Creating a Drought-Tolerant California Garden: How to Replace Your Thirsty Lawn With Lush Plants and Grasses

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Spikey, fan-shaped dark green leaves fill the foreground, with wavy glass structures in red and light blue behind the plant. Behind that is a large bamboo plant.
Drought-tolerant succulents and palms are displayed during the 29th annual San Francisco Flower and Garden Show at the San Mateo County Event Center in March 2014. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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The megadrought California is enduring right now is the worst in more than a millennium.

In the last two decades, we have only sporadically not been in a state of drought, and the first three months of 2022 were the driest on record. Now, nearly every inch of California is experiencing severe or extreme drought, or even worse: A thick, donut-shaped ring in the Central Valley is in an exceptional drought — the highest drought designation the U.S. Drought Monitor gives.

Most residents, though, have not been moved to replace their lawns by the kinds of stark facts that seem only to lead to more restrictions. But what if moving to a low-water landscape meant more butterflies, more birds, and a startling array of colors and textures? Since about half of all residential water use goes to landscape irrigation, that's a good place to look first to make some significant cuts in your water use, and your water bill.

So, what are the best ways to begin? And are there other benefits to low-water landscaping besides the obvious?

KQED Forum spoke with three experts about how to get started and what to do:

  • Flora Grubb, owner of Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco
  • Shawn Maestretti, founder and principal of the landscape architectural design firm Studio Petrichor
  • Caitlin Hernández, LA Explained reporter with KPCC-LAist
A close-up shot of bright orange poppies, filling the image, with blurred greenery in the background.
California poppies are a colorful feature in a regenerative front yard garden that has replaced a typical grass lawn, in Los Angeles in July 2022. Authorities are encouraging residents to replace their lawns with water-wise gardens that require very little irrigation by using native and non-native drought-tolerant plants coupled with terraforming that captures rainwater, to save water amid California's historic drought. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

How and where do I begin?

First you want to build healthy soil, but you don't actually have to take out your grass to do that. Instead, you can cover it up. Shawn Maestretti recommends what he calls "lasagna mulching." Think of ordinary cardboard as the pasta and mulch as the cheese, and layer the cardboard and mulch right over the grass — using recycled moving boxes, for example, rather than ones with waxed or brightly colored cardboard.

This part doesn't need to cost a lot, Maestretti notes. Cardboard, of course, can be free; you can look for leftover moving boxes on sites like Craigslist and Buy Nothing, and sometimes you can find free mulch there, too. Some cities offer free mulch.

"Overlapping that cardboard and layers of thick mulch help to prevent that grass from growing back and it starts to build healthy soil," Maestretti says. "That's a place to start."

Flora Grubb says the method for removing the lawn can depend on how large it is. Using a flat shovel to remove the grass may not be too much work for a small area.

"I hopped on the YouTube to take a look," she said, "and there are some great suggestions of DIY ways to remove a medium-sized lawn."

What about using chemicals to get rid of the grass?

Nope. For one thing, the chemicals may not be safe for children, pets or adults, says Grubb. They also work against one of the main things you're trying to do, which is build healthy soil.

It's too much work. What about just using fake grass?

That would be another nope. A lot of chemicals go into producing fake grass, so it also won't build healthy soil. Then, there's the heat. Synthetic turf increases the heat-island effect, Maestretti says, and with a gravel layer underneath it, water won't get into the soil.

"We want life," he said. "We want to support life."

How much will this cost?

Major landscape overhauls can be expensive, depending on the size of your yard and how much you spend on plants, says Caitlin Hernández. In her recent story, "How to Swap Out Your Thirsty Lawn With Drought-Friendly Plants," Hernández describes the rebate programs some water districts offer. For example, some pay $2 to $4 per square foot to trade out your lawn.

"And there are rebate programs that will also even help you with converting your sprinklers to something like drip irrigation or a rain-capture system," Hernández said. "So we always recommend, if you're in a position to be able to afford an investment like this type of project, they're great to do because you're going to get paid back to do it."

