Outdoor watering has a bigger impact on Southern California’s water supply than you might think.
We’re known for our lush green lawns because the sun is always shining — it’s our ever-present resource. The water we use to water them, however, is not. Extended drought, climate change, suburban development — all of it means we can no longer take our water for granted.
Think about that. Half. That increases in hotter areas like Southern California, too.
That’s why local agencies have enacted watering restrictions to stem the drought.
“Southern California cannot continue the way that we have been,” says Krista Guerrero, a resource specialist at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “We can't sustain that anymore.”
Whether you have a lawn of your own or it’s your landlord’s, the time to create a truly drought-resistant space is here.
For each square foot of grass removed, people can save an average of 44 gallons of water a year.
It might seem like a daunting task, but converting a lawn can save you — or your landlord — money (and you can even get paid to do it). Here’s your guide to updating your lawn.
Converting Your Lawn Step-By-Step
Step 1: Observe, Observe, Observe
Before you go ripping up any grass, you’ll need to come up with a plan. You’ll want to take time to study how your area works with the environment you’re in, and how you interact with it. (Got questions? Try the UC Master Gardener helpline.)
Guerrero says people should begin by gathering ideas from other gardens they enjoy.
“All California-friendly landscaping is beautiful, but it’s all in the eye of the beholder,” Guerrero says. “It all depends on the person and what you like, what your aesthetic is.”
Look closely and ask yourself these questions.
- What is your lawn shaped like?
- Does it need a bowl shape to retain water?
- How much sun does it get and where?
- Where will you want shade?
- How do you use the space?
- What kind of area do you want? For example, do you want a small bird and wildlife habitat? Will you need a walkable ground cover so kids can play on it?
- How much grass are you considering removing? Are you sure it’s the right amount?
We asked LAist readers to share tips about drought-friendly plants they love, too. If you’re looking for inspiration, Jennifer Orsini from Pasadena recommends heading to these Los Angeles County spots for a wide range of drought-friendly styles.
If you’re not near a major garden, you can always check out the greenery at a local nursery (and it’s another great place to ask experts your burning questions!) The California Native Plant Society’s Calscape has a database of nurseries around the state.
Orsini has grown her garden for nearly 40 years, transitioning into low-water tolerance during the 1980s drought. We’ll share more about the plants she’s loved (and others to consider) further down.
Step 2: Know Your Grass
“Not all grasses are equal,” says Johnathan Perisho, a project manager at the Watershed Conservation Authority. The type of grass your lawn has can influence what you do next.
If you have cool-season turf, like Tall fescue or Perennial ryegrass, your lawn is probably staying a deep green all year. But those grasses are mostly native to Europe — not the U.S. — so they need a lot of water to stay alive in California. If you’re trying to conserve the most water, you’ll want to think seriously about reducing or removing it.
St. Augustine and Bermuda grasses are examples of warm-season turf — meaning the grass is used to a hotter climate, and doesn’t stay green year-round. Both of these grasses originated in other countries.
Janet Hartin is an environmental horticulture advisor at the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resource. For comparison, she says some cool-season turf can need about 30% more water than Bermuda grass.
“I will say that our warm-season grasses — it’s not that they're not drought efficient,” Hartin says. “It’s the method of watering in which we have water running down our streets and sidewalks.”
That’s why many rebate programs that pay you to take out your turf require a more water-efficient system instead of sprinklers, like drip irrigation.
You might not want to remove all of your grass because it can help lower ground temperatures. But regardless of the amount, you’ll still want to know your grass type because certain ones can be a pain to take out.
“If you're looking to remove turf, some are much tougher than others,” Perisho says. “In the case of the Bermuda grass, they can put their roots down like 20 feet. They can grow back from even less than a centimeter piece of root. It’s a lot easier to get rid of it entirely before really starting to plant things into it.”
If you’re looking for a truly native grass, California has 645 types to choose from. Hartin suggests Deergrass — a big green porcupine-looking plant that can grow up to 5 feet tall — and local sedges. The Valley sedge’s grass blades clump together at about 1 to 3 feet tall. Once these grasses mature, they scarcely need watering (like many of the native grasses on the list).
Step 3: Plan To Keep Water In
Using less water is one thing. Keeping the water that falls from the sky in your garden is another.
“We're not just facing a water shortage,” says Perisho. “We're also sending most of the water that falls in our region out to the ocean by design.”
Runoff water ends up in places like the L.A. River, where it’s rushed into the ocean to reduce the chance of flooding. During our drought, it’s liquid gold going down nature’s drain.
“When you’re doing a lawn conversion, it’s a really a great opportunity to do some other improvements that are closely associated,” Perisho says.
This is where shaping comes into play. For example, the downward slope of most lawns allows any water that falls on it to slowly roll away. When you’re converting your lawn, that’s your time to design it in a way that keeps water in.
One way to do that is to create separation between your yard and the street by placing barriers. You can make it sink inward a little by digging out a slight bowl shape. Solid items (like rocks) can direct water toward your plants, too.
When doing a lawn conversion, many people will change out their sprinklers for a more water-efficient system, such as drip tubing, drip lines or subsurface irrigation. You might want to bring in outside help for this.
[Jump to: Should I DIY It Or Hire An Expert?]
Step 4: Send Your Grass To The Great Beyond
At this point, you should have sketched out what you want your new, California-friendly area to look like with plants and irrigation plotted out.
Then it’s time to kill the grass (I know that sounds harsh!). There are multiple ways to do that with different amounts of labor, money and time, according to the University of California's master gardener program.
- Sod removal: Yes, I mean cut it out (and compost it). You can use a sod cutter to roll up your grass or grab a shovel — but if you have that Bermuda grass, don’t waste your time. The roots go much deeper than the few inches this method achieves.
- Solarization: This method works best in high-heat areas. You’ll take sheets of plastic and cover short grass in an airtight way to trap the sun’s heat. It takes about one to two months. When it’s done, let the grass compost in place.
- Sheet mulching: This method uses cardboard, newspaper and a lot of time. You’re essentially making an outdoor lasagna — it’s not a pretty sight but it gets the job done for cheap in about six months. You’re going to add layers of materials onto wet ground that ultimately blocks out the sun.
- What about herbicides? The jury is out on whether that’s smart to use for lawn removal. It can run expensive to spray glyphosate (a.k.a. RoundUp) and other grass killers all over. There are serious risks that the leftover chemicals could get into our water supply, too. Maybe let’s not do that.
Should I DIY It Or Hire An Expert?
It is possible to do your own turf removal, but it’s going to take time, some gardening skills and a lot of physical labor. How comfortable you are with those three things can determine if you hire an expert or go it alone.
You’ll need at least a basic knowledge of gardening, Guerrero says. You’ll want to know how plant placement influences sun, shade and watering. You can get a lot of that information from nurseries when you’re buying a plant.
But when it comes to irrigation changes, this is where people usually bring in experts because it’s more complicated. The Metropolitan Water District has a certification program exactly for this purpose — backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the district’s program, they learn about water-efficient landscaping, irrigation, and how to manage a landscape to make sure that it stays under a certain amount of water use. They also learn how to identify water-efficient plants and how to put them together.
“They're really equipped, at that point, with the knowledge that they need to go out and properly install these landscapes and properly maintain them,” Guerrero says.
The district has a list of certified contractors by county. It’s OK to have a handy neighbor with gardening skills do all this work — just make sure they know what they’re doing.
Picking The Right Plant For Your Neighborhood
Now you have an empty (or soon-to-be) space, you’re probably wondering what plants you should put in. Where you are in L.A. County — what elevation you are, how warm it gets — can influence what plants to pick.
“L.A. is really dynamic,” Perisho says. “The inner valleys get a lot hotter and a lot colder than the more coastal areas. That can make a really big difference.”
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s not necessary to use only native plants. “I think it's all about balance,” Hartin says. It’s good to have a mix of native and non-native plants for biodiversity — and there are a lot of non-native plants supporting our ecosystem with drought tolerance already.
If you do buy native plants, you’ll want to make sure they’re actively growing in our region, which your nursery will know. Calscape’s native plant finder, which is searchable by zip code, and SelectTree from Cal Poly are tools to help you find the right plant or tree.
In general, plants that are born and raised nearby can have better longevity.
“When we talk about native plants and picking the right plant, it’s not just if it’s a California native — it should go in your yard,” Guerrero says.
We’re talking about trying to get as hyper-local as you can to make sure that your plants survive.
Here are some easy-to-manage native plants that grow around L.A. County, need little watering, and are commonly found in nurseries, according to Calscape. (For a more detailed list, see LAist’s native plants guide).
- California buckwheat
- California poppy
- Desert globemallow
- California fuchsia
- Hummingbird sage
- Showy penstemon
- Sugar bush
- Lemonade Barry
- White sage
- Woolly bluecurls
San Fernando Valley
- Chalk dudleya
- Common manzanita
- Santa Cruz Island buckwheat
- Summer holly
San Gabriel Valley
- Black sage
- Coyote bush
- Giant wildrye
- Mountain mahogany
Santa Clarita Valley
- Broom baccharis
- Chaparral mallow
- Fuchsiaflower gooseberry
- Hollyleaf redberry
- Bush sunflower
- Malva rose
- Purple needlegrass
- Red bush monkeyflower
- Climbing penstemon
- Giant Coreopsis
- Sea cliff buckwheat
- Silver lupine
- Golden yarrow
- Spiny redberry
- Hollyleaf cherry
- California goldfields
Jennifer Orsini, the reader who suggested gardens to look at in L.A., has her own list of favorite plants, based on the stand-outs in her yard in Pasadena. They vary from full sun to filtered sun, to shade — “all with a focus on survival under stressful conditions.” Here are some of her suggestions:
- Caroline cherry-laurel: These trees are very drought-tolerant and native to southern states. Orsini’s is older and about 30 feet tall. She says they’re “good for shade, borders, and screening depending on how they are trimmed.”
