3 Easy Lawn Alternatives for Drought Conscious Californian's
Here's the skinny on the easiest lawn alternatives for saving water on your lawn replacement. These tips are based on 10 years of experience as a contemporary Permaculture designer in Los Angeles, the SF Bay Area and Western Canada.
There's a lot to know but this article is all about the 3 basic material palettes to replace your lawn with and how to stay climate responsible using them (so droughts can get better not worse).
1. Native Grasses and Walkable Groundcover
California native grasses grow and look a little different than old-fashioned lawn. But they require half the water (or less) during droughts and are mowing optional! Even the mowable ones need to be trimmed less frequently than conventional sod. They're both a heck of a lot cheaper and wayyy better for the environment than artificial turf.
If you want the romance of no-mow meadow grasses, then only mow your native lawn once a year (around the holidays is a good time) to stimulate fresh growth. But remember native grasses require less water when left long through the hot seasons.
Why does it matter if you plant Native lawn? Well about 4 million acres of California is currently lawn. That means turf grass makes up 5% of our state’s ecosystem. An area that was once mostly rare wild grasses. So if we at least choose native grasses to replace old lawn than we're actually taking a pretty big step toward restoring environment.
Other Groundcover Lawn Alternatives
Chances are you've heard of a handful of other lawn alternatives out there like: silver carpet dymondia, dichondra, creeping thyme and baby's tears. In my experience, none of these has demonstrated the consistent coverage or have the durability necessary to create a long-lasting groundcover lawn. They work great mixed with stepstones or hanging off rock walls but they require a bit too much maintenance and replanting to qualify as a true lawn alternative.
2. Drought Tolerant Plants
There's a lot of options when it comes to drought tolerant plants, more than 20,000 to be exact (for perspective, there's around 800 plants endemic to the whole of the British Isles). The extremities of drought-prone climates have forced a huge and varied array of adaptations in plants. And we are just starting to get a handle on how to use them in California landscaping.
From silver-leaved beauties to succulent rosettes you can make just about every classic landscape look with drought tolerant plants. However, grouping them with plant community members and soils that are similar to their native wild habitats will yield the easiest-to-maintain garden and greatest water savings. Here are some tried and true drought tolerant plant looks:
Cactus & Succulents (xeric gardens)
Succulents & Cactus store most of their water and nutrients in their thick fleshy bodies and tend to have very minimal rooting systems. The idea of xeric gardens is that they can survive with little to no supplemental water - particularly when within 15 miles of the coast.
Many succulents require some supplemental irrigation in areas where rainfall is minimal [less than 20" a year] but they like to dry out thoroughly in between waterings. This means when water restrictions are tight you can cut back hard on water and most things will be alright. You’ll want to keep an eye on succulents and more needy cactus during heat waves so you can nurse them along. Then turn the water back up a little bit in late fall and spring to help build the plant’s (and soils!) moisture reserves. Remember cactus can be slow growing. And Good SOIL DRAINAGE is key to success with these plants.
Favorite Cactus & Succulents (full sun): Rock Purslane (Caladrinia), Desert Spoon (Dasilirion), Thornless Prickly Pear, Chalk Lettuce (Dudleya), Firesticks (Euphorbia tir.) or other Euphorbia's
Favorite Succulents (part shade): Blue Agave, Foxtail Agave, Aeonium's, Aloe Vera, Paddle Plant (kalanchoe), Sedum's
California native plants are adapted to long periods of drought in most cases. They are susceptible to disease if over-watered in hot times. Some plants like ceanothus even die off entirely if they get regular summer water.
The best way to find California native plants to replace your lawn is to look outside. Check out small wild spaces like slopes, wide canyons or even freeway banks in your area to pick out a plant vibe that you like. Then take a pic, ask around or visit your local native nursery to find a few for your yard.
In general, Southern California’s native plant combos are dominated by either a blend of native grasses and wildflowers or a mix of native sages. In the sandiest or steepest places, cactus and small trees mix. In Northern California, all manner of forests and open woodlands intersperse with these same native plant ecologies, along with riparian and wetland areas.
- Native Sage Mix: Brushes like sagebrush and coyote brush, flowering salvia’s, buckwheats and other low-water perennials makeup this plant community. Try mixing up a handful of species from the following: Artemisia californica, Salvia apiana, Salvia leucantha, Salvia leucophylla, Salvia mellifera, or even Salvia gregii., anything Erigeron and yarrow (achillea), penstemon, sticky monkey flower (Mimulus auranticus) or canyon sunflower (Encelia). SHOP
- Native Grass & Wildflowers: cover many of our more scenic open wild spaces. Wild grasslands once coated the entire central valley and most unforested hillsides before development and grazing. Some of the easiest small species to try include carex pansa, festuca californica, golden poppy, verbena (rigida or de la mina), Oenothera and blue eyed grass. Muhlenbergias are great for a larger nicely flowering grass. SHOP
- Cactus & Small Trees or Spreading Groundcovers: Yucca's, Prickly Pears and Agaves occur wild up and down the slopes of California (but let's be honest, mostly down). They often mix with small low-growing groundcovers (coyote brush, dalea, canyon grey sage, ceanothus, calandrinia) or small architectural trees (like manzanita, buckeye or California walnut).
There are 4 other mediterranean climate regions of the world in addition to coastal and central California. All of them have plants that are thoroughly adapted to drought. And work great in California landscaping. In addition to being some of the easier and more versatile drought tolerant's, mediterranean herbs & small trees are also some of the more useful (whether you get around to using them or not).. Certain varieties have proven to work much better than others in landscaping and new ones are always being developed. Here’s some top-performing industry favorites for that clean, coastal, silver foliage feel.