If you're a renter, you can also petition your landlord and let them know about the residential rebates that could be available.

What plants are best for low-water landscaping?

People used to think a low-water garden could only be made of cactus and stone, notes Flora Grubb, and that may be what you want, but if not, your garden can look as richly alive and unique as any garden.

"I think that when we're talking about using less water in the landscape, it's just important to dispel the myth that it has to look any one way," she said. "What we want is for people to have landscapes in their lives that they love."

You might want to go golden, or choose a wide range of colors, or you might want a lot of green, Grubb says. You might also choose plants from other parts of the globe that are as dry, or drier, than California.

"We have plants with big, lush, green leaves that use significantly less water," Grubb said. "We have plants with really abundant flowers that use less water and, of course, plants that wildlife love."

Gardeners who've made the switch say they have flowers that bloom year-round; they have more wildlife, more bees, birds, squirrels, and maybe small lizards if they're in your area.

Most local nurseries can tell you which low-water plants will do well in your area, Hernández says. You can also scope around for California native plants on websites like Calscape, she adds, where you can search for plants by attributes like height or how much water they require.

"In my experience," she said, "maybe the most useful is looking at by ZIP code. So you can pop in your ZIP code and see what's growing locally near you."

But Hernández says it's still worth checking with your local plant nursery, because some plants in databases like this may not grow as easily in the climate that California is developing today.

What about my trees?

Both the experts and people who have already traded out their lawns agree that trees can be worth preserving. Trees give you shade and cool in the summer, and, if you have deciduous trees, they mulch the landscape naturally when they drop their leaves, making more healthy soil.

"The more we can support the carbon in the soil — leaves, mulch and organic materials in the soil — that increases our water-holding capacity," said Maestretti.

In winter, the bare branches let more light in, and offer more passive solar heating in your home. It takes a lot of resources to grow a tree, so it can be worth making sure they don't die by watering them at least minimally during the summer.

How do I care for my low-water garden?

You will need some amount of water, say Grubb and Maestretti. Some people hand-water, or you can look into whether your water district offers rebates for installing drip irrigation or rain barrels. One popular method, as drought has worsened, has been to install gray water systems, where residents can divert sink and shower water and use it to water their gardens.

Large succulents with broad, flat, silver leaves blend with tall, delicate yellow flowers. Behind the plantings is a tall garden gnome carved from wood.
Drought-tolerant succulents are displayed during the 29th annual San Francisco Flower and Garden Show at the San Mateo County Event Center in March 2014. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A tip sheet from the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County advises that gray water should be added to gardens with drip irrigation, and never with sprinklers. It can also be used on food crops, as long as the edible part of the plant does not come in contact with the soil. Lettuces are out, and staked tomatoes are in, at least for the tomatoes higher up on the vines.

Maestretti says one more important thing to note about gray water, is that it typically has a high salt content.

"Salt in the soil, or sodium in the soil, that sometimes comes with reclaimed water can restrict roots from being able to take up water, and our trees need water," he said. "So being mindful of where you're using gray water and what kind of gray water you're using would be something I would explore."

Soaps and cleaning products that are plant-friendly will generally be biodegradable and free of salts, boron and chlorine bleach.

My water goes downhill and won't stay in my garden.

This is a common problem, since many lawns were designed on purpose with a downward slope to prevent flooding in heavy rains and to funnel water to the street and stormwater drains. Hernández says when you design your low-water garden, you can create your own small water sinks to keep rain on site.

"This is an excellent opportunity for you to kind of dig out what they call concaves," she said, "where you want to make a small bowl-shaped dip, where it actually retains water better than a standard lawn because it's shaped to keep it in."

Can I stop weeds from growing in my garden?

Well, no. Weeds are going to grow when their seeds drop onto the soil from above, or grow up from below, says Grubb. All gardens need some amount of care, and some amount of weed-pulling.

And this relationship of being with the land is important, says Maestretti. No matter how well-designed and how beautiful, the success and sustainability of your garden depends on your relationship to it.