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Life After Lawn Can Be a Beautiful Water Saver

SACRAMENTO BEE: The drought has inspired many California residents to try and make their landscaping more climate friendly. But removing your lawn can be harder than it sounds. Here are some tips on how to get turf removal right and what drought-tolerant plants will make a great new yard.

Written by Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Bee Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

Lawn has its limits, and so does our water supply. It may have taken four years of drought to convince us, but many Sacramentans are transitioning away from turf-heavy landscapes to something more river-friendly and resource-minded. And we can’t afford to let El Niño wash away our resolve.

Rain or no rain, California landscapes are definitely changing. We’re embracing our Mediterranean climate and the low-water plants that grow in it.

“It’s very interesting to drive around Davis and see what people are doing,” said Ellen Zagory, horticulture director at the UC Davis Arboretum, which has championed the transition to water-wise landscapes. “There are lots of new examples.”

Many of those local landscapes got a boost from the arboretum’s own drought-tolerant collection and recommendations, such as the 100 easy-care, low-water Arboretum All-Stars. The arboretum’s latest list of recommended plants, available at its upcoming spring sales, is aptly named “Life After Lawn.”

Replacing that large chunk of landscape that turf currently occupies needs some forethought and planning. It’s not as simple as digging up the grass (especially if you don’t want turf and weeds to come back).

When removing turf, weed seeds buried in the underlying soil come to the surface and quickly sprout. Some grasses such as dreaded Bermuda grass have deep roots that can stretch several feet down. That makes removing a Bermuda lawn particularly difficult.

Sacramento radio host Farmer Fred Hoffman replaced a large swath of lawn at his home with low-water and mostly edible landscaping. His project started with “cooking” his grass.

Called solarizing, this process uses Sacramento’s intense summer sun to kill weed seeds and potential pests as well as the lawn. It even works on Bermuda grass. Clear plastic sheets are stretched over the grass and kept in place with boards, bricks or rocks.

“Cut the lawn as short as possible, and then solarize the soil in June and July,” Hoffman said. “The clear plastic heats up the soil to 120 to 140 degrees, killing weed seeds, nematodes and, yes, Bermuda grass. In the 1,200-square foot area that was formerly Bermuda grass, none has reared its ugly head in seven years.”

After six to eight weeks, the lawn and its roots will be dead and ready for removal, which is much easier than when the grass is alive.

Instead of diving right in with new plants, Hoffman suggested taking the next step: installing drainage. Those new low-water plants don’t like soggy ground, even in winter.

“After scraping off the top few inches of turf, add a drainage system: underground pipes with surface drain inlets that will take the excess water during heavy rainstorms away from that area,” Hoffman said. “Low-water-use plants that will go into that area will appreciate not having wet feet.”

Then, add drip irrigation. Sprinklers work fine on lawn, but putting water where roots grow is much more efficient.

“Installing an inline drip emitter system throughout the area will cut water use tremendously,” Hoffman said. “We have a productive area that uses 88 percent less water than what the Bermuda grass consumed. The drip system can be placed below the mulch.”

A blanket of compost and mulch feeds the new landscape while also eliminating weeds and conserving moisture.

“Top the surface with two inches of compost and then four inches of mulch,” Hoffman said. “This acts as a natural fertilizer, slowly feeding the soil as it breaks down. And, it also acts as a Bermuda grass suppressor.”

Hoffman replaced that old Bermuda grass rectangle with a mix of California natives, fruit trees and an attractive fountain.

Among the plants that have done best are Bearberry manzanita (a low-growing, spreading ground cover); California buckwheat (a two- to three-foot perennial with blooms from May through November, very attractive to pollinators and beneficial insects); dwarf peach and nectarine trees; and Betty Rollins and Kent Beauty ornamental oreganos.

“The centerpiece of the area, I believe, is the best addition to our yard,” Hoffman said. “It’s a three-foot-tall recirculating fountain. This 2-1/2-foot-wide dish fountain gently cascades the water to the rocks below. It attracts hummingbirds, sparrows, scrub jays, robins, mockingbirds, juncos and a wide variety of beneficial insects, including bees and social wasps.

“It’s great entertainment. One time, a hawk landed in the fountain.”

Plant for birds, bees

Zagory also is a big advocate for attracting wildlife to urban landscapes. Nixing turfgrass in favor of more diverse bird- and bee-friendly plants will do the trick.

“For those planning to convert a water-guzzling lawn to a low-water landscape, now is also a great time to take stock and plan changes to also support wildlife,” she said. “Adding or converting to California native plants wherever possible strengthens your garden’s draw to native animals. Planting design, plant selection and maintenance practices all add up to the difference between a yard rich with living things and one without.”

California native plants are a natural choice for attracting local wildlife; those natives are what they like to eat. Besides food sources, birds and beneficial insects need shelter, too; that’s where evergreen shrubs come in handy.

