Pay Dirt

Success! After removing our front yard lawn and converting the entire area to an assortment of drought-tolerant plants and small shrubs we’ve documented a savings in water usage, as compared to last year during the same billing cycle, with a fifty percent reduction.


With our high daytime temperatures and landscape watering restricted to twice a week, lawns aren’t necessarily dying, but they aren’t very pretty. I was motivated to make changes so that I could adapt rather than grit my teeth.

Other homeowners are removing large portions of their lawns and replacing with decomposed granite or a heavy reliance upon gravel and rock. We have a couple of areas with pea gravel as a base for some added sitting areas. We (we, meaning Jay) did the heavy lifting and created a very large and sweeping granite walkway that serves two purposes. Β I couldn’t plant anything under our shallow-rooted Redwood other than a few also shallow-rooted succulents. The pathway, with some ground cover between the stones, permits water saturation and breaks up the larger space with a purpose.

One of the things that has been a big concern to environmentalists is concern that in an effort to conform to the new rules, beneficial green spaces will be disregarded. If not accounted for properly, removal of all grass without some level of accountability could begin to affect trees and create even bigger problems over time. Additionally, people opting to use decomposed granite or only utilize rocks and gravel as replacement to turf could actually cause higher temperatures without the grass and greens to attract moisture at night and cool the area.

A fairly new-to-me term, heat islands, once thought mainly to pertain to highly urbanized areas, could begin to affect more suburban residential districts. Changing landscapes require some thoughtful planning.

What began as a response to the city-imposed water reduction mandates has opened up a rich and satisfying opportunity to learn a whole new plant vocabulary. I’ve been an avid gardener my entire life, but learning the differences between true California natives as distinctly different from the widely marketed “California Friendly” label, or simply the catchall term “drought tolerant” is a broad new vista of learning opportunity.

I’ve already taken a couple of on-line classes through the offerings of the Theodore Payne Foundation, a local non-profit with a mission toΒ inspire and educate Southern Californians about the beauty and ecological benefits of California native plant landscapes. This wonderful resource deserves a blog post devoted entirely to what it has to offer.

The results of our hard work are personally very satisfying. It’s been both amusing and interesting to me to observe how others have responded. Many of our neighbors have been highly complimentary, and it appears they are genuinely a bit intrigued. A friend in a neighboring city drives by almost daily just to “admire,” or so she says. She’s intrigued that because of our drip irrigation we aren’t getting many weeds.

Others have been quick to say “This is so you! I like what you’ve done,” and then they give me a good schooling as to why they will never give up their lawns. Or my favorite, “I don’t like cactus.” I have a few succulents, but no cactus. I just smile.

The birds, bees and the butterflies are very happy. It’s still 90 degrees and higher throughout most of our day and so at this point I can’t say I’m sitting outside observing as many changes as I’m hoping to document when it begins to cool a little, but right off the block I am very happy. The areas we haven’t completed can wait a bit, and we’ll just let nature tell us what to do next.

I hope to share more detail as I have time. In doing whatever research I needed just to embolden myself to get started I have enjoyed some Southern California blogs devoted to the topic of reducing water in the garden and I hope I can become a bit of encouragement to others considering taking up their lawns.

I have so much learning ahead of me in attempting to learn how to care for the changes in my own climate, so it’s not possible for me to be very knowledgeable about where you live. But each of us must be facing local weather-related challenges, sometimes resulting in a strain on natural resources. It is good for us all to consider what we can do to contribute to overall ecological health.

Again, this isn’t everyone’s path, and if you’re very partial to a green lawn this really isn’t for you. But I hope you’ll enjoy learning a little more about our choices. The classes I’m taking and the steeper learning curve in knowing how to prune and care for plants that are entirely new to me is something I’m enjoying so you’ll likely be invited to come along on the journey with me.

I’m looking ahead to Autumn when we will be ready to complete a few unfinished areas. We are hard workers, but we don’t want sunstroke.

If you happen to live in Southern California, please take a few minutes to learn more about the Theodore Payne Foundation. It’s a treasure of information. And if you aren’t local, I’d still encourage you to learn about the foundations and organizations in your area devoted to native plant cultivation. It’s a fascinating nearly endless subject!

58 thoughts on “Pay Dirt

  1. Oh, but this is SO brilliant, Deb !! It looks wonderful already; and yet it seems no time since you began.
    Add me to the complimentary passers-by IMMEDIATELY, please ! πŸ˜€
    And were you NOT to document it from now until forever, I shall be really annoyed. So there !

