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A Study of Lawn in Our Gardens: Part II

Thursday April 22, 2010

Alternatives to Conventional Turf

In Part I of this article, we examined lawn and its place in California's landscape.  And for a variety of reasons, it is clear the ubiquitous use of lawn in California is inappropriate (perhaps borderline irresponsible) because of a host of negative environmental impacts.    But does this mean there is no place for lawns in our landscape?  Absolutely not! 

It is vital homeowners and landscape professionals closely examine the rationale for maintaining or installing a new area of lawn.   The following list is a series of helpful questions to ask when considering the environmental and financial appropriateness of lawn in your landscape.  After answering these questions, jot down a list of the pros and cons.  Often times, decisions to tough questions can be more easily answered when scrutinized on paper.

Do I enjoy maintaining my lawn? 

For many, the act of tending a lawn is rather tedious, time-consuming, and incredibly repetitive.  Would you rather be doing something else on your weekends? 

How often do I really use my lawn?

Perhaps a portion of your property is planted with a lawn that rarely sees any foot traffic.  Do you think you could downsize the area of lawn?  Or could you see yourself removing the grass entirely?

Do I know of all of the negative environmental impacts of maintaining a lawn? 

Often times, homeowners don't comprehend the extent to which lawns negatively impact the environment.  Most realize lawns use a huge amount of water but fail to see the connection between air quality, water quality, habitat degradation or other well-documented impacts.  If one realizes they are guilty of contributing to the degradation of the environment, they may often be interested in changing habits.

What does a lawn really cost me?

If you haven't already read Part I of this article, take a look at the cost tables associated with a lawn compared to a drought-tolerant landscape.  The cost differences can be staggering.  Knowing the true cost of maintaining a lawn versus a more traditional garden is vital when analyzing the pro's and con's.

Could I use this space for something other than lawn?

Could this area be used as a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, or a mediterranean garden?  Perhaps an outdoor gathering area or a cutting garden?  The options are limitless!  But this can often be the most difficult question for many homeowners to answer simply because it forces them to think about the design of their landscape in a new way.  If this becomes a stumbling block, consider contacting a professional landscape designer to brainstorm some ideas.  A few hours of a professional's time will pay dividends over the long run.


If after reading these questions you find yourself still in favor of lawn, then well done; you have vetted your reasons thoroughly and acknowledge the environmental and financial impacts are necessary.

But the vast majority of people will recognize their lawn in its current form doesn't fit into their lifestyle.  Not to worry, the hard part of analyzing the pros and cons is over.  Now the enjoyable part of re-imagining what your landscape can look like is about to begin.  Jump right into the Landscape Gallery to find inspiration.

If you still want a lawn or something similar but would like to be "less bad", below you will find suggestions for reforming lawn beginning from relatively simple weekend projects to more involved renovations likely requiring some professional direction and assistance.

Reduce the size of the lawn area.

This is as simple as it gets!  Scrutinize your lawn and determine what is essential.  With a bag of flour in hand, lay down a line to represent the new edge of lawn.  Then stand back, check for proportions, consider the required irrigation adjustments, and count the dollars and hours you are certain to save.  If you are undertaking the project yourself, take a look at our associated How-To article.

Replace with more drought tolerant grass varieties.

If you choose to replace your current lawn with a less water-intensive conventional grass, your first consideration will be what to replace it with.  According to Dr. Terry Massey, professor in the horticulture department at California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, the grass you plant should be reflective of the area you live in.  For coastal areas with a cooling influence from the ocean, fine and tall fescues are the typical grass of choice.  The cool nights in coastal areas do not produce enough radiant head for the more drought tolerant Bermuda grass to be successful without close management.  However, inland areas that receive little or no summer cooling effects in the morning and evenings can grow Bermuda more successfully. 

Most of the commercially available varieties of Fescue and Bermuda, states Massey, have been primarily bred for drought tolerant resistant qualities.

Less traditional varieties, such as UC Verde Buffalograss, closely resemble traditional lawns but have some unique characteristics such as extreme drought tolerance (claims to require ¼ of amount of water of traditional turf grasses), requires little to no chemical supplements, has a short mature height that requires less mowing, and is nearly pollen-free for allergy sensitivities.

Replace with a plant material with similar qualities.

If you are anything like the majority of people who have a lawn, odds are it is rarely used.  If this is the case, there are many different plants that can replace the lawn, require less water and less maintenance, and still provide the same open space feel.  Plants such as Thyme (multiple varieties) and Dymondia margaretae are tight, low-growing substitutes.  These plants tolerate some foot traffic but would not withstand heavy use.

thymus 'elfin' lawn

Thymus 'Elfin' in Santa Barbara garden.

Thymus praecox and Dymondia lawn

Thymus serpyllum & Dymondia margaretae "lawn".

Replace with a un-mowed meadow-like grass.

For good reason, meadow-like grass replacements are becoming quite popular.  These grasses (a few popular rhizomatic types are Bouteloua gracilis, Carex pansa, Carex praegracilis, and Carex glauca) can either be mowed a handful of times through the year or left alone and allowed and grow to mature heights ranging from 6"-16" tall.  They are extremely drought tolerant, tolerate heavy foot traffic, require very little supplemental inputs, and eliminate countless hours of pushing a mower.

Bouteloua gracilis lawn

  Bouteloua gracilis lawn at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.


carex glauca lawn

  Carex glauca lawn at Sage Eco Gardens & Nursery in Los Osos.

carex pansa lawn

Carex pansa display lawn at Sage Eco Gardens & Nursery in Los Osos.

carex pansa lawn

carex pansa lawn

Carex pansa lawn in Sunnyvale.

native ca sod in santa barbara botanic garden

Native California Sod during install at meadow in Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

santa barbara botanic garden meadow

Native California grass sod one year after install.