With ever-increasing demand and successive years of drought, it's is hard to justify wasteful irrigation practices.
In summer months, water used for our lawns represents 40 to 60 percent of total household water use. Think of how much water can be saved, if we replace all or a portion of our lawns with native or low-water use plants.
Not only will we conserve water, we can reduce the amount of fertilizers and lawn chemicals that often end up in our groundwater. There also can be a tremendous labor savings once the task of taking out the lawn is done. Imagine not having to mow the lawn every Saturday morning.
That pay-off requires some work before hand, though. A sod-cutter from a tool-rental shop, which can be had for less than $100 a day, can save your back from sweaty work, and if strips are stacked atop each other grass-side to grass-side, they’ll turn into compost.
The other way of removing grass involves a shovel, and when lawn is dug up, so too is dirt. The weight ads up quickly, and if you plan to have it carted away in your green waste container, be careful about overfilling it. If it’s too heavy, it’ll be left on the curb unemptied. Less than half-full is a safe bet though.
Remember, the end goal is to reduce water use. That means converting overhead sprinklers to drip irrigation, soaker hoses or comparable systems. Aim to reduce your total water use by at least 25 percent.
While manicured lawns have been the gold standard for homeowners for many years, they have become a luxury that our society may not be able to afford.
Fortunately, there are many water-thrifty plants that can replace lawns that can be just as visually pleasing. You can do mass plantings of beautiful groundcovers, a mixture of perennials and shrubs, or maybe try the meadow look, with drifts of ornamental grasses.
You can intersperse plantings with pavers, rocks or pea gravel. Not only will the new landscape provide environmental and maintenance benefits, it will be more interesting for you and your neighbors to observe over the seasons. Unlike grass, mixed plantings come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes. Plus, many of our native and drought-tolerant plants attract butterflies and other beneficial insects.
Basic landscape design principles still apply, however, especially if your new water-thrifty garden is in the front yard. Try to repeat colors and forms, plant in multiples to avoid the chaotic look, include focal point(s), and keep the plants healthy. To borrow a phrase from the book “The Landscape Revolution” by Andy and Sally Wasowski, the landscape should look “tended and intended.” Order and structure still have their place. Some weeding and pruning will still be required to keep the yard neat and tidy.
If the thought of replacing the entire lawn is too daunting, consider doing it in stages, taking baby steps instead of one big leap.
That's what we did. When we moved to Stockton seven years ago, our front yard consisted of about 2,100 square feet of lawn surrounded by a collection of evergreen hedges and one elm tree. After about a year, we decided to take out a portion of the lawn to replace it with a courtyard.
Sure, we wanted to reduce our water bill, but our biggest motivator was the opportunity to add a broader assortment of plants and to create more usable space for entertaining. The area, partly shaded by the elm, provided the perfect environment for many of our favorite plants.
By dividing the planting spaces into separate water zones, we could accommodate the different needs of the plants, without wasting water. The low-water plants, like the yellow Lantana and the Chaste tree were placed together, with the more thirsty plants, like camellias, heavenly bamboo and roses, placed elsewhere. About half of the new, roughly 600 square-foot, lawn-free area was hardscape — decorative pavers placed on decomposed granite.
The second lawn replacement project came a few years later. It seemed that no amount of irrigation was enough to keep the lawn that remained green during our hot summer months—especially the sun scorched outer fringes. For this reason, we decided to work with nature, rather than against it, and replace the outer portion of our lawn with low-water plants.
This time we removed over 800 square feet of lawn — an 8-foot section around the entire remaining lawn. We planted an assortment of Mediterranean plants and natives that thrive in full sun and which, once established, can survive with minimal water.
A non-fruiting olive tree is a focal point. Surrounding it are several plantings of Japanese barberry, Gaura, Sea Lavender and dwarf phormiums. To keep the space looking good year-round we included some low-growing evergreen plants like creeping thyme, Santa Barbara Daisy and Carex, a sedge.
We've saved on our water bill and have a much more beautiful and diverse landscape.
But the biggest payoff may be the compliments we've received from our neighbors, who now are considering a lawn reduction of their own.
Susan Price is a San Joaquin County master gardener. Master gardeners are available to answer questions by phone at 953-6112, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, between 9 a.m. and noon Tuesday through Thursday. For more information: http://sjmastergardeners.ucdavis.edu/.