By Jason Tilley
During the worst of our recent drought, Bay Area media bombarded us with water-saving suggestions. Prominent among these was replacing lawns with less water-intensive landscaping. We’ve had a couple of wet winters since, which has reduced the urgency, but we Californians know that the next drought is always around the corner, so I thought I’d revisit this issue.
I went through the lawn replacement process a decade ago (pre-drought) motivated in part by water conservation, but largely by the fact that I hate mowing the lawn. This might sound like an odd statement from someone writing a gardening column, but I don’t consider lawn-mowing gardening. Gardening is a creative endeavor, in partnership with nature. Mowing the lawn is just the outdoor equivalent of vacuuming (which I also hate).
Not everyone feels this way. For some folks, lawn-mowing (or vacuuming, for that matter) is a relaxing, zen-like experience. Also, some people cherish their lawn as a place to run around with the kids or sunbathe, or they just like the way it looks. That’s fine. I’m not trying to convert anyone. Instead, this article is directed to those who’ve considered lawnicide, but been deterred by the amount of work or expected expense. I want to share my experience, and assure you that a lawn replacement doesn’t need to cost a lot, and that you can do it yourself with much less effort than you may assume.
Plotting Your Lawn’s Demise
The best method is known as sheet-mulching, which is a fancy way of saying, “smothering it”. You just mow the grass down as low as possible, then spread out overlapping pieces of cardboard or several layers of paper. Then top with at least two inches of mulch. By the fall, after a couple of months without light or water, your grass will be as dead as a Walder Frey’s clan on Game of Thrones. (If your lawn is weedy, this will also take care of the weeds. Only a few vining plants, like Bermuda grass or bindweed – whose runners can find gaps in the cardboard – tend to survive sheet-mulching.)
You can buy various types of mulch in two-cubic-foot bags at Home Depot, or in bulk at places like American Soil in Richmond (the latter has about the best selection). But the cheapest option is to get wood chips from a tree service. They’ll almost always deliver a load for free. These people earn their money pruning trees, and the limbs they cut off and chip are a waste product that must be disposed of. If no one wants them, those chips must be hauled to the dump, so taking them is doing the arborist a favor.
You can either phone around to local tree services or go to chipdrop.com and sign up. Either way, expect to wait a few weeks, and be prepared to accept whatever they have on hand (quantity and quality) when your number comes up. But as an arborist profoundly remarked to me once, “Hey, after a while it all turns brown.”
One recommendation based on my personal experience (i.e., mistakes): if you have a large space, don’t try to do it all at once. The project will be more fun and less exhausting if you do it in stages – perhaps over more than one year, if you have a big lawn to murder.
It’s Dead, So Now What?
Now the big question: come fall you’ll have a new, blank slate to work with, so what do you put in place of that lawn? Let me start by listing the bad choices to avoid.
Decorative Rock. This is an older landscaping style, but one sees it frequently in El Cerrito. I gather it was in vogue when that area was built up, but I still see new installations. My neighbor down the street did it not long ago. Many people think of decorative stone (quartz, lava rock, colored gravel, etc.) as “no maintenance” landscaping. It’s a lie – don’t fall for it. The front yard of my current home had been partially (and only partially, thank the seven gods of Westeros) covered with white quartz by the previous owner. The quartz was laid over a perforated plastic weed barrier, which had tiny holes to allow storm water to drain into the soil while stifling the growth of any weed seeds below. The flaw in this system is that many seeds are airborne, and get deposited atop the stones. Also, dust and leaves blow in, some of the leaves decompose before you can remove them, and you wind up with just enough growing medium to let some of those weed seeds germinate. The tiny roots then find the drainage holes in the weed barrier and proceed to grow. The rock prevents you from removing the weeds with a hoe, and when you pull them up by hand, guess what? You rip holes in the weed barrier, creating more openings for other weeds. The only way to keep rock landscaping looking good is to regularly spray with an herbicide such as Roundup – which is being increasingly linked to cancer.
Also, your electric bill will go up.
Plants pull moisture from the soil and into the air in a process called transpiration. This process absorbs heat, providing a natural cooling effect. Conversely, that decorative rock absorbs heat from the sun and radiates it later. As an urban area, West Contra Costa experiences the so-called “heat island effect” because our homes are surrounded by asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks. Replacing vegetation with stone just adds to that effect, so whatever you save on your EBMUD bill you’ll probably end up paying to PG&E for your summer air conditioning. If you don’t have A/C, you’ll pay in suffering.
Ivy. Another old style that one still encounters is English ivy. While it’s green and needs minimal water once established, its vines must be constantly trimmed back to prevent it from climbing and growing over nearby trees, fences, buildings, pets, loved ones, etc. My yard also came with a patch of ivy that I have to prune out of my plum tree regularly. Perhaps more importantly, it can damage ecosystems some distance away. I’ve done occasional volunteer sessions with Spawners, a group restoring natural creek habitat in El Sobrante, removing ivy from local stream banks – ivy that might not have even originated nearby. This plant produces berries, which birds consume and then poop out (with fertile seeds intact) sometimes far from the source. My own ivy patch may have originated in this manner. (Invasive Himalayan blackberry spreads the same way.) I’m not sure if anyone is really planting ivy anymore, but if you were considering it, please don’t.
Juniper. Juniper is another oft-seen front lawn substitute, and it does have certain virtues. It’s easy to maintain with hedge trimmers, and needs little water. However, fire departments hate it. I recently attended a lecture on urban forestry at Arlington Park (because when you write about gardening that’s the sort of thing you do on weekends), and learned that the City of El Cerrito is discouraging or may even ban planting of junipers. Like the infamous Eucalyptus, the plant has a high oil content, and after a long dry summer, a lit cigarette butt can make it go up like the Great Sept of Baelor when Cersei fire-bombed it in season 6 (which will, mercifully, be my last Game of Thrones reference).
On the other hand, firefighters have a somewhat myopic focus, and all design, including landscaping, involves trade-offs. There are dozens of juniper varieties, including ground-hugging ones that don’t grow over a foot tall and are unlikely to become a “fire ladder”. If you want to plant junipers, I’d suggest finding one of these.
Carex. An increasingly popular lawn substitute is Carex, which is a genus of native sedge. A sedge is similar to a grass in that both words have five letters, but where “grass” ends with an “s”, “sedge” has that letter at the beginning. No doubt there are more substantive differences, but I don’t know what they are and have never cared enough to look it up. (I’m sure Wikipedia has a fine article on the subject, if it really matters to you.) Suffice to say that Carex is like a bunch grass that grows 12-18” high but stays green with very little water. You wouldn’t use it for a playing field, but if you want something similar to a lawn – albeit a lumpy one – Carex is the way to go. If you’re curious, drive out Castro Ranch Road between Pinole Valley and San Pablo Dam Roads and you’ll see a vast patch that was planted in front of the Carriage Hills subdivision. It looks good.
Lippia. Lippia (or Phyla nodiflora, to you botonists) is a native ground cover. It only gets a couple of inches high, so unlike ivy it won’t smother taller plants, but it spreads quickly, stays green, and is covered with tiny multi-colored flowers in summer. I’ve used it extensively in my front yard, and the only maintenance I do is edging it monthly so it doesn’t grow onto paths and sidewalks. Like Carex, it needs little water beyond natural rainfall once established.
Shrubs and Perennials. The list above offered choices that are vaguely lawn-like – simple alternatives for covering a space with green plants. There’s no rule that says you can’t get more interesting. Spend some time at one of the east bay’s fine local nurseries (particularly the ones that sell native plants). Find a couple of shrubs or a few perennials you like. Keep them in pots until autumn, and once your lawn has fully expired, push aside the mulch in your chosen spots, cut slits in the cardboard, and dig holes for your plants. Water the transplants deeply and regularly until the winter rains come. Those same rains will cause the paper or cardboard to decompose. By starting this process in the summer, you’ve put nature’s seasonal cycle to work for you.