California drought: Tips for homeowners to replace lawns

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

Last year, McKeon and his wife, Rebecca, bought a house in the La Riviera neighborhood of Sacramento.

The home’s small front yard looked like almost any other in the neighborhood: green grass, a lawn they had to soak with water even as state regulators urged Californians to cut back on their consumption of water to cope with the worsening drought in the state.

Last summer, the McKeons chose to do what a growing number of Californians have done to reduce their water use as the state faces drought after drought — they killed their lawn.

“We just never really used 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 terms of fertilizer. They are a huge waste of water. They are terrible for the environment, as it is like a wasteland for insect food.

They gave their lawn a final soak from their sprinklers. Then they smothered the grass with 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 grow well in deserts with just a few splashes of water each day.

Jack and Rebecca McKeon with their son, Gordon, stand in their drought-tolerant front yard in Sacramento earlier this month. The couple removed their lawn during a DIY project and planted drought-tolerant plants and vegetables. Paul Kitagaki Jr. [email protected]

The total cost of the new “yard”: about $800, which for the McKeons was money well spent.

The best part: As soon as they made the switch, they reduced their water usage by about 2,000 gallons per month.

As green turns to gold, the main color of Sacramento summers, and lawn watering restrictions become almost annual, regulators and policymakers are encouraging more residents to do what McKeon did and replace their grass with something less water-intensive. As much as half of the water used in urban areas of the state is poured on landscapingprimarily to keep residential lawns green.

And they’re giving money for people to transition to a less grassy future.

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

High-end option with low water consumption

The turf replacement program hasn’t really caught on in East Sacramento, judging by the lush green lawns on Jeff and Desiree Cherye’s block.

Unlike their neighbors, the couple’s front yard is a neatly manicