Home & Garden

Learning to embrace life after lawn during California's drought

Water-saving tips for your lawn

Considering killing your lawn in favor of drought-tolerant landscaping? In this installment of The Sacramento Bee's Water-Wise Homeowners series, landscape architect Michael Glassman offers strategies for boosting curb appeal while reducing water
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Considering killing your lawn in favor of drought-tolerant landscaping? In this installment of The Sacramento Bee's Water-Wise Homeowners series, landscape architect Michael Glassman offers strategies for boosting curb appeal while reducing water

If your drought-parched lawn is like many in the Sacramento area, that brown grass looks mighty muddy right now.

Recent winter rain may or may not bring that turf back to life. But even if it does, do you still want that grass back?

This is decision time for many homeowners who are pondering the fate of their landscape. What do they do with that big flat space that used to be lush green lawn?

“We keep hearing the same thing,” said Ellen Zagory, horticultural director for the UC Davis Arboretum. “ ‘I killed my lawn. Now, I don’t know what to do.’ 

Zagory and the arboretum staff have done scores of garden consultations with local homeowners as part of the Friends of the Arboretum outreach program. Usually, those homeowners want to know how to transition their traditional landscapes to something more drought-tolerant.

“They took the governor’s advice and cut back on their water use during the drought,” she said. “Now, they want something else. Naturally, they don’t want to have to water it.”

Those conversations with perplexed homeowners spurred a new arboretum series showcasing easy-care, low-water plants for Sacramento Valley gardeners: Life After Lawn.

Like past series such as Arboretum All-Stars and Community Favorites, plants in this series will be featured during the arboretum’s 2016 public sales. Besides using less water, Life After Lawn plants offer color and garden interest as well as attract beneficial insects and birds.

Tested by the arboretum, Life After Lawn plants also are proven performers in the sometimes difficult spaces formerly reserved for sod.

“What can grow in hot slamming afternoon sun?” Zagory said. “A lawn can cope with shade all day, then get blasted with full sun in the afternoon. Lawn often was planted in areas that are difficult to grow (other plants) – heavy clay soil, shade, constant full sun, high traffic. That’s part of the challenge to replace it.”

If you’re thinking about taking out the remains of your lawn, now is a great time to get started.

“Winter absolutely is a good time to plant in the Sacramento Valley,” Zagory said. “We plant until the end of January at the arboretum. Plants need eight to 10 weeks for roots to grow into the surrounding soil; that’s an important part of becoming established. If planted in February or March, the weather may turn hot before those roots grow in, and those plants will be need to be watered more. Now, you get the benefit of winter rain. And, thank heaven, it’s raining this month.”

Transitioning from turf to something else is not as simple as just digging up the dead grass and putting in replacements. Proper planning and preparation are key to those new plants’ success.

“A lot of people don’t think about nature,” Zagory said. “That’s why lawn is so popular – it’s easy. You don’t have to think about it. You just run a machine back and forth over it – and water it a lot!”

Low-water lawn alternatives can take less maintenance as well as less irrigation, but they need TLC to get started.

“People bring back dead plants (to the arboretum’s nursery) and want to know what went wrong,” Zagory said. “I ask, ‘Did you water?’ They say, ‘No, it’s drought tolerant.’ But all plants need water to get established.”

When tackling a major makeover, start by being honest about your own gardening skills and desires.

“What kind of gardener are you?” Zagory asked. “Do you like to putter around in the garden or do you never want to touch it again? A more complex selection of plants needs more work, such as pruning or dead-heading spent flowers.

“Then, decide on your look,” she said. “Do you want a lot of color and flowers? Or is tan OK? If you’re living with drought, you’ve got to get away from that lush look of lawn. But you still have a lot of options.”

In her own Davis garden, Zagory’s drought-busting favorites are California fuschia, ornamental oreganos, asters and Goodwin Creek gray lavender.

“The lavender in particular, it’s never out of bloom,” she said. “The bees and butterflies just love it.

“Most flowering plants tend to be higher maintenance,” she said. “But these plants are so tough, you could run a lawn mower over them and they’d be just fine. But they only need to be cut back like that once a year – not once a week like a lawn.”

That’s too much work for some homeowners, she noted.

“A lot of people want ‘no-care’ gardens now,” she said. “They want to plant it and do as little as possible.”

Among the “no-care” plants featured on the arboretum’s Life After Lawn list: rosemary, deergrass and several dwarf buckwheats. Like turf, they can take the heat and still look good, but with less irrigation.

If you’re waiting to plant until spring (or just making up your mind), still do something now about that soon-to-be-former lawn space.

An option is sheet mulching or “lawn lasagna.” That fertilizes and builds the soil while also eliminating any remaining grass.

Author and garden designer Pam Penick offers her recipe for “lawn lasagna” in her book, “Lawn Gone!” (Ten Speed Press, $19.99, 184 pages).

“Sheet mulching ... is an environmentally friendly, effective and increasingly popular way of removing lawn grass and preparing a new garden bed in one fell swoop,” Penick wrote. “Essentially, it smothers the lawn with organic material that breaks down and improves the soil in the process. It doesn’t require the hard labor of digging nor any machinery. Plus, you get to recycle a lot of cardboard.”

To sheet mulch a section of lawn, mow any remaining grass as short as possible and cover with an inch or two of manure or compost. (Leave the grass clippings in place, too.) Water well to moisten this blanket of organic material.

Then, cover with large sheets of overlapping cardboard. Weigh down the edges if necessary with rocks or bricks; that’s where the grass will try to creep back out and grow. Keep the cardboard layer at least a foot away from trees or shrubs and be careful not to bury sprinkler heads.

Top the cardboard with 2 to 3 inches of more manure or compost, then finish with a top layer of mulch such as wood chips or bark. That keeps the space looking neat.

While smothering the grass, the cardboard breaks down in about three months, Penick said. If there’s no rain, water the lasagna by hand once a week to keep it moist but not soggy.

Another benefit: You can plant directly through the lasagna layers. If using manure, wait at least a month to plant. If using aged compost, it will be ready to plant immediately after the layers are in place; just cut through the cardboard as needed.

No time for lasagna? At least, cover the dead lawn space with mulch, Zagory recommends. “A layer of mulch suppresses weeds and prevents erosion,” she said. “And it looks better; your yard doesn’t look like it’s neglected.

“You don’t want bare dirt,” she added. “Exposed soil will erode, and you don’t want your soil running down the drain into rivers. And it won’t stay bare. Nature abhors a vacuum; that dirt will turn to weeds.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Life After Lawn

For its 2016 nursery sales, UC Davis Arboretum will introduce a new series of easy-care drought-tolerant plants designed for “Life After Lawn.” Find them at the arboretum’s teaching nursery during the upcoming sales:

March 12: This members-only sale, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., is open to Friends of the Arboretum. Not a member? Join at the door and get a 10 percent discount plus $10 off as a bonus.

April 2: This public sale will feature the full Life After Lawn collection plus hundreds of other drought-tolerant selections. Hours to be announced.

April 23: This season-ending clearance sale offers discounts galore for both the public and arboretum members. Hours to be announced.

Details: arboretum.ucdavis.edu