If you’re like many homeowners, the drought has you eyeing your lawn with malicious intentions. So, what are the alternatives? A rock garden? A crop of succulents? A major patio expansion?
What if you still want to toss the ball around in the backyard, or have a place for the dog to, well, do its business? We asked two local landscapers for turf alternatives that will save water, yet may not require you to kick your lawnmower to the curb.
This type of native grass is an excellent turf alternative because of its vibrant green color and moderate tolerance of foot traffic, said Nicole Doud, landscape designer for All Seasons Gardening and Landscaping. It will do well in a variety of conditions, from cool coastal climates to inland areas with some summer heat. It is attractive both as a solid groundcover, or as a billowing meadow, mixed with other native grasses and perennials.
Maintenance: Monthly mowing results in a short, 2- to- 3-inch lawn. If you prefer the look of a naturalistic meadow, cut annually with a string line trimmer. An edging material keeps borders looking neat.
Watering requirements: Water Carex praegracilis once to twice per week depending on your micro-climate. It may need more watering to keep it green during hot summer months. Once established, you may be able to cut back on watering.
Pros: This carex offers the lush, verdant look of a turf lawn, yet requires up to a third less water. Let it grow long for maximum water savings.
Cons: This type of lawn is typically started with plugs, which can be pricey and may take up to a year to fill in. If you have dogs or kids, it could be nearly impossible to keep them off the plants while they are getting established. The result could be a patchy-looking lawn.
As its name suggests, Elfin thyme grows extremely low and tight to the ground, and therefore is an ideal groundcover, said Todd Davidson, general manager of Sage Ecological Landscapes & Nursery. It has an attractive dark green color. Though it is commonly used between paver joints, it can take light foot traffic on its own.
Maintenance: Because it grows low to the ground, it only needs periodic edging to keep it looking tidy.
Watering requirements: Water approximately twice a week, depending upon soil type and climate.
Pros: During the warm season, Elfin thyme will be carpeted in a show-stopping rich magenta bloom. Once established, it is drought- and heat-tolerant. Thyme is also relatively easy to plant. Simply buy in flats, divide each flat into 20 segments, and plant eight to 12 inches apart, measuring from the center of each chunk.
Cons: Thyme can only take very light foot traffic; think picnic blanket, not soccer.
Commonly known as yarrow, this plant material is a medicinal herb that has been used as an alternative to traditional turf lawns for decades, according to Erik Wolting, owner of All Seasons Gardening and Landscaping. If you allow it to bloom during the spring and summer, your lawn will erupt in hues that may include white, yellow, pink, orange, or red.
Maintenance: Mow yarrow every six weeks or more to keep it looking neat and uniform.
Watering requirements: This type of lawn only requires weekly watering, but this may vary depending on sun exposure and soil type.
Pros: Yarrow has soft, feathery leaves and is tolerant of light foot traffic. It can be easily started by seed.
Cons: If you skimp on the mowing, yarrow can look weedy and slightly unkempt. When flower stalks are allowed to reach full size, they can become woody and uncomfortable underfoot.
This is a rugged, lowgrowing groundcover with small, yellow daisy-like flowers that bloom in the summer. It is commonly used in the joints between pavers.
Maintenance: Dymondia requires periodic edging as it spreads laterally. Because of its compact growth habit, no mowing is necessary.
Watering requirements: Water once per week depending on sun exposure and soil type.
Pros: Dymondia is durable and tolerant of light foot traffic. Wolting noted that, if you’re looking for a quick lawn transformation, Dymondia fills in rapidly and out-competes weeds.
Cons: If want a close replica of a traditional lawn, this may not be your best bet. Its silvery green leaves don’t resemble grass in texture or color. Also keep in mind that its flowers may attract bees.
This is a low-growing sedge with silvery leaves. It is commonly planted in between hardscape joints. It withstands some foot traffic, but Doud said she “doesn’t recommend using it for a weekly game of twohand touch football.”
Maintenance: This carex requires edging periodically. You will only need to mow every two to three months, depending on your desired height. Mowing to around four inches in height will help promote horizontal growth. You will need to use an edging material to maintain a tidy look, just as you would with a conventional lawn. Watering requirements: Water every one to two weeks, depending on sun exposure and soil type.
Pros: This grass is ultra durable, fills in quickly, and out-competes weeds. It has very low water requirements.
Cons: Carex flacca resembles grass in texture, but not in color.
All Seasons Gardening and Landscaping, based in Arroyo Grande, handles landscape design, construction and maintenance. Waterwise landscaping is one of its specialties.
Sage Ecological Landscapes & Nursery provides custom design, construction and maintenance services with an emphasis on conservation. Its nursery in Los Osos showcases water-conserving display gardens.