- Mediterranean Garden Plants: Rosemary ‘Boule’, Lavender ‘goodwyn creek’, Thyme - thymus citrodonis, Lavender cotton - santolina virens, Catmint ‘walker’s low’
- Mediterranean Accent Trees: dwarf olive - ‘little ollie’ or ‘montra,’ Strawberry tree (arbutus marina), Cypress ‘tiny tower’ and Bay laurel. Strawberry tree and Laurel are both relatives of some of the most common California understory trees but are more elegant in landscaping and edible
Spreading groundcover is the cheapest lawn replacement option by far. Plants like Rock Purslane, Rosemary huntington carpet, Ceanothus ‘yankee point’, Juniper and ‘Bee’s bliss’ Salvia can spread 5-10 feet if adequate drainage is provided. Though not walkwable, they can cover slopes and spaces you’d like to leave open but not bare.
In moister climates, like the SF bay area, groundcovers like juniper, bearberry and creeping manzanita can quickly cover hillsides. While yerba buena, bearberry, and columbines can fill-in under large trees (pop in some wild strawberry, creeping raspberry, swordtail ferns or violets in part sun patches for easy edible landscaping).
Got a hard to fill shady spot?
Hummingbird Sage - salvia spatheca and Catalina Perfume or Evergreen Huckleberry (ribes viburnifolium or ovatum) are a favorite ground covering combo for dry shade up and down California. Throw a few Deer Grass - muhlenbergia rigens - in the back for drama.
3. Waterwise Hardscaping
If you want a lawn free yard you'll most likely be putting in a mixture of low-water plants and permeable hardscaping .Permeable hardscapes are non-living surfaces that allow water to infiltrate (instead of run-off into drains and gutters). Rainwater infiltration is one of the fastest ways to make a difference in California's water shortages, because it recharges our vast underground network of aquifers.
For landscapes to be usable for recreation, you need to have open, walkable space. 50/50 is a good balance for a large family or a house with lots of dogs. But much less is required if you just want a nice seating area or 2 and a path to wander. It's important to remember that even if you want to put down all permeable hardscape you need to add shade to be climate responsible. Removing lawn - even dead lawn - and replacing it with all exposed sand, concrete or gravel heats up the environment and makes more desert. Add even one or 2 shade trees to cool surface temps significantly (like at least 10-15 degrees F). Ultimately you want 2/3 - 3/4 of the exposed surface to be at least part shaded.
Best Shade Trees: Try Palo Verde, Shoestring or Fernleaf Acacia or Strawberry tree for 20-30' evergreens. Or 'Shademaster' Locust, Western Sycamore or Jacaranda if you want a seasonal shade canopy and don't mind the litter!
Gravel patios and walkways have stood the test of time in European courtyards from Belgium to the Balearic islands. Use sharp-edged gravel for better rainwater infiltration. Anwyere from ⅜ to ¾ is a good diameter. Choose a warm color like ‘California Gold’ for more of a California feel or stick with traditional gray for more euro vibes. Layout gravel courtyards with a central accent like a birdbath, large decorative planter or firepit for a more formal look. Frame the edges with plants that grow 3-5’ to break up open spaces into outdoor dining or lounge areas.
DG - Decomposed Granite
Decomposed granite is a crushed rock dust that can be compacted into smooth flat surfaces. It’s very close in makeup to many California natives soils in canyon washes and foothill slopes. Golden poppies and cactus love to grow right in it (and so do weeds, so make sure it’s lined well!). Perfect for full sun, DG does tend to discolor if it gets wet in shade. It can also scratch wood flooring if tracked indoors so keep some distance between it and your entries.
Precast Concrete Pavers - A favorite modern walkway material. You can find these at most stoneyards ranging in sizes from 12x18” to 3x3.’ If you can’t find them you can always pick up 1x1’ ones at home depot and line them up 2 or 3 tight in a row for the modern look. Space pavers at 3” for groundcovers or sod to grow in between. Mix precast concrete pavers with DG or lawn in the gaps. Or in part shade plant succulent sedums!
Spaced Paver Stones & Permeable Driveways - Many companies today offer paver stones with small spacers at the edges so you can have the refined look of pavers and great rainwater infiltration. Just make sure your masons don’t mortar in the cracks! When it comes to permeable driveways,I have some concerns around the environmental impact of the heavy duty plastic mats used for driveway lawns. Instead try concrete turfstone.
Stepstones & groundcover
Loose Flagstone offers a more informal look. Flagstone is a very affordable and thin material so it’s easy to move. It also comes in a huge range of colors and shapes. You’ll want to lay down sand to ensure the stones sit flat on your ground and don’t crack from walking pressure. There’s a lot of flexibility with piecing together walkways or casual patios with flagstones and stepstones. Again, leave gaps at a minimum of 3” for groundcovers or sod to grow between.
What are the drawbacks of Artificial Turf?
There’s a lot of reasons I think artificial turf is another fossil-fuel mad scam. Artificial Turf is a single-use non-recyclable plastic with up to a pound and a half of mass per sq.ft. This means that a small 400 sq.ft. lawn contains 600 pounds of single-use plastic that will be going straight to the landfill when it gets faded or degraded. Add to this the fact that artificial turf actually heats up surface temperatures (worse than concrete or gravel) and requires more water to clean than it takes to keep a kurapia lawn alive in summer and I think you can see why overall it’s just a really bad idea for the environment (and your bank account, given the huge price tag).
Californian's are currently undergoing a huge transition from old-fashioned lawns and roses to a more modern and environmental approach to landscaping. So take your time considering your options. Ultimately you want to be creating a landscape that can be useful for generations.