    • I appreciate your enthusiasm and positive response, M-R. I look forward to sharing more as a means of documenting what I’m learning. I was amazed at the growth over the summer. The plants are so well suited for the climate that the extraordinary heat doesn’t knock them down. You’ve encouraged me to go ahead and “show off” a little bit. πŸ™‚ Thank you, my friend.

  2. It’s beautiful! There are many different kinds of beauty. This is very creative and functional besides being environmental friendly! Great job! I live on the east coast so I can’t drive by but I’m giving you a big thumbs up!

    • Thank you, Kate. I am so glad you are able to appreciate the beauty in a landscape of brown. It’s quite different from what you experience on the east coast. I think you’re exactly right in acknowledging that there are efferent levels and standards of beauty shift and change with conditions. And thank you for the thumbs up. πŸ™‚

  3. Although we went drought tolerant years ago, I’m excited to see what the Theodore Payne Foundation can teach me. I think your landscaping looks great – lawns are boring IMHO. There was a recent article in the New York times about how bad lawns can be, both for the environment and for animals (including human animals). Thank you for sharing your journey and I look forward to reading/seeing more as time goes on.

    • Thank you so much, Janis. I appreciate the kind words of encouragement. It took me a long time to finally go “all in” and I’m now wishing I’d done it a long time ago. The Theodore Payne Foundation is a wonderful resource and they have a really great YouTube presence. You might really enjoy some of the videos. I’m glad I could spread the word. They are deserving. πŸ™‚

  4. This is the yard of the future! Environmental friendly, water-saving, climate adapting! Very well thought through and great execution. I think it’s so much more appealing than just a green piece of lawn with the usual flowerbeds. Now you have me thinking about our own rather boring yard (sigh) Great, Thanks Debra. πŸ™‚

    • Your description helped me understand a comment I received. One friend, describing her plans for her garden, made mention that she didn’t want a modern garden plan. I had the feeling she was talking about our choices, but I didn’t quite understand. With your analysis I think it’s a very good adjective. Modern! I love thinking of it as the yard of the future. I have a lot to learn, but I’m very happy with the way it has taken off. Thank. you for your encouragement to keep at it, Bridget!

    • Thank you, Nancy. It’s going to be fun for me to watch it change as the plants grow, and go through a complete growing cycle. I’m glad to share it with you. πŸ™‚

  5. I admire the spirit in which you undertook this project, Debra. It looks like you have created some beauty as well as habitat. I’m afraid I am looking for a cooler climate when I leave the Bay Area — I don’t crave lawns, but I crave fruit trees. Of course, there may not be any cooler climates left by the time I leave…

    • Thank you, Sharyn. Add a good 10-15 degrees (or more) to your Bay Area climate, and you can imagine how tricky it can be to make sound landscaping decisions. I hope you find your fruit trees in the just the right spot, Sharyn. That sounds like a lovely and achievable dream. πŸ™‚

  6. Definitely food for thought, Debbie. In the UK our son has not long been the proud owner of a house with garden. At the moment it’s just a long strip of not very good grass surrounded by hedges and trees and his primary concern is cash so nothing will be happening immediately. The house needs loads doing too and we’re currently there helping. But we’ll give thought to the best way to use what we have. It’s a totally different situation in our Algarve home where we only have a tiny outdoor space. I need to do some research. Thanks, hon, for leading the way. πŸ€—πŸ’—

    • Congratulations to your son, Jo! I take such delight in thinking of young person with his first home and all the projects! It’s all ahead of him in the best of ways, as he prioritizes projects and plans his future! It’s so good that you are there for support, Jo, and you’ll have much to share imagining the garden space. It’s fun to try things and be creative and so much less permanent than when we do projects in the house. In the garden we can more easily afford to make mistakes and learn from them. πŸ™‚

  7. Brilliant work, Debra. Three key points struck me. 1) Choosing to adapt rather than grit your teeth. 2) Research to plan before doing. Both of those points tap into the way humans solve problems. 3) Your flexibility, which is required for anyone willing to think outside the box. Cheers to your end result!

  8. I love how it looks!! That walkway with the seating areas and the pop of red cushions and umbrella, it’s so inviting. You may sell a lot of neighbors on the concept, just with how thoughtful you’ve been about everything. Simply beautiful, Debra!

