California drought: tips for homeowners to replace lawns | Leaf Probably

Jack McKeon’s drought-friendly front yard might not be the prettiest in town, but he loves it.

Last year, McKeon and his wife, Rebecca, bought a home in Sacramento’s La Riviera neighborhood.

The home’s small front yard looked just like almost everyone else on the block: Green grass, a lawn that they would need to water, even as state regulators urged Californians to reduce their water use to counter the state’s worsening drought .

Last summer, the McKeons chose to do what a growing number of Californians have been doing to reduce their water use as the state faces drought after drought – they killed their front yard.

“We just never really had a use for a lawn,” said McKeon, a 34-year-old contractor who works for NASA’s Ames Research Center. “We don’t really like them. Because they use a ton of petrochemicals in the form of fertilizers. You are a huge waste of water. They’re terrible for the environment because it’s like a wasteland for insect food.”

They gave their lawn a final watering with their sprinkler systems. Then they smothered the grass with some cardboard sheets, which they covered with a layer of compost and shredded bark.

Instead of grass, they now grow heirloom varieties of corn, tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables bred to do well in deserts with just a few splashes of water a day.

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Jack and Rebecca McKeon with son Gordon stood out in their drought-tolerant front yard in Sacramento this month. The couple removed their front yard and planted drought-tolerant plants and vegetables as part of a DIY project. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Total cost of the new “Yarden”: Approximately $800, which was money well spent by the McKeons.

Best of all, once they made the switch, they reduced their water usage by about 2,000 gallons per month.

As greens dry to gold, the dominant color of summer in Sacramento, and as lawn watering restrictions become almost an annual event, regulators and policymakers are encouraging more residents to do what McKeon did and water their lawns with something less water intensive substitute. Up to half of the water used in the state’s urban areas goes into outdoor landscaping, primarily to keep residential lawns green.

And they’re spending money to help people make the transition to a less grassy future.

Many water districts in the area offer rebate programs that reimburse customers for pulling their weed. For example, the Sacramento County Water Agency is offering up to $2,000 per household for its Cash for Grass program. The City of Sacramento’s Lawn Replacement Program recently celebrated a milestone, replacing 1 million square feet of lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping. Sacramento is offering a discount of up to $3,000.

High-end option with low water consumption

The peat replacement program hasn’t really caught on in east Sacramento, judging by the lush green lawns of Jeff and Desiree Cherye’s apartment building.

Unlike their neighbors, the couple’s front yard is a little shady oasis with neatly manicured bottle brushes, giant agaves, aloes and other plants humming with the sounds of bees and other bugs visiting the flowers for their nectar.

Jeff Cherye said he paid about $10,000 to have the grass removed in 2008, at a time when much of Sacramento didn’t even have water meters and discussions about droughts were years away.

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Jeff and Desiree Cherye are standing with their dogs, Hank and Clyde, in their drought-tolerant front yard in Sacramento earlier this month. They chose to remove their front yard and replace it with drought tolerant plants and an edible garden in their backyard. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

He said he and his wife, both anesthesiologists at area hospitals, never looked back.

“It’s largely maintenance-free,” he said. “It looks beautiful … and I just feel good not having to waste that water.”

His landscape architect was Roberta Walker, whose business in Sacramento was thriving as clients wanted their outdoor spaces to match the realities of contemporary California, where drought is increasingly the norm. Even so, many people think that a garden that uses little water must be ugly, she said.

“People have the idea that a drought-tolerant landscape is all rocks and cacti, and it’s not,” Walker said. “A drought-tolerant landscape can feed your family and pollinators — the birds, the bees, and the butterflies.”

Lawn conversion for less

And you don’t necessarily have to hire an expensive landscape architect to get that, said Chris Brown, former executive director of an organization now called the California Water Efficiency Partnership.

He said he spent $600 to transform his garden in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood into a native plant landscape.

Like McKeon, he did the work himself. He bought the plants from local landscape shops, which sell them. He said the starter plants were only $5 to $10 each, and they picked up speed quickly.

“It’s full of all kinds of plants that belong here,” he said. “That way they don’t really stress out during the drought and I don’t have to overwater the lawn because I don’t have a lawn. I have a yard. I don’t have to overwater the landscape.”

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Drought-tolerant plants fill the front yard of Jeff and Desiree Cherye’s Sacramento home. Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

However, Brown acknowledges that weed will be hard to give up for some.

For those who want to keep grass around their homes, he urged them to replace water-intensive varieties with more drought-tolerant species like tall fescue and Bermuda grass.

“You will save water,” he said. “And these grasses will take infrequent watering.”

Assuming you’ve already switched to a drought-tolerant outdoor space.

How do you convince your lawn-loving neighbors to lose their weed without getting upset about it?

Desiree Cherye, who has this chic, drought-tolerant garden in east Sacramento, gave this advice.

“Most of the time I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, this is so easy to care for and looks so beautiful,'” she said. “It’s more like publicity without shame.”

This story was originally published June 19, 2022 5:00 am.

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