- Author: Cynthia Kerson, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
A couple of years ago, my husband and I decided to plant a lawn alternative in an unlandscaped part of our Napa property, an area covering about 1,100 square feet. In my Master Gardener training, we learned about options for low-water, low-maintenance groundcovers that also benefit pollinators and other outdoor allies.
After considering the many choices—such as clover, meadow sedge, Dymondia (silver carpet), fescues, buffalo grass, thyme and no-mow California native mixes—we chose Kurapia (Lippia nodiflora). This low-water groundcover was developed in Japan and has been studied by researchers at UC Davis.
Kurapia is not a grass. It's a perennial broadleaf groundcover that flowers from spring to fall. It can grow 3 inches tall and loves heat and sun. You can mow it to eliminate its bee-attracting flowers if people walk on your lawn or children play on it.
We bought sod from a local distributor and spent two hot days installing it. We hand-watered twice daily at first, then daily, then every other day, and finally once a week throughout that first summer.
Unfortunately, the sod also contained Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), which is hard to eradicate since it spreads underground. A pre-emergent herbicide can control bluegrass, but many pre- and post-emergent herbicides will also kill Kurapia. The beauty of Kurapia is that, once established, its roots are so densely intertwined that they will choke out weeds. But since our planting was new, the bluegrass was winning.
The distributor promised to replace the sod the following spring (the best time to plant it), so we stopped caring for it over the winter. The Kurapia turned brown and its long and deeply intertwined roots became visible. It seemed that the Kurapia was indeed dying out. We postponed the replacement for another year since the drought was severely limiting our available water.
In the spring of 2022, we finally put down the replacement sod (professionally installed in three hours). Throughout the summer, we watered it on the same schedule as before. The rainy winter gave the Kurapia the additional water it needed for good root development. Even so, the Kurapia looked like it did the previous winter, and we worried that it was getting too much water and either dying or becoming diseased.
This spring, the Kurapia turned green again and, for the most part, it is healthy. Our property has a 5 percent grade, and we monitor the highest area for evidence that the Kurapia needs watering, which so far has been about every three weeks (a little more often than advertised).
A water meter revealed that we use about 1,600 gallons per watering. We do this about five times during the warmer months, which amounts to about 8,000 gallons a year. A typical lawn requires closer to 70,000 gallons a year. We didn't install an irrigation system, thinking it unnecessary, so I use a sprinkler and move it around manually—admittedly not the most efficient method.
One area is obviously less healthy, so we spread compost there and watered. It's still not doing as well as the main area, which is flowering and attracting butterflies, moths and bees. The issue may be poor drainage. The area is under a big palm tree that may be shading it too much and taking too much of the water. We are watering this area slightly more often because it becomes “crunchy” underfoot. We learned that the crunchy sound indicates that the Kurapia needs more water. A brown appearance and spongy feeling underfoot may indicate a fungal disease, likely due to too much water.
All in all, the Kurapia is a success. It's a bit higher maintenance than we expected, and it dies back unattractively in winter. However, from April to the end of November, its blooms provide pollen for bees and other pollinators, and we have the lawn-like environment we wanted. Kurapia can be invasive, so we planted it in contained sections bordered by walkways. We edge it every two weeks or so.
This fall, the Las Flores Learning Garden at the Las Flores Community Center will be installing its fifth garden, which will showcase lawn alternatives, including Kurapia. If you're contemplating replacing your lawn, you may want to explore this new garden area at Las Flores as it develops to assess maintenance needs and growth habits of the different alternatives.
Fall Faire: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for “A Gardening Science Fair for All Ages” on Saturday, September 30, from 1 pm to 4 pm at Las Flores Community Center, 4300 Linda Vista Avenue, Napa. Get more details here.
Library Talk: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a free Napa Library talk on “Lawnlessness: Thinking Beyond Turf” on Thursday, October 5, via Zoom. Learn about lawn alternatives that are attractive, lower maintenance and drought tolerant. Register here to receive the Zoom link.
Tree Walk: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County on Sunday, October 8, from 10 am to noon, for a free guided tree walk at Fuller Park, Oak Street and Jefferson Street, Napa. Space is limited and each person attending must register separately. Register here. Food Growing Forum: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a free forum on “What's Eating Your Edibles?” on Sunday, October 8, from 3 pm to 4 pm, via Zoom. Join us for an overview of the pests that want to share the fruits of your labor. Learn to identify them, and how to use integrated pest management to protect your garden bounty. Register to get the Zoom link.Help Desk: The Master Gardener Help Desk is available to answer your garden questions on Mondays and Fridays from 10 am until 1 pm at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa. Or send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, address, phone number and a brief description.