Water-Wise Lawn Alternatives
When to say NO to lawn
Sometimes I think lawn is just a state of mind. After all, besides the aesthetics of the green carpet between the sidewalk and the house, what real function does it have? I know, I know, you need a place to play croquet; the baby needs a place to crawl; the dog needs a place to run. Historically, mowed turf originated with the lush lawns of England and Europe, was imported across the Atlantic to America, and then in the mid-1800s became the dominant element in the California landscape.
There are places in the world, such as in England and the eastern U.S., where there is an abundance of rain to keep lawns green year round. Not here. We live in a Mediterranean climate: five or six months of sporadic rain, six or seven months of drought (much like the Mediterranean Basin, the Western Cape of South Africa, central Chile, south and southwest Australia).
About 97% of the world's water is found in the ocean. That remaining 3% isn't much for all the world's other needs, is it? In Sonoma County, a 500 square foot lawn needs about 2800 gallons of water each month, although many folks unnecessarily use up to 5000 gallons for that lawn. According to the Sonoma County Water Agency, here's how a three-person family in a single detached home uses about 150,000 gallons of water annually: 51% in the yard and mostly for lawn, 17% for toilet flushing, 15% for bathing, 11% for clothes washing, and the balance, 6%, for all other household uses.
We love a lawn, don't we? It is beautiful, satisfying, creates a lovely first impression, and we're accustomed to having it; it's almost an inalienable right. No one suggests getting rid of your lawn; in fact, some homeowners' associations will not permit you to not have one. However, there are plenty of ideas for using water more efficiently by reducing the size of a lawn, or by replacing all or some of your mowed turf grass with other materials, living or otherwise.
A study done in Colorado showed that neighbors and the townsfolk considered "natural" or "cottage garden" style landscaping in the front of one's house as "weedy" and unsightly. However, if just 10% of the front yard was maintained as mowed lawn, then everyone felt it was totally acceptable. So, the conclusion here is that you can certainly reduce the size of your front lawn as long as you do not completely eliminate it! Or, maybe you could, depending upon your neighborhood and your own preferences.
The possibilities are actually endless for changing the size and appearance of your front yard landscaping. Residents of cities like Phoenix and Santa Fe use a lot of gravel, unusual native placement rocks, "dry" creek beds, mulch, and perhaps a few carefully selected native shrubs or trees. Some folks in Sonoma County may not appreciate that look, but I've driven through many residential areas here and have seen some beautifully landscaped front yards in just that style. It's only one idea.
The fronts of many homes typically have "foundation" plantings, often shrubs, small trees, with a row of flowers bordering the lawn and entry walkway. You could reduce the size of that lawn and replace it with native California and other drought tolerant plants, so many of which are quite beautiful, colorful, have lower maintenance needs, and attract beneficial insects, butterflies and birds.
There's nothing more eye-pleasing than drifts of lavender, rosemary, and catmint, interplanted with Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan), Gaillardia (Blanket Flower), or Coreopsis. Think about various types of our native Manzanita, our electric blue Foothills Penstemon, our knock-your-socks-off Fremontodendron (Flannel Bush) and Ribes sanguineum (Red Flowering Currant), our natives Ceanothus (Wild Lilac), Blue Flax and Checkerbloom, plus salvias, oreganos, thymes, santolinas, yarrows, verbenas, and of course ornamental grasses.
The trick is to combine plants that have the same cultural requirements (water, light, soil, attention), keeping in mind their eventual size at maturity. Use a generous layer of mulch to insulate the soil, conserve moisture, and help prevent erosion and weed growth. And don't forget, just because a plant is drought tolerant, it doesn't mean no water. These plants need regular water for about a year until they're established, and then very little after that. Remember, California native plants, in particular, have evolved in our weather cycle of winter rain and summer drought.
A third idea is to install a natural or prairie landscape or a cottage garden. You know you've done it right when it appears to have simply "happened", but you will find that it does take some prior planning to achieve that look. Your natural landscape may consist of some rocks, dry creek bed, gravel, native plants, grasses, and wildflowers. A cottage garden is wilder-looking with a more colorful array of plants of all sizes, shapes, and forms including flowers, sometimes vegetables, herbs, and small fruit trees; annuals and perennials, including sunflowers and hollyhocks, are often used as well. And you will definitely attract a multitude of birds, bees, butterflies, and bugs into this style garden. Add a birdbath, a feeding station, a bench, and meandering pathways. And don't forget to leave that 10% of mowed lawn if you're so inclined and want the neighbors' blessing!
There are numerous books available on California native plants, drought tolerant or "water-wise" gardening, and maintenance of a healthy lawn using less water. Your town water department, the county water agency, and Master Gardener help-desk (707-565-2608) can provide free brochures and CDs on these topics as well as lists of native and drought tolerant plants. In the meantime, here are a few easy tips to help you reduce your water use and water bill:
- Install lawn as an extension of your entertainment area, for sports, or children's play areas. Otherwise, limit its size. Avoid odd-shaped lawns, as they're difficult to water efficiently.
- Check for broken sprinkler heads and drip lines. Good maintenance is key.
- If water runs down your sidewalk and street, you've over-watered or have a leak.
- If you water a hillside, remember that water runs downhill; plant something at the bottom of that incline to utilize that runoff.
- Put plants with similar water needs on the same irrigation station or drip line.
- Put plants which need the most water closer to the house and the ones with the least need further away.
- When mowing, raise blade to between two and three inches. This leaves enough leaf surface for continued grass food production and encourages a deeper root system.
- Leave your grass clippings on the lawn; these decompose quickly and provide nutrients for the soil. (Now, if your grass happens to be exceptionally tall, you may want to collect the clippings so you're not leaving windrows of grass up and down your yard!)
- If you do collect your clippings, put them in your compost pile or use them as mulch in flower beds or around trees and shrubs.
- Select the right type of grass for your climate and growing conditions, e.g. Tall Fescue is the most recommended for Sonoma County as it requires less water and fertilizer, is less heat sensitive, is tough, has a heavier blade, and withstands more foot traffic.
- For your pathways, patios, and driveways, if possible, use materials which are permeable (porous) and allow rainwater to return into the soil as groundwater. Some examples would be gravel, plantable pavers, slate stepping stones with wide plantable joints, polymerized sand between bricks or stepping stones, and pervious concrete.
- Participate in your town's give-away or rebate programs for low water flush toilets, efficient washing machines, aerators, shower head restrictors, irrigation controllers, and the like.
- While in your garden, enjoy the pleasures of hand-watering: you'll never over-water!