How to Replace a Lawn with California Natives (and other drought tolerant plants)

I so enjoyed being a docent at Town Mouse's lovely garden yesterday (April 26), as part of the Going Native garden tour.

Town Mouse in her lovely spring garden
This year many earnest visitors told me the same story:
We want to replace our lawn with a native plant garden, but don't know how.
Since I recently wrote an article on lawn replacement that addresses this quandary, written for novice gardeners, I'm going to provide it here. I hope it's useful for you or a friend.

First, I would like to thank Pete Veilleux (his nursery is East Bay Wilds) for generously sharing photos of his landscaping work. Except for the Soquel garden photos (which are mine) the rest are from Pete's albums.

I would also like to thank landscape designer Annaloy Nickum, and those who recorded her talk "Converting a Lawn to a Native Plant Garden." You can view part 1 of 5 here (and get to the other 15 minute segments easily from that link). It was sponsored by the Gardening with Natives group of The Santa Clara Valley chapter of CNPS, and I used much info from this talk in my article, which follows, slightly adapted for posting.

Losing the Lawn: Save money, water and time, and gain freedom, by finally replacing that grass

If you are a busy person with a lawn, and are worried about water shortages—and the size of your water bill, this article is for you.

Lawns consume a lot of water, maintenance time, and often a lot of chemicals whose run-off is bad for the environment. Lawns themselves are also “green deserts,” as far as supporting wildlife.


There is a better, and easier, way to garden less: replace your lawn with drought tolerant natives and other Mediterranean zone plants that are adapted to summer-dry climates like ours. You might even qualify for a water district rebate (see the Water Coalition of Santa Cruz County’s rebate chart).

AFTER (shown in summer)

But, you might ask, isn’t it difficult to remove a lawn? Won’t drought-tolerant plants be higher maintenance—and also brown and ugly in summer? And will I have to become a native plant geek to figure out what to plant?

Not brown in summer!
Happily, the answers are: it’s pretty easy to replace a lawn, and with a little planning, your drought-tolerant garden will offer year-round color and interest. You don’t have to become a native plant expert, and your new yard will take much less maintenance than a lawn.

Does this sound too good to be true? The City of Santa Monica’s “garden/garden” project put it to the test.

In 2004 (and again in 2013), they installed landscaping in two similar gardens—a traditional lawn-based landscape in one and a sustainable, drought-tolerant, native landscape in the other. Then they tracked the costs and benefits over the years. In round figures, compared to the traditional garden, the sustainable garden uses about 1/5 of the water, takes 1/4 of the maintenance and creates about 3/5 of the green waste.

How to lose your lawn

The easiest way to rid yourself of your pesky lawn is called sheet mulching. You can do it in a weekend. You lay double layers of overlapping newspaper, cardboard or builder’s paper over the entire lawn, wet it down to ensure good contact, and add 3-4 inches of mulch on top of that. Builder’s paper is a good choice. Available at large hardware stores, it is heavy kraft construction paper and comes in long, three-foot-wide rolls. You can plant through the mulch immediately. For this method to succeed, you must deprive the lawn of all light so that it decomposes. To make sure that no light seeps in, you actually do have to remove a little bit of the lawn: cut back the sod six to eight inches from all walkways and sheet-mulch this area too.

Another way is to cut the turf to a depth of about six inches using a rented sod cutter and turn it root side up. You can pile the sod up to create one or more planting mounds, which add visual interest to a garden. Mounds are generally around foot and a half to three feet high and can be (for example) oval, kidney, or teardrop shaped. Compact the mounds and add soil as needed to grade the sides to a smooth slope. Then add three to four inches of mulch, such as small sized redwood bark, over the entire area (including the mounds), and add plants.

For larger lawns, you can use a combination of these two methods. For Bermuda grass, however, you may have to resort to more drastic methods such as solarization, covering the lawn with black plastic sheeting until grass and seeds “cook.”

If you plan to replace your lawn with a patio, you’ll have to remove the sod and prepare the ground as you would for any patio project.

Lynda Haworth and her cheeky puppy.

I just loved this blur of action puppy!

Lynda mixes natives and other Mediterranean plants in her garden.
In her Soquel garden, Lynda Haworth used widely spaced field stones with tough groundcover between, using Dymondia and creeping thyme. She piled up the sod to decompose and use elsewhere in the garden. Sod is mostly soil and can’t be recycled at the county landfills, so it’s best if you can use it on-site.

What to plant

What to replace your lawn with can be a daunting question, but fortunately many local landscape designers and even some plant nurseries can provide a drought-tolerant planting plan for your garden at a reasonable cost. The most eco-friendly gardens use local native plants in the mix, so if that’s appealing to you, be sure to let the designer know. Plan in hand, you can then buy and install the plants with confidence, or pay for those services too, depending on your budget.

Note: you can use native grasses for a less thirsty lawn - usually known as a "lumpy lawn" but this post doesn't discuss that - maybe another time.


