The Loma Prietan - September/October 2008

Gardening Green

Go Lawnless, Save Water

by Arvind Kumar

A native garden features a mix of bunchgrasses, groundcovers, and paths. Photo: Agi Kehoe
A native garden features a mix of bunchgrasses, groundcovers, and paths. Photo: Agi Kehoe

If you are like me, when you bought your house, you inherited a lawn. Everyone on the block had one. And since you had "paid" for the lawn, you felt committed to maintaining it. Never mind the effort and cost involved in watering, fertilizing, mowing, and aerating. If the realtor didn't say it in so many words, it was implied: for maximum curb appeal and resale value, a house needed a lawn.

We have all bought into that false notion at one time or another. Countless magazines, television shows, advertisements, and books imported from moister climates persuade us that a lawn is a key element of any home garden.

The reality is that lawns are as out of place in dry California as desert gardens are in moist New York. More than half of the water consumed in urban California homes goes to maintaining the landscape, i.e., the lawn. This is a colossal waste of water transported hundreds of miles from its source, effectively "stolen" from other species.

With its winter-wet, summer-dry climate, California is closer to Spain and southern Italy than to New York or Illinois. The question is not if Californians will be forced to conserve water but when. Why not prepare for our water-wise future by rethinking the lawn today?

There are many attractive alternatives to the traditional lawn, and I don't mean a cactus garden or lava rock. No two lawnless gardens are alike; each one is unique and mirrors the personality of its owner-gardener.

In a lawnless garden, hardscape gains greater visibility: decks, paths, trellises, swings, benches, clothesline, bird bath, and compost bin all help define your use of the garden, whether it is for relaxation, entertaining, or growing vegetables. Although these non-living elements of the garden are the most expensive to install, they are least likely to change over time.

Getting Started

If you have a mature garden that you don't want made over entirely, you can begin by simply reducing the size of the lawn. Do this by widening the beds around the lawn and laying out a path.

What is the best way to remove a patch of lawn? One method calls for cutting up the top four inches of sod and soil, inverting it in place, and allowing the grass to decompose. Or pile up the sod strips, creating berms that can be used later for native plants that require good drainage. Another approach is to cover the grass with woodchip mulch and stop watering. Without light and water, the grass will die and decompose in place.

Designing and installing new plant beds is the most creative and enjoyable part of the process. In the expanded beds, plant a variety of shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers. Layer them so that tall plants are in the back and short ones in the front. Get to know each corner of your garden: what kind of soil, exposure, and moisture conditions does it have? What sort of plants would naturally thrive there? You can get a professional to help with this, or you can do it on your own using the many resources available in this area.

A friend mulched her front-yard lawn and enrolled in a landscape design class spanning many weeks. It gave her the training necessary to create a workable and pleasing design. She is installing it in phases, and enjoying every step of the process.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District offers rebates of $75 for each 100 square feet of lawn replaced with water-wise landscaping. Check with your local water district for a similar rebate program.

By planting natives and reducing your water consumption, you will make a huge difference to the environment both at home and at the source, whether it is San Luis reservoir or the Sierra Nevada.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. He can be reached at