    • Thank you so much, Gail. We had so much space to fill it seemed a good idea to put in a seating area (or two) to break up some of the space, and I’m sure when the seasons change and it’s cooler we’ll actually enjoy those spots. I feel like I have a whole new area of education in front of me, and that’s kind of fun. Now I just need the time to read and research, rather than working on the project itself. LOL! It’s so nice to hear from you. πŸ™‚

    • It’s true, Jim. I have been moving in this direction for a while before I was ready to eliminate all sod, but clearly we had to do something or I would have been complaining daily about the dying lawn. We can adapt when we have to. πŸ™‚

    • Thank you, Mimi. So much of the western United States is experiencing severe drought. It’s alarming to me, but I do utilize my garden projects as a large exercise in stress reduction. πŸ™‚ And yes, the Theodore Payne Foundation is a wonderful resource for me. πŸ™‚

  9. I love what you have done. Brilliant, Debra. Beautiful pathway and sitting place. Planning a yard like you have must be very time-consuming. I agree, we need to consider saving water. TX has a very dry year, we are restricted to water twice a week, too. So we recycle gallons of our kitchen water for watering plants.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful yard with us. πŸ™‚

    • We are depending on buckets to catch shower and kitchen water, too, Amy. It’s another step and can be time consuming but it’s become kind of a game to me. How much can I water on my “off” days simply from buckets. Thank you for your comments, Amy. I’m glad to hear of your experience with drought. 😦

  10. Well done for taking the plunge and removing the lawn! There will be so much more to enjoy – both for you and the wildlife! I don’t know much about gardening in your climate, but I suppose every tree that provides some shade counts and every plant that can aurvive drought is a treasure. I do know how difficult it is to keep new plants hydrated, until they have settled in. I am so looking forwatd to hearing more about this project Debra, and what plants you have put in and will add. It looks great so far, and the shady sitting area is very inviting! πŸ˜ƒπŸ‘

    • I appreciate your comments, knowing that our climate conditions are so different but we do share an appreciation for gardening, and understand there are challenges in every region! I do intend to talk more about the plants I’ve chosen and why and I hope it will be interesting to you. Thank you, Cathy.

    • I am always trying to observe the different insects and in some way learn more about them. It is an area where I do not feel very educated and all that I learn is typically by observation. I appreciate your encouragement to just keep learning about the way even a front yard garden will contribute to some measure of ecological well-being. I’m enjoying the learning process. πŸ™‚

  11. This is a huge undertaking and, as always, you have managed it well. The yard is beautiful and I think it will attract a lot of birds and butterflies.

  12. We are now officially in a Drought! I’m amazed how long it took the government to realise that, but then I’m guessing that introducing drought measures damages the profits of the privatised water companies and hurts self-servative voters… Oh how cynical of me!

    Well done on all your changes and the research you have done. Replacing lawns with gravel and stone slabs will certainly risk increased soil temperatures without the cooling and moisture retaining effect that plants have. Clearly there is a balance to be struck. In the UK, many of our front gardens have been turned into parking – that includes my front garden. This is also a bad thing as it causes a lot of rainwater, when there actually is any rainwater, to run away without penetrating the ground. Living in any part of a city like London means a struggle for room both to live and, by definition, to have somewhere to park that necessity of modern life, the car. With many of the local three-bedroom terraced houses converted to two or sometimes 3 flats, you may understand why there is pressure on availability of parking. I ask myself regularly, ‘do I need a car?’ The answer comes back as yes currently because I still have to get the weekly shop and sometimes drive Epi or Alasdair somewhere that they can’t easily go by public transport.

    The good news is my back garden where the weeds are running riot. My Fuchsia is a picture of golden death – leaves and flowers shrivelled and not a sign of green anywhere. The Buddhliea is green and looking happy as are the evergreen plantss. This despite no rain at all in the last 5 weeks and very little since January. I’m not feeding the birds currently as there is ample insect life out there for them. However, I have to clean and refill the birdbath every morning so they can get a drink. Epi has been enjoying some Blackberries and I suspect we will have more later in the season. As I said, the weeds seem best placed to handle things and they are surviving, if a little crispy πŸ˜‰

    On a different note, I saw the news of the destruction in the Klamath area. That struck home as it is an area that I am able to identify from American Truck Simulator. I have to report that we are also having fire issues now in and around the London area. An Essex village was very badly damaged last week and I doubt that’s the last fire of this summer 😦

    Good luck with your Autumn plans – I hope they go well. Looking forward to your next update πŸ™‚