- Cape honeysuckle: A bush with small leaves and red trumpet flowers, which attract hummingbirds. “This is a big part of the greenery background in my yard, up to 6 to 8 feet high if I let it,” she says. “And [it’s] very fast growing. In filtered sun and deep leaf mulch, I only water in very [dry] months.”
- Strawberry tree: This is a flowering evergreen tree that can run up to 40 feet tall. Orsini’s tree is about 50 years old. She says if it can get enough water in the winter, then she rarely has to water it herself.
LAist’s early childhood reporter Mariana Dale recommends the Hummingbird sage (which is local to L.A. County). “I love, love the way the leaves smell!” she says. “[Watering] depends on the location, but anywhere from a few times a week to monthly.”
John Gurnee from the San Fernando Valley suggests Matilija poppies, which are native to California. (But be careful, this flower can be invasive.)
Programs That Can Help Foot The Bill
I bet you’re imagining that the price tag for a project like this can get expensive. I’m not going to lie — it can depend on what you’re doing to your space and what decor you add, if any.
Costs can easily reach thousands of dollars, but how much you invest is up to you. The good news? Rebate programs can reimburse you as much as 40% of an average lawn conversion cost. (And they'll often help cover the costs of irrigation updates.)
Couple of things to be aware of:
If you’re going to apply for a rebate, make sure that you begin the paperwork before you start altering your yard. Most applications require before and after photos to document the progress. And oftentimes, you have to wait for an acceptance notice before digging in.
Know that artificial turf is not allowed for these programs. The government agencies involved are focused on reducing water use and encouraging natural plant growth.
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
The turf replacement program from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is one of the main rebates available. It offers $2 per square foot as long as you follow the rules. (The program is open to anyone in their coverage area, or you can verify eligibility.) It requires:
- three plants per 100 square feet
- a stormwater retention feature
- no hardscape, except permeable hardscape (for example, no paved walkways)
- replacement or modification of overhead spray sprinklers
L.A. County Waterworks
Cash for grass is a rebate program with L.A. County Waterworks. It gives $1 per square foot, with a minimum requirement of 500 square feet. The most money you can get is back $5,000. Here’s the program’s eligibility:
- Must be a customer of the L.A. County Waterworks Districts 21 (Kagel Canyon), 37 (Acton), or 40 (Antelope Valley).
- The existing grass area that you’re planning to replace needs to be maintained — meaning don’t let it get overrun with weeds or brush. They’ll check.
- Brown or yellow grass still qualifies for the program.
- You have six months to complete the conversion, and you can immediately stop watering the area to be replaced.
- Your landscaping plans must include:
- native or drought-tolerant plants
- mulch or decomposed granite
- un-grouted stepping stones
- permeable hardscape
The lawn-to-garden program from Cal Water offers a whopping $3 per square foot. You’ll have to remove a minimum of 250 square feet of lawn. For single-family residential applicants, the most you can get back is $4,500 (1,500 square feet). For multi-family residential and non-residential applicants, the maximum is $30,000. The program covers the Antelope Valley, East L.A., Hawthorne and many other areas in the state.
Here’s more about the program’s criteria:
- At a minimum, 50% of the project area must be transformed into a water-wise landscape.
- Your lawn has to be alive — not dead.
- You’ll have to keep the finished project in compliance with the program for at least 5 years from the date of approval.
For more lawn rebate programs throughout California, use this master list.
Caring For Your New Garden
You’re all set. The grass is gone, money is in your pocket and new, drought-friendly plants abound. Now what?
As you embark on your drought-friendly lawn adventures (oh how fun they are), continue to do what you can to maximize your water while using as little as possible. Here are two takeaways to keep in mind.
Follow the hydrozone. It sounds futuristic, but it’s a basic planting principle. Make sure plants with similar water and sun needs are next to each other. (Ideally, by a valve in your new drip irrigation system.)
Monitor your water use. Overly packed soil and excess watering can be a landscape’s worst enemy. But you shouldn’t be overwatering, right? The whole point of this project is to save water. While some young plants require more water until they mature, that should be it.
If you find yourself watering frequently (e.g. multiple times a week), that’s a sign that something is up. Look into increasing shade so that the sun doesn’t dry out your plants. Loosening the ground and spacing out plants can help, too.
Don’t be afraid to use gray water! This is water that’s already been used (e.g. in laundry machines) — it’s generally good to use on fruit trees and landscaping. Keep in mind that gray water usually has chemicals, so you shouldn’t use it on other plants that will grow food.
“There are also branch drain systems where you can actually tap into gray water from your shower and sink,” says Perisho. “It's a little more complicated — you definitely need some more professional assistance with that, unless you're really handy.”
Gray water has its limits depending on what it was used for. If it was mixed with waste, the bacteria can harm your plants. Don’t do that. (No one wants a smell!)