Is It Time to Ditch That Lawn?

Deer Running through Wildlife Corridor in Topanga State Park, CA, Photo by:

Deer Running through Wildlife Corridor in Topanga State Park, CA, Photo by:

It is so dry that deer have appeared on the Pepperdine lawn.  Anyone who has spent any time in Malibu or has just driven up the Pacific Coast Highway has seen that huge expanse of green-covered hillside that is the front lawn of Pepperdine University.  I try not to think about how much water it takes to keep it green throughout the summer!  Now, it seems that the Santa Monica Mountains are so dry that deer are bringing their families down to the Pepperdine lawn to drink the freshly watered lawn, in January!

CA Governor Jerry Brown has just officially declared a Drought Emergency in California. 2014 has been the state’s driest year on record, with reservoir levels dropping and no rain in sight. If this winter does not bring rain soon, mandatory water rationing will be implemented.

This is the third dry winter in a row, and the Dept. of Agriculture has declared a Natural Disaster for 27 California Counties largely because of the impact on agriculture throughout the State.

The Governor is urging all citizens to take whatever steps they can to cut down their water use (by at least 20%). He urges us to take a moment to think about how we are all connected to each other in a time of water crisis, as well as to the plants and animals that live here.

Wildflower Seeds from Theodore Payne Nursery

Wildflower Seeds from Theodore Payne Nursery

It is time to be a sustainable gardener in California. What better time to ditch that lawn?  More than 50 percent of water use goes to landscaping, in particular lawns. Besides being waterhogs, lawns are unhealthy (to us, to our pets, and to butterflies) because of the high amount of pesticides used to keep them up.

Why not let your lawn go brown?  There are plenty of sites and videos that can show you how to lose your lawn, incl. what grass removal method will work best for you, such as the easy and popular lasagna style.

What will replace my lawn?

1. You can remove entire lawns and replace them with Zen gardens of big boulders and tiny rocks that are raked into designs.

2. Or, plant meadow seed mixes. Theodore Payne’s Nursery is an excellent source for CA native wildflower seeds and grasses.

3. Make your lawn smaller and your borders deeper. Plant drought tolerant native plants in your borders. I love salvias for their drought tolerance and variety.

4. Make a center island design for a native plant or pollinator garden in the center of your lawn.

Purple Sage of Central CA Coast, Photo by Kathy Vilim

Purple Sage of Central CA Coast, Photo by Kathy Vilim

Other water saving measures without losing the lawn include:

5. Reducing your water use in the garden by keeping your topsoil from drying out using mulch in flower beds and small stones in garden paths.

6. Capturing gray water from laundry and showers to reuse in the watering the garden. This made a huge difference in my Topanga Canyon garden!

White Sage (Salvia apiana) Flowers Get Lots of Attention from Hummingbirds, Photo Courtesy of Las Pilitas Nursery

White Sage (Salvia apiana) Flowers Get Lots of Attention from Hummingbirds, Photo Courtesy of Las Pilitas Nursery

In most of the country, where snow falls and covers the lawns for months, the ground gets to rest, and the gardener gets to rest, too.  Out West, we keep trying to keep things green all year long even in dry summers.  Now it seems we can’t rely on all that water imported from places like the Colorado River to keep our manicured lawns looking their best year round.  Instead, we need to make the best use of our precious resources: We need to be more sustainable gardeners.

What does that mean? To be a sustainable gardener means to use as little of nature’s resources as possible, and to create gardens that will take care of themselves for years to come. There is no better proven way to do this than to landscape with native plants.  Native plants are naturally adapted to the conditions in which they live. While some are more drought tolerant than others, most native plants only require extra water when they are first planted and are getting acclimated, or during unusual circumstances like no-rain winters.

If we So Californians are serious about living lightly on the land here, we have to remember that the water piped in here is imported, every drop taking away from the water tables of other places.

Luckily, our mild January weather gives native gardeners an opportunity to still get out there and make some big changes right now.

Not sure where to start?

Look for native plants that do not need a lot of rainfall (drought tolerant).  There are nurseries that specialize in natives in your area that would be happy to help you with ideas. Note: Plants called Xeriscape plants are drought tolerant, but are not necessarily native plants.  So if you want to bring a balance to the ecosystem of your garden, you want to opt for adding drought-tolerant natives instead of plants from elsewhere.

Contact the CA Native Plant Society for suggestions on choosing native plants in your Region, where to find them and where to see them.

Some of my all-time favorite native plants that are drought tolerant and also beneficial to pollinators include all of the Sages. White Sage, Purple Sage, Black Sage. These are bee & hummingbird & butterfly magnets.  They stay green all year long and are a nice backdrop for many other natives.

Have you ditched or reduced your lawn? Do you have any water conserving tips? If so, we’d love to hear from you~

© 2014, Kathy Vilim. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Bob Vaiden says

    It’s way past time to dump the obsession with the ‘alien weed grass’ of lawns… That fetish has gone far past amusing to the obscene. Vast amounts of our dwindling fresh water supply are still WASTED on this nonsense (I worked as a groundwater geologist for most of 3 decades). A little lawn is fine…in appropriate places. Most of the Western US (and even much of the Midwest) are NOT ‘appropriate’ places!

    • says

      Thank you for your comment. You pretty much hit it on the head: lawns in So Cal especially are a huge waste of water! Somehow people feel they are “entitled” to be able to have a lawn. If cities took the lead in ditching lawns in public places (like around city bldgs), it would help set an example.
      kathy vilim recently posted..The Magic of Monarchs in Winter

  2. gayle karlsen says

    I live in Texas and we have had years of drought. I got tired of trying to keep St. Augustine grass looking good by wasting many, many gallons of water on it. It suffers from drought but also from being too wet. If its not looking like crap because of water issues, it suffers from chinch bugs and other insects, many types of fungus, etc. I just don’t understand why anyone continues to bother with a lawn in this part of Texas. SO, I had almost all grass removed from my acre of property and replaced it with native plants, rocks, pathways, etc. Grass, to me, is useless but the native plants are always covered with birds, bees, butterflies, etc. I only have a few small patches of St. Augustine and have over seeded it with clover. When I was a child growing up in Wyoming, all lawns had clover and we loved it. Grass seed always had a percentage of clover seeds in it. My lawn, while living in Norway for 12 years, was full of beautiful clover which was always covered with bees, etc. I don’t know when clover became considered a weed. I think it was when weed killers were introduced and we were bombarded with the idea of perfect, weed free lawns. I do NOT consider clover a weed and think people with grass benefit by having clover mixed in. It doesn’t need a lot of water, bees and butterflies love it, it does NOT need fertilizer as it makes its own nitrogen, it stays green even with a freeze, it doesn’t need to be constantly mowed and it just makes me happy seeing it!!!


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