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Lose the Lawn

Did you know that a typical modest-sized front and backyard suburban California lawn consumes 45,000 gallons of water per year? And to stay pest and weed free, those water-thirsty lawns use more pesticides and herbicides per acre than any other crop grown in the country! More and more homeowners are opting to lose their lawns in favor of drought tolerant landscapes that not only look beautiful, but are saving one of our most precious resources-water.

So let’s say you are one of the ‘converted’ and you are tired of being a slave to that thirsty green patch. What do you do? There are several methods for lawn removal and the one to choose is the one that fits your pocketbook and your physical abilities.

  1. Mechanical removal: This proven method uses a sod cutter to cut the roots of the lawn as it makes strips of lawn without removing much soil. The strips can then be rolled into balls and either composted or used as foundations for berms in the new landscape design. A tiller can also be used to remove the lawn, but this requires several weeks of tilling, watering to see what grows, re-tilling and re-watering until no further grass or weeds appear.
  2. Solarization: Solarization is taking advantage of the sun’s hot summer rays to do the job of killing the grass and everything else under the clear plastic. (This process was used in the Master Gardener demonstration garden to get rid of Bermuda grass.). Once you have the area marked off, thoroughly water the area to be covered. Then lay down 3 to 6 millimeter thick clear plastic down over the grass. Make sure to overlap the plastic so there is complete and total coverage of the grass area. Make sure that all edges of the plastic are sealed with either duct tape or sand. Do not leave any gaps. Make sure to keep all seams covered during the process. Let the sun do its work and in four to eight weeks you will be able to plant.
  3. Sheet Mulching: The sheet mulching method (also known as sheet composting) is simply layering organic materials to kill your lawn by smothering it. Start by watering the lawn just to moisten, then lay dampened newspaper (at least 5 sheets thick) or cardboard on top of the lawn. Manure is then layered over the top of the newspaper or cardboard. Continue the layering process using other organic materials such as shredded leaves, pine needles, straw, compost and even soil. Alternate dry and green materials just as you would in a compost pile. The finished height should be at least 12 to 24 inches deep. Keep the sheet mulch moist as this will speed decomposition. As it decomposes the layers will lose height. In four to 6 weeks you can start planting, by either pulling back or parting the mulch where you want to install plants.
  4. Lasagna Bed Method: This is virtually the same as sheet mulching, but is usually used to add planting beds at the edges of the lawn or in the middle of the lawn. Once you decide how much of the lawn you want to turn in to beds, just follow the sheet mulching process described above.

For more detailed information on lawn removal, low-water design, and plants to use in a water reduced landscape, you will want to read Reimaging the California Lawn, Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien. These are the same authors of California Native Plants for the Garden, my absolute favorite native plant garden book. The new book details seven garden designs and provides a list of plants (both native and Mediterranean) to use in each design. Each plant is profiled so you will know where and how it can be used in the garden.

I recently attended the ‘Bringing Back Natives Garden Tour’ held in the San Francisco Bay Area. Several home owners had replaced their front lawns with native plants. The gardens contain a mix of native grasses, shrubs, trees and perennials; all are quite attractive. Some gardens contain berms-which not only give the garden depth and interest-but also allow the great drainage that natives love. Several of the owners created back gardens with native grass meadows where their children can play. One homeowner proudly displayed her water bill for the past three years…in September, 2007 it was $97.00. By Sept. 2010 it was down to $54.00. Something to think about.

If you would like more information about losing your lawn, call the Master Gardener Hotline at 533-5912 or stop by the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden and talk to a Master Gardener. The Garden is open the first Saturday of every month through October. The next Open Garden Day, “Kids Day in the Garden,” is Saturday, June 4th beginning at 10:00am.

Carolee James will be installing a backyard native plant garden when she moves to Oakley.