawn.

“Our goal was to conserve water, and Jasmine and I both wanted a lush-looking lawn,” Craig Jaffe, whose home was recently featured on the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase, explained. “We were looking into the possibility of putting in artificial grass.”

Trillen recommended that the couple install Eco-Lawn, a blend of seven different types of grass that produces a thick, minimal care lawn.

But not everyone has a friend who happens to be a landscape professional, and that makes it critical to know what is required to make a residential lawn or garden eco-friendly within the guidelines of AB 1881.

“A landscape architect is legally permitted to design landscaping for any kind of project, design, construction drawings and drainage,” Berstler explained. “Landscape contractors are permitted to design the projects that they install, which could include concrete work, drainage, grading, plantings and irrigation. But a landscape designer and master gardener can only conceptually design plans for residential properties.”

Landscape architects and contractors are required to be licensed by the state, but designers are not.

Tikotsky said Los Angeles residents have done well in responding to the statewide water shortage by reducing their consum- ption indoors.

“The next frontier is our lawns and gardens, along with reducing stormwater runoff pollution, which can get into our oceans and cause further pollution,” he said.

Kuhlmann offered some advice to homeowners on a quest to have a green lawn or garden.

“You need to consider all aspects of sustainability before you plant one tree.”