’s a familiar scene all across America: the kids are grown, the kiddy pool’s put away, but the lawn remains. On the East Coast where it rains all year that’s no problem. But in our summer-dry climate, where drought is the wolf that’s always at the door, there are few plant choices as inappropriate as an unused lawn.
Here’s the bad news: in addition to being high maintenance, lawns offer zero ecological benefits. They gulp water, lack biodiversity or enticement for pollinators or other beneficial insects, and the chemical stew known as “lawncare” can pollute our air and drinking water. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, lawn chemicals account for the majority of reported wildlife poisonings and several types of cancer, immuno-response deficiencies, neurological diseases and birth defects have been associated with exposure to lawn chemicals.
But let’s not dwell on that. The good news is it’s easy to replace a lawn and the options for what to put there instead are endless.
First step? Decide how to use the space. Sometimes we’ve become so accustomed to what’s been there for years that we forget that better alternatives exist. Maybe you need a patio or a shed where your lawn was. Or perhaps it’s time to upgrade by replacing your lawn with a rose garden, raised beds for a veggie garden, a shade tree and a hammock, or a collection of colorful perennials.
Next up? Lawn removal. Here again, good news. An easy way to remove grass is to smother it out of existence. Basically, this involves covering your lawn with cardboard topped with mulch, compost or soil or some combination. The idea is to starve your lawn of light so that it withers and dies. You can see this process in action by YouTubing “convert your lawn by sheet mulching” and watching a seven-minute bay-friendly landscaping and garden video. The beauty of this method is that you can plant into it immediately or you can let it “cook” for a few months and plant later. The choice is yours. When the time is right, you can turn the space that required regular mowing, edging, feeding and watering into whatever you deemed the best use of the space.
Let’s say you simply need another low, green, walkable expanse — just less thirsty. More good news: there are numerous alternatives to conventional grass. Here are some to consider.
Kurapia is a newcomer, bred in Japan and confirmed by UC Davis researchers to be drought-proof, disease and pest free, and not picky about soil. It’s a fast-growing, weed-suppressing evergreen ground-cover that grows about an inch tall and develops deep roots — often 3 feet deep — which is helpful to stabilize steep slopes. Its spring-summer flowers are enticing to butterflies and bees, but since they’re sterile there’s no risk of spread. Once established it requires little maintenance or water. It grows successfully on freeway shoulders, rooftops, public utility areas and backyards. It actually looks better with some foot traffic, and even survives when cars drive over it.
White clover (Trifolium repens) is another excellent lawn alternative — the stuff we used to consider a lawn weed. Today, many wise gardeners have swapped their turf grass for clover, which works in sun or shade, stays low and green, works in bad soil, is drought tolerant, adds nitrogen to the soil and — wait for it — doesn’t show pet urine stains! If you have a dog, this is a great choice.
Native grass blends
There are also some excellent California native grass blends — available by seed or sod — that use much less water and come in greens and blues and tawny tones. Delta bluegrass is a good source, as is Pacific no mow or perhaps your local nursery. Many native grasses grow into soft, billowy, naturalistic mounds. Interplanted with bulbs, they are evocative of meadows — a good reminder than lawns do not have to be manicured to be beautiful.