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Lush lawns that use less water

  • Marie Narlock

    Homeowners are thirsty for lawn alternatives. Not only are we fed up with maintaining our lawns - or paying someone to do it for us - but we also realize that nothing is more eco-unfriendly or inappropriate for our summer-dry climate than grass.


    That green carpet we are so accustomed to mowing, fertilizing and watering is great for areas like the East Coast, where it rains year-round. But we live in the Golden State, remember? The hills turn gold in the summer, not green. That's why water departments around the state are offering "cash for grass" programs. In fact, the North Marin Water District will pay up to $1,000 to clients who take out their lawns, because they know that it's the fastest way to reduce water use and the accompanying burden on our reservoirs. Today, half the water used to irrigate gardens in Marin is used for lawns. Those lawns demand electricity for the water to be pumped to sprinkler lines, fertilizers that wash down our storm drains and out to sea, and mowers and edgers that spew noxious fumes and deafening noise.
    But it's not all bad news. Sometimes, despite its drawbacks, a lawn is the best choice. The first step to determine if your lawn is needed - or needs to be removed - is to ask yourself if it's truly being used. If, for instance, your kids play on your lawn all the time, it is serving a purpose. Ball fields, golf courses, parks: where would they be without grass?
    But do we need grass in median strips? At the Humane Society? Or in your front yard just because it was there when you bought your house? If your lawn is there more for looks than for function, then it's time to consider replacing it. Simply put, the easiest way to keep your lawn area green and lush is to kill it and plant something else.
    The easiest way to convert a lawn into something else is to smother it. Otherwise known as sheet composting or the "lasagna method," this is a gardener's best weapon for turning a compacted, nasty patch of weeds or lawn into plantable space. After mowing the grass and leaving the clippings, simply cover it entirely with three layers: cardboard, compost (at least 6 inches thick) and then mulch. Over time the cardboard breaks down and what's left is crumbly, healthy soil. Even before it breaks down, many plants can be put directly in the freshly layered concoction.
    Now comes the fun part - what to plant. There are more and more grass-like plants becoming available that mirror the look of a lawn but use less water. Here are a few to consider.
    - Delta Bluegrass - This company (www.deltabluegrass.com) offers native and non-native lawn alternatives. Each option creates a slightly different meadow-like look and will take some foot traffic. Let plants grow up to a foot long (and a little floppy) or keep them mowed. If given a little water in the summer they should stay green; if left to their own devices they will turn a golden color in summertime, but then bounce right back to green once the rains come. All Delta Bluegrass alternatives are available in sod. Its non-native Mow Free product is a combination of three different types of fescues and is especially lovely with some shade. It has a bit of a wiry, lush look and feel. The Native Bentgrass is a low-growing, slender, narrow-leaved grass that looks great massed. The Delta Grasslands Mix is a mix of three native grasses, which performs well on many soil types and consists of fine-leaved, tufted and creeping grasses.
    - Pacific Sod No Mow - Similar to Mow Free, this grass (www.pacificsod.com) creates a meadow-like look. Unfortunately, it doesn't take much foot traffic, so a few stepping stones artfully placed would be a beautiful, as well as functional addition. Left unmowed it grows up to 18-inches tall. It takes a third less water than a typical lawn and likes partial shade. Like Mow Free, this sod is a fescue blend.
    - Native bunch grasses - The key difference between bunch grasses and regular lawn grass is that conventional grass spreads underground by rhizomes and therefore creates a flat mat. Bunch grasses are, well, bunchier. They form little mounds that over time take on a naturalistic look and feel. Check out the entrance to the Strawberry Shopping Center in Mill Valley or Crissy Field in San Francisco for good examples.
    There are a handful of Carex species that create wavy swaths of green. Carex pansa, or dune sedge, is an evergreen, creeping grass that grows well in full sun or partial shade. It grows to less than a foot tall and only requires mowing three or four times a year and watering two to four times a year. A cousin, Carex praegracilis, is very similar in appearance but grows more than 2 feet tall. Another native grass, Festuca rubra, takes some foot traffic and is drought tolerant. It is an easy to grow, fine-textured grass that likes a little shade. It makes a lovely naturalistic lawn or can be mowed to look more like conventional turf.
    Taller native grasses create stunning, but taller, meadow-like settings. Two to consider are deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and blue fescue (Festuca idahoensis),
    - Other ornamental grasses - There are so many other beautiful, colorful grasses available. Of course, like their native counterparts, many get too tall or too lumpy to create a walkable surface, but a small patio or meandering path placed between a mixed border of ornamental grasses is stunning. Grasses expert John Greenlee refers to this type of design as a "Mediterranean meadow." Look for his upcoming book, "The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn," due out this fall.
    A few to consider are blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), Atlas fescue, (Festuca mairei) and autumn moorgrass (Sesleria autumnalis).
    - Stepables - If you've seen tags in your local nursery pots shaped like cute little feet, then you've found Stepables ( www.Stepables.com). This online and in-nursery supplier offers a wide variety of low-growing groundcovers that take foot traffic. These range from flat green mats to colorful, floriferous evergreens that are less than 6 inches tall. I searched the Stepables online plant finder for a drought- tolerant groundcover that could take moderate foot traffic and got 16 options..
    A few to check out are purple creeping Mazus (Mazus reptans), creeping thyme (Thymus praecox 'Pseudolanuginosus'), elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum 'Elfin') and pleniflorus (Lotus corniculatus 'Plenus').
    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.