By Aniko Drlik-Muehleck
California is a dry place– in the Bay Area, we go for months without precipitation. But despite this fact, Bay Area residential landscapes have something in common with wetter parts of the country: the lawn. It’s lush, green, and incredibly water-intensive. During our extensive dry season, lawns either guzzle hundreds of gallons of water per day or turn brown.
If you’re unsatisfied with your water bill, tired of struggling against your lawn’s inevitable wilting, or simply interested in preserving our precious water supply for more pressing uses, this summer is a great time to consider eliminating the Lawn from your life. In its place, you have the opportunity to create a vibrant native garden that can provide habitat for an array of wildlife. This type of landscape doesn’t require irrigation, and you won’t have to look at a swath of crispy death come July!
The task of lawn conversion may sound labor intensive, but the process is actually quite straightforward: just a little patience and maybe some extra kid-power. The idea is simply to smother your lawn with the help of newspaper, cardboard, and mulch. First, completely cover the grassy area with a thick layer of old newspaper and cardboard (it’s a good idea to get the ground and materials wet to encourage decomposition). Then, spread at least 3 inches of mulch (often delivered free of charge by your local tree trimmer) over the paper/cardboard base and voila! You’re ready to begin planning and planting your native landscape.
And the cost? Well, turns out all the water-suppliers in the Bay Area really want you to conserve water through turf removal. So much so that most of them offer rebates of around $0.50 per sq ft of converted lawn. EBMUD (serving Alameda and Contra Costa Counties) offers rebates of up to $500 for a converted lawn while the Santa Clara Valley Water District will soon provide up to $2,000 based on square footage. Sonoma and Solano Counties have similar “cash-for-grass” programs at the city level, so check out your city’s website.* Additionally, counties have rebates for smart irrigation systems and provide a wide range of other water-conservation services.
When it comes to prepping and planting your garden, water districts, nurseries, the California Native Plant Society, and even your library supply extensive resources to help you determine what to grow.** But here are a few quick tips to begin:
- If you want to maintain the lawn look, consider installing drought-tolerant native sedges such as Carex pansa
- If you like flowers, create a meadow look by planting perennials and seeding in annual mixes in the fall to provide cover as the perennials become established. (Note that some native seed distributors don’t recommend seeding perennials directly in the ground)
- Native shrubs (check out various salvias for instance) add lovely texture and color
So this summer, it’s time to change the residential aesthetic. Not only will you save water, you’ll help preserve our area’s beauty, biodiversity, and natural heritage.
*Marin is currently developing a rebate program, and San Francisco, while lacking lawn conversion incentives, has many other water conservation rebates, including rain barrel subsidies.
**For extensive lists of California native plants check out EBMUD’s Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, other native plant books, your local nurseries, or consult the Internet.
Photo credits: David Goldberg, Lawrie McDonnell, Greenlee Nursery.