  13. I don’t think of you as cynical, Martin, but certainly well-informed, which makes it very hard to suspend your thoughts and not see the political shenanigans behind district decision making. Water has always been a political issue in California and so we never get to the place where we do all that we could with reclamation and reservoir storage. And we just dip in and then out again on strong conservation methods. It’s a frustration, but it inspires me to do what I can in my own home. That’s about all I have control over. πŸ™‚ Thanks for your encouragement and for sharing of your own experience. I have been reading about your high temperatures but didn’t realize you were officially in a drought. It should be worrisome worldwide and not just a local concern. I think we are in for some rough times ahead. I’m not being cynical either, I don’t think. I just read the literature and can see things changing by observation.

  14. Debra, I read this the other day but didn’t have time for a thoughtful comment. So I’m back today and glad I waited, as I’ve also enjoyed reading all the comments. We converted our lawn to native plants in 2015, and I’ve never looked back. My husband took some coaxing, but he now loves it as much as I do. We added three water tanks that store 130 gallons each, providing 390 gallons of captured rainwater. That water helped us through this summer for our tomatoes, a few garden beds, and potted succulents. We’re now down to the last few inches in the tanks, but it’s been nice to have that available as these long dry spells get worse. My father was British and a horticulturist by trade. We had a beautiful garden at our home in Canada, one that he built lovingly from a dirt lot. It took a while for me to let go of that idealized English garden; like you, education was vital. I’m so excited for you, and like the others, I look forward to watching the evolution.

    Another interesting thing I heard recently, probably on NPR, was the somewhat racist origins of a vast green lawn. Again, it’s incredible what we believe, absent anything to tell us otherwise, and often shocking to learn we’ve been duped. Go, Debra!

    • I’m sorry it took me so long to read your wonderful comment, Alys. I’ve had some very “wonky” experiences with WP lately. LOL! But I’m really appreciative of what you share of your own experience. I am really impressed with the addition of the water tanks to your property. This was the first year since a teenager that I couldn’t justify growing summer tomatoes. I just knew we wouldn’t have the water. I’ve done some reading on diverting gray water but I don’t think we have what it takes to go that extra step. However, if we continue to have the drought conditions that we are currently under we just might. I kind of relate to your experiences with the traditional English garden as part of your early experience. My mother is a wonderful gardener and landscaper and even at 90 years of age she is still creating beauty. And she loves the traditional “cottage” look. Even she is being forced to change, however, as she has the same water issues we all do! I am very curious about the racist overtones of the vast green lawn…I have some sleuthing to do. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Debi. Any natives you add to your garden would be helpful, and likely by the time you sell, a good selling point. We need to talk soon, my friend.

  15. This is really inspiring Debra. So well done and so beautiful. Exactly what we need to do as individuals, although as you say this may not be for everyone…. though as long as each of us do something to conserve and bring forth an ecloogical awakening, every good action will add up to over renewal of the face of the earth. Good work indeed.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Bruce. We are really enjoying the result after so much work to get to this point. The natives are growing beautifully despite very little water, and no surprise, the non-natives that we hadn’t yet replaced, look so parched and I’ve even lost a few. My goal is to replace anything I can with another native. It’s been a rewarding undertaking, and I am only sorry we didn’t do it sooner. LOL!

  16. Dear Debra, many of us talk about climate change and the environment–perhaps it would be better to say, “I talk!”–and we stumble around in the darkness of a few bromides about it. But you! You not only talk the talk; you walk the walk. It’s inspiring. I’m so looking forward to your Autumn postings. Peace.

  17. Thank you so much, Dee. I’m delighted that we’ve made the changes, and have ideas now to do more in other parts of our yard. I don’t have grass in the backyard, but I do have flower beds, and without heavy watering the plants just look thrashed. So my goal this fall is to replace the backyard with natives, too. I’m delighted to know that we’re able to save water and still continue to enjoy our garden. As for other areas of environmental responsibility, we try. I think we have taken some good steps. However, we have a long, long way to go. Baby steps sometimes, right? Thank you, friend.

    • Thank you, Rosaliene. I went to your beautiful blog and can see that you’re in the same situation as I am with wondering how to best care for our gardens under the new restrictions. I really do recommend the Theodore Payne Foundation. If you start with their YouTube channel you’ll find lots of inspiration. I just watch for fun, even though some of their offerings don’t directly apply to me. πŸ™‚

I always enjoy hearing from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.