AFTER (mid summer)

When planting through the mulch, dig holes not much wider or deeper than the root ball. Loosen up the roots and plant so that the root crown (where root turns into stem) is at or slightly above grade (ground level) for good drainage. Fill around the plant thoroughly and firmly to ensure you don’t leave air holes. Keep the mulch a few inches away from the root crown to avoid problems with fungus. Water the plants in well, so the entire root area gets a good soaking.

If you have an interest in gardening, you can create your own planting plan. There are a lot of great books to help you, such as California Native Plants for the Garden, Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates, The Western Garden Book, and (most pertinently!) Reimagining the California Lawn.

Group plants with similar needs for water and sun. Allow room for them to grow to their mature size. In their first year or two, drought tolerant shrubs may stay quite small (while underground they are growing extensive roots). In the third and fourth years you’ll generally see more rapid growth. You can fill the spaces between young shrubs temporarily with faster-growing plants.

To mitigate the summer brown phase of many lovely spring bloomers and summer-deciduous shrubs, select some plants that bloom in summer and fall, as well as some evergreen shrubs. I'll show some colorful summer-blooming native plant suggestions in the next post.

California fuchsia - Epilobium canum. Blooms in September. A MUST! for the sunny garden.
Local nursery staff as well as volunteers in groups such as the California Native Plant Society and Friends of the UCSC Arboretum can offer friendly and informed advice. Both organizations hold bi-annual sales, spring and fall.

How to care for your new landscape

A well-designed drought-tolerant landscape will last many years without a lot of attention. Avoid fertilizing and overwatering. Now and then, add more mulch, and pull weeds. You can leave seed heads on for interest and bird food, or deadhead to encourage more blooms. An annual pruning will keep the plants more attractive and healthy. Water infrequently but deeply. Avoid watering in the heat of day, to avoid problems with fungus.

A newly installed drought-tolerant landscape needs more frequent watering than a mature one. As a general rule, during the first year, water once a week in dry weather, and in the second year, once a month. By the third year your landscape may need no supplemental watering, depending on the plants you choose.

Leave space for the mature size of the plants! You can fill in with some shorter-lived plants if you don't like the brown mulch look!

Before you know it your garden will be alive with the sights and sounds of nature. You’ll be delighted – and all you wanted to do was save on your water bill.

Lovely summer native garden


Ed Morrow said…
Interesting and informative.
Any suggestions on where I might learn about how to use sheet mulching on a slope.?
I've got a weedy 20 degree slope that I would love to cover with natives, I don't know how sheet mulching would work on a slope. Any Ideas?
Country Mouse said…
Funny you should ask, Ed. I recently attended a talk about gardening on slopes by Chris - um. I just know her as Chris - she initially designed Town Mouse's back garden… I followed her advice:

I put down arborists mulch, unrolled hemp netting, pinned it every two or three feet, and then put more mulch on top of that. It has slipped a bit here and there but overall, it's really done a good job of weed suppression. I've got a few Ribes planted on the slop, not much else so far. I may be living in a fool's paradise but right now I'm just picking out occasional weedy grasses, sour grass, and calla lilies. I think I'll just be pulling callas for the duration!

Hope that helps!
ryan said…
Nice post. I love when I see people take out their lawns. Sheet mulching has worked real well for me. Good photos too, I've been two of those gardens in the photos, very nice.
LK said…

this is great information, thank you! I did have one question. Most of the sheet mulching information I've seen that's been provided by Santa Clara county organizations recommend a layer of compost over the cardboard, and then wood chips/mulch on top of that. But a talk I went to given by a native plants expert (also here in santa clara) said to Not put compost because he said native plants don't get compost within the soil in the wild, and they don't need it when we plant them in our gardens. And I noticed that you have also not included compost in your sheet mulching? Do you also not recommend compost when sheet mulching?

I'd really appreciate any information. I'm so confused!

Country Mouse said…
Hi Linda, I don't have a definitive answer for you, but I doubt that compost on the cardboard would be a good idea. As far as compost for natives in general - It can vary by the kind of plant you are putting in. A riparian plant will have a much richer soil than a chaparral plant. Many plants appreciate a layer well-finished garden compost each year under the mulch, when you're refreshing the mulch - not touching the stems or trunks though. I haven't done it but I'm lazy and garden in the wilderness where the soil IS the native soil, and we get leaves dropping etc. A lot of natives that live in soil lacking in organic matter and nutrients such as sticky monkey flower will actually do better given some compost or fertilizer, just maybe 1/3 as much as you would do for a regular ornamental. Some however, will not be able to tolerate it.

As far as compost between the cardboard and mulch, I wouldn't do that. I wonder if it affects how long the cardboard remains a barrier to weeds, i.e., how fast the cardboard decomposesI hadn't heard of putting anything on top of the cardboard till recently when I was volunteering at a school and they wanted to put soil on top of the cardboard and then mulch! I said not to do that. It just felt counter-intuitive.

There are no easy answers or a one-size-fits all answer! But I"d go with the native plant person over the county person if native plants are what you are planting.