“Many people don’t realize that the winter garden is home to a variety of both resident and migrating bird species,” Zagory said. “Winter-blooming plants provide sparkle during dreary winter days but also provide nectar and pollen for resident creatures, like hummingbirds and native bees.”

Among the shrubs Zagory recommends: currants, manzanitas and silktassel.

“Incorporating evergreen shrubs, including conifers, and growing thick hedges provides birds with shelter from inclement weather, places to hide from predators and a place to nest,” she said.

Now, for food. Different species of birds have appetites for different things, so plant a variety of bird-friendly plants.

“Incorporating plants for berries and seed production will set the table at which birds will dine,” Zagory said.

Among her favorite bird berry plants: toyon, coffeeberry, Oregon grape and currants. Others that provide seeds are California lilac, buckwheats, mountain mahogany and redbud.

“Native oaks provide acorns for jays but also host a wide variety of insects eaten by birds,” she said.

Just because the old lawn occupied a large flat space, don’t feel that its replacement also has to be pancake flat, Zagory said. Create a layered landscape with shrubs, perennials and ground covers of varying heights. Fill in the space between plants with mulch.

Zagory took this approach in making over her own Davis garden. Like Hoffman, she’s entertained by nature’s show, and so are her neighbors.

“People say, ‘Wow! You have a lot of butterflies in your front yard.’ And I do,” Zagory said. “I have many more hummingbirds than I used to; they really, really like my yard now. They have habitat and a constant nectar source. They didn’t have that with lawn.”

Hummingbirds gravitate to two drought-tolerant plants in particular: red autumn sage and California fuchsia.

“Those are hummingbird magnets,” she said.

What if you have a really large area to replace? Or want to cut maintenance as well as water use? UC Davis is in the process of replacing unused turf areas with low- or no-water alternatives. Among the most successful water-wise replacements: creeping rosemary (“You never have to do anything to it,” Zagory said, “and it doesn’t need much water”); deergrass (“Plant it and forget it; you cut it back once every three to five years to rejuvenate”); dwarf buckwheats (“They don’t need anything at all except maybe tip pruning to look neat, but they’re very tough drought-tolerant plants”); and asters (“They add a lot of color and come back year after year”).

These plants are all water savers but do need some irrigation while establishing roots, she said.

Create a desert oasis

Succulents are a natural for low-water landscapes; they come with their own built-in reservoirs in the form of fleshy stems or leaves. The result can look like an exotic desert oasis.

But these plants’ water requirements are very different from turf grass, which needs 55 gallons of water per square foot per year. Succulents can get by on less than a fourth of that amount.

Drainage is key to succulent success, said author and succulents expert Debra Lee Baldwin. She offered this advice for replacing lawns with a drought-tolerant garden: “Plant succulents atop mounded soil that has been amended with pumice to enhance drainage,” Baldwin said. “Succulents can take quite a bit of rain, providing their roots aren’t waterlogged.”

Baldwin recommends using hardscape – such as permeable paving, tile or stepping stones – as part of the post-lawn makeover. That automatically cuts down on water use.

“Cover as much of the former lawn with inorganic hardscape as you do with plant material,” she said. “Showcase plants in islands surrounded by broad pathways, and use five kinds of rock for interest: big boulders, fist-sized rocks, gravel, pavers and cobbles. Use the cobbles only if you incorporate a dry stream bed, which should be lined with rounded river rock in order to look natural. Top-dress any bare dirt with hard-packed decomposed granite or gravel.”

That combination saves water while also showing off the succulents.

Faux alternative

For folks who just can’t give up on the look of lawn, there’s always artificial turf. It needs no water while looking green and lush. Pets, children and golfers can play on it without damage to the fake grass.

During the drought, synthetic turf became a hot seller at Sacramento home shows and home improvement centers. Vastly improved in the past decade, these new artificial grasses cost $2 to $5 per square foot, plus $6 to $7 per square foot for installation.

Think of it as carpeting for your yard, say experts. Proper installation is key to its longevity, so shop around, concentrating on the installer as well as the look of the product.

The downsides? It’s synthetic outdoor carpeting. In 20 years at the end of its life cycle, it likely will become landfill. Artificial turf tends to absorb heat, which gives pets and kids hot feet in summer. Unlike other lawn alternatives, fake grass doesn’t support wildlife.

Life after lawn comes down to personal taste, Zagory said.

“What do you want that former lawn space to be? This is your opportunity to think about your landscape and make it into something you really like,” she said. “You don’t have to live with that same old lawn.”

For more coverage of the California drought and water issues, please visit the Sacramento Bee.

Top image: A dried-out lawn at Los Angeles City Hall, with a sign explaining that irrigation has been shut off due to the ongoing drought. (Nick Ut, Associated Press)

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