Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Decision time for that almost-dead lawn

This Elk Grove front yard features drought-tolerant and native plants.
This Elk Grove front yard features drought-tolerant and native plants. Special to The Bee

Should it stay or should it go?

Anyone who still has a lawn in California is probably wrestling with that landscape dilemma. In the fourth year of drought and facing continued water cutbacks, we may be leaning away from tradition and looking for alternatives to familiar turf.

Especially if our good old lawn has turned a permanent shade of tan.

For those on the fence for lawn removal, the state of California has offered a nudge. Backed by a new $12 million rebate program offered by the Department of Water Resources, a wave of “Cash for Grass” makeovers is coming soon.

Under the program expected to go into effect this month, residential customers may receive $2 per square foot (up to $2,000) for removing their lawn and replacing it with water-wise alternatives. That’s double most earlier Cash for Grass programs, which quickly ran out of funds.

These rebates will be offered through local water districts and agencies, which are rapidly piling up applications. The city of Folsom, for example, already has 500 requests.

Before you hit the front yard with a sod cutter, contact your water provider. Add your name to any local waiting list and get all the necessary forms. Make sure to review the rules carefully, and they are not all the same. Homes without water meters may not qualify.

Most local water districts require on-site inspections before signing off on a Cash for Grass rebate. They’ve actually got to be able to see and measure the grass in place before its removal.

You can’t just take the lawn out and leave dirt; something attractive and eco-friendly has to go in the lawn’s place. The districts also want to see plans for the post-lawn landscape with drought-tolerant plants (be specific), mulch, permeable pavers and drip irrigation.

Under the 2015 California Turf Replacement Initiative, artificial turf is not eligible for the rebate. Once approved, the new landscape has to be completed within 90 days.

Expect to send an “after” photo to your water provider, too.

In past drought years, Cash for Grass programs required the replacement of “healthy, green lawn.” That guaranteed the water-wise replacement would be a real water saver.

But with so many lawns already toasted brown by lack of water and by triple-digit heat, most districts are willing to accept “gold” grass in order to hand out the green.

More details are available from your water district, the Regional Water Authority or the state's Department of Water Resources.

City inspectors may not mind brown turf, but they don’t want to see waist-high weeds or abandoned landscapes with dead shrubs and trees. That can be a fire hazard and may bring citations instead of rebates.

Post-turf inspiration

Having trouble envisioning a turfless front yard? EcoLandscape California, a consortium devoted to promoting ecologically sustainable landscape and horticultural practices and programs, has four landscape design plans to help homeowners do their own makeovers.

Free to Sacramento-area residents, the designs focus on four different garden goals and can be adapted to specific sites.

“Right as Rain” features a dry creek bed and permeable paving to capture rain water while offering year-round color. “Neat and Petite” is just like it sounds: tidy and low maintenance for smaller spaces. “Wholesome Habitat” is a wildlife-friendly design focused on food both for birds and beneficial insects and people. “Recreation Destination” looks like a park with play areas as well as sophisticated parklike landscaping.

At Harvest Day 2015, EcoLandscape and the Regional Water Authority debuted another valuable resource: “A Homeowner’s Guide to Water Smart Landscaping.” Adapted from a guide created by the San Diego County Water Authority, this 52-page booklet demystifies many of the puzzles that come with conversion to river-friendly and drought-tolerant landscaping. Look for it at local workshops and other events.

Water smarter

What if you want to save your turf and save water, too? There’s an app for that.

The Regional Water Authority, the umbrella organization for two dozen local water providers, now offers the free “Sacramento Region Smart Irrigation Scheduler.”

It’s basically a water calculator that tells you how long to run your sprinklers or drip systems depending on current weather conditions. It’s easy to use and takes a lot of guess work (and guilt) out of irrigation.