Debbie Arrington

Rethink your yard – and love it

Inspired by rebates and a desire to do their part during drought, Dorothy and Danny Delgado transformed their gigantic lawn into a water-wise oasis. They did all the work themselves.
Inspired by rebates and a desire to do their part during drought, Dorothy and Danny Delgado transformed their gigantic lawn into a water-wise oasis. They did all the work themselves. lsterling@sacbee.com

For almost 27 years, Danny and Dorothy Delgado pulled into the driveway of their Parkway Estates home without a glance at their front yard.

“We didn’t even notice it,” Dorothy recalled. “It was just there. We didn’t enjoy it; we just ignored it.”

A large swath of lawn wrapped around their corner lot. To the Delgados, it represented more work than pleasure. The couple almost never walked across the grass except to mow or rake.

“It was all lawn with two junipers that we always planned to take out,” Dorothy explained. “We weren’t (water) metered. We used our fair share of water and then some.”

When meters were finally installed in their Sacramento neighborhood in October 2013, the Delgados realized what a money and time drain their water-hogging lawn had become. After many months of discussion amid California’s lingering drought, they decided it was finally time to rethink their yard.

Now, that lawn is gone, replaced by serpentine paths and hundreds of water-wise plants. After the makeover, the Delgados’ new landscape won “Garden of the Month” from their neighborhood association. That exposure helped place the couple on billboards all over Sacramento, promoting state and local conservation programs. As part of a new “#RethinkYourYard” campaign, the billboard reads, “Saved water and wowed their neighbors.”

“As we were working on this project, people kept coming by and asking us questions,” Danny said.

Added Dorothy, “People were just excited that we were doing something. Everybody who drops by now enjoys it.”

That’s just the sort of neighborhood reception that water officials hope will spur more water-wise conversions.

“For many people, the drought gave them an opportunity to rethink the way they view and use their landscape and to consider whether it’s time for a change,” said Amy Talbot, water efficiency program manager for the Regional Water Authority, the umbrella organization for Sacramento-area water providers. “This campaign is all about telling their story – the changes they made, why they did it and the benefits that go way beyond saving water – and encouraging others to do the same.”

Saving water has become second nature to Sacramentans. A recent water authority poll of area residents found that 95 percent took some sort of action to reduce their water use during California’s four-year drought. Even more encouraging to water officials, nearly four out of five homeowners say they plan to permanently reduce their water use even after the drought is over.

“Our whole goal now is to focus on long-term efficiency and encourage people to ‘rethink your yard,’” said water authority spokeswoman Christine Kohn. “We’re looking at what people are willing to do versus what they’ve already done. Reducing or replacing the lawn is a big step. It shows people are willing to make permanent changes, and that’s good news for long-term savings.”

Success stories such as the Delgados will be shared online at the authority’s BeWaterSmart.info website as well as promoted on billboards and radio, she said. The effort echoes the statewide “Fix It For Good” campaign that encourages long-term landscape changes. A grant from the state Department of Water Resources funded the local outreach program.

Besides saving water, the Delgados saved a lot of time and money, too.

“I figure I spent easily two hours every time I mowed,” Danny said. “And our water bill dropped more than 50 percent.”

To transform their thirsty lawn, they took advantage of rebate programs offered through their water provider, California American Water. Last year, the “Cash for Grass” program offered $2 per square foot of lawn removed – and their huge front yard covers more than 3,000 square feet including trees, shrubs and hardscape. Other rebates helped pay for conversion of their sprinkler system to drip irrigation.

“We were able to get $4,600 in rebates,” Dorothy said. “That almost paid for the project.”

“We saved a lot of money doing the work ourselves,” Danny added. “It would cost $15,000 to $20,000 to do this project, mostly in labor.”

Most of their expense went into plants, irrigation upgrades, decomposed granite, rocks and mulch.

Transitioning to a low-water landscape takes planning and patience, they noted. To earn the water district rebates, they had to replace a “living” lawn. The application for the rebate needed to be made and approved while the grass was still in place.

“So even though we knew we were going to take it out, I had to start watering (the lawn) again, just enough to green it up a little,” said Danny, a science teacher and cross country coach at Christian Brothers High School. “Once we got the OK (on the rebates), we stopped watering it.”

Because of their schedules, summer was their window of opportunity, explained Dorothy, who teaches dance in Galt. The makeover became a four-month project with a lot of digging and hauling.

Before they started, the Delgados decided to keep their shade trees – two large Oregon ashes – as well as a few rose bushes and assorted shrubs in a flower bed under their home’s front windows.

On the internet, Dorothy researched garden designs and plant palettes. She wanted a garden filled with flowers in complementary tones – not just a riot of color. With foliage ranging from silver gray to dark green, the plants also offer a variety of heights and textures.

“There’s no (true) red to clash,” she noted. “Instead, I chose lots of pink, purple, blue, orange and yellow and plants with a lot of texture. It’s not all one tone of green.”

Following her hand-drawn map, the couple used spray paint to lay out paths and a rock-lined “riverbed” that collects rain.

“We had to dig the riverbed by hand because of the tree roots,” Danny said. “Those trees are over 60 years old and their roots are like trunks.”

“And we placed every rock by hand,” added Dorothy.

For the paths, they sprayed the lawn with herbicide, then used a sod cutter to remove the grass. Those paths are now covered with 4 inches of decomposed granite, tamped down with a roller.

“I wanted to be able to walk around and see everything,” said Dorothy, who created the landscape design herself. “We never used to walk on the old lawn. Now, I walk around our front yard every day.”

Except for the paths and riverbed, the lawn was left in place. Unwatered for weeks, the old lawn was pretty much dead when they buried it under 6 inches of bark mulch.

Using a post hole digger, they punched planting holes through the mulch blanket and dead grass to place about 270 water-wise perennials, groundcovers and shrubs. Among their favorites are California fuchsia, ceanothus and catmint.

“You don’t realize how much work planting can be until you try to plant that many plants,” Dorothy said.

Most of the plants they chose are Arboretum All-Stars, recommended by the UC Davis Arboretum for their easy-care drought-tolerant beauty.

“We just planted our new garden in mid-August (last summer),” Dorothy said. “I can’t believe how it grew! I was so excited.”

They’ve found other benefits, too.

“I just love the hummingbirds,” Danny said. “They’re all over the garden.”

“And the pollinators!” added Dorothy. “We have so many butterflies and bees now.”

“That really makes all the work worth it,” Danny said.

“Now, we’re out here every day, seeing what’s in bloom,” Dorothy said. “It’s so fun to walk around and see all the color. It’s not just a boring lawn.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Rethink Your Yard

▪ Go to BeWaterSmart.info to learn more about how to “Rethink Your Yard” as well as find rebate information, plant selections and inspirational tales of landscape makeovers.

  Comments