By Paula White and Paula Urtecho
I grew up in West Virginia with a big yard and a lawn that required a riding lawn mower to maintain. Lawns make sense in many parts of the country where there is plenty of rain year round, but not so much here in the Bay Area where water bills can soar from watering the lawn during our long dry season. A great alternative to a boring, homogenous lawn is a native plant garden. Native plant gardens are far more interesting to look at than a lawn, (particularly a brown, weed-infested one), and they attract beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies – a plus. Native plants are also drought-tolerant and better adapted to California soil than most lawn grass species. EBMUD and the Contra Costra Water District (CCWD) both offer lawn conversion rebates for replacing your lawn to qualifed applicants. Ready to get started?
August-September: Kill your lawn and plan your garden
There are many methods out there, but this one described in SF Gate uses no chemicals and requires few materials and very little labor. First you will need enough clear plastic sheeting to cover the lawn. Before spreading it out, water the lawn as you normally would. Then cover the lawn all the way to the edges, weighing it down with rocks or bricks. Wait a month, during which time the sun will bake the soil, killing the grass. Yes, in case you hadn’t heard, plastic kills! While you’re waiting for your grass to die, this is a good time to research the kinds of plants you want and where to buy them. The Bringing Back the Natives website is a great place to see photos of Bay Area gardens and get ideas, find nurseries or garden designers, and get connected with other gardeners.
September-October: Prep the garden site
Step 1.Lay down cardboard/newspaper and install drip irrigation (optional)
Sheet mulching is a tried and true method for keeping weeds down, retaining soil moisture, and providing a tidy and uniform surface for laying out your new garden. You can also kill your lawn using sheet mulch but I have found that sheet mulching alone is not as effective at killing Bermuda grass in particular.The materials needed are simple: newspaper or cardboard to cover the planting area and enough mulch to cover with a 2-3” layer, 4-6 inches if you haven’t killed your lawn in advance. It’s a good idea to dig a trench around the edges of the garden adjacent to the sidewalk, driveway, or even an adjacent bit of lawn that you decide you want to keep. The trench, dug at a 45 degree angle from the edge of the pavement prevents the mulch from spilling over the edges. Then lay the newspaper or cardboard down on the dead lawn and moisten it to keep it in place. Be sure to overlap the sections/pieces by 8-10 inches. If you are installing irrigation, the drip lines go on top of the cardboard, before the mulch is piled on. If you already have a sprinkler system, it can be converted to a drip system as described by the UC Master Gardeners of Contra Costa County. Be sure to mark the location of the drip lines so you can find them later when it’s time to plant.
Step 2. Spread mulch over the cardboard
Mulch can be purchased but can also be obtained for free from tree companies. Note that they will deliver a good truckload of mulch at their convenience and you will need to be prepared to move it off your street or driveway. Some cities also offer free mulch to residents. Call the Green Waste Recycle Yard for more information.
October-November: Plan and plant your garden
Start small. Select a few plants that you like that have similar water requirements. Choose plants that will do well with the soil type you have (most Bay Area soils have a lot of clay). Pay attention to sun exposure as well. You may want to have a few alternate species picked out in advance before heading to the plant nursery. Most local nurseries have plant availability lists online, or you can call ahead. Buy the plants the same day that you are going to plant them if possible so they don’t dry out. Before planting, set the plants where you think they should go, then adjust positions as needed. Dig down to the cardboard layer and cut an X with a knife. Dig a hole about twice as wide as the pot and to the depth of the pot, deep enough so the plant will be slightly above ground level. Gently massage the pot to loosen the plant and remove it. Check the roots of the plant. If there is a tangled mass of roots, loosen soil and untangle the roots. If the plant is pot-bound, i.e. the roots are dense and circling, cut them with a hand saw or soil knife. You can safely remove the bottom third of a rootbound plant and be sure to cut any roots that are circling to ensure proper root growth and orientation. Place the plant in the hole, fill the hole with soil. Add some compost to the hole, if needed, and finish with a layer of mulch around the plant. The mulch should not be piled against the plant’s stem as this could invite rot. Instead, place a light layer of mulch around the plant and an inch or two away from the plant stem. Water the plant deeply and repeat. With luck, seasonal rains will begin not long after planting the garden and you won’t have to water your plants regularly. If not, water deeply (about 15 minutes of a steady drip) about once a week or as needed. When spring arrives, enjoy your beautiful and robust spring flowers!