Last month, we offered up some tips for how to cut back on your water usage at home during California’s drought crisis. This month, we’re going a step further by examining the how-tos of replacing your lawn with the popular drought-resistant landscaping that is sweeping across our water-starved state. While some affluent California towns are saying “not on our lawns,” many eco-conscious (and cost-conscious) homeowners are ditching their lawns at record pace. In fact—according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), a consortium of water utilities serving 17 million—up to 5,000 residential lawns now vanish each month, which are then converted into drought-resistant gardens and yards.
Want to join the water conservation movement? Converting your water-guzzling lawn to drought resistant landscaping is easier than you think, thanks to these seven simple steps.
1. Reap the Rebates
Your local county, city or water district may pay you to remove your lawn. Up until last week, MWD paid Southern California residents $2 per square foot of lawn removed—but due to the program’s popularity, the program has been discontinued since “all of the money has been spoken for.” Homeowners in L.A. can also collect another $1-$2 a square foot, courtesy of an aggressive water conservation program called “Cash for Grass” from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Many other California municipalities have also followed suit. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, for example, offers homeowners up to $2 per square foot of converted high water using landscape, including irrigated turf or functional swimming pool, to low water using landscape. (However, you might have to wait for your rebate—there’s a backlog due to high demand). This site offers a list of most of the local landscaping rebate programs currently being offered up and down the state.
2. Xeriscaping by Design
You can always hire a company like Turf Terminators who works with the local rebate programs and will help you choose a design or landscape style for free. Or you can hire a more expensive landscape design consultant to sketch something for you. If you’re doing it yourself, however, it’s important to take in a few considerations. Keep in mind your zone, soil type, sun, shade, and slope conditions. Make sure to pick a plant design that uses water-wise plants to suit your preferences such as color and style.
3. Make Your Plant Purchase
Head down to your favorite local nursery with your design plan in hand, or order your preferred plants online. This nursery list should be a great place to start. Sometimes it might take a few weeks to locate the plants you want, so plan ahead.
4. Change Your Sprinkler System
Since most lawns already have overhead sprinkler systems installed, the existing irrigation pipes can be converted to more suitable systems for xeriscaping such as micro-sprinklers or soaker hose. Alternately, you can also water by hand for 1-2 summers. After all, the goal is to use plants that will need no summer water after the establishment period.
5. Killing Your Lawn Softly (And Safely)
Yes, we know—this goes against everything we have been taught about lawns, but it’s a necessary step! The easiest and best way to reduce your turf is to follow an “organic sheet-mulching” technique. Why? Because you won’t have to hurt your back by digging and hauling it to the dump. The technique is relatively simple: water generously, mow the grass close and spread the sheet mulch (made up of grass clipping, 5 sheets of regular newspaper, chicken manure, compost, and 3-4” of mulch). Once you sheet mulch, you’ll never be standing behind a mower and smelling its toxic fumes again. You are now ready to dig planting holes.
6. Dig In
This could be a family affair—grab the kids and teach them all about planting. First, you’ll want to dig pockets of planting holes directly in newspaper and compost, placing the plants high in the hole. Make sure the crown of the plant must be a few inches higher than the surrounding soil. Next, use the existing native soil for the planting hole, and water each layer well to settle the soil. The soil and compost will settle lower—this is expected. Keep the crown (the topmost part of the root) just at or above the soil level.
7. Mulch, Water…and Repeat
After planting is done, keep 3-4 inches of mulch. This helps retain moisture, helps suppress weeds and insulates young roots from temperature swings. Another important tip? Keep mulch 4-6 inches away from the base of the plant to keep the crown dry and disease-free. Once mulching is complete, you’ll want to give each planting hole a hefty splash with a garden hose. Depending on the season, return to water the new plants when the top 3-6 inches or so of the soil is dry.
One last tip: the key to long-lasting, good looking plants is correct watering….or not watering, in the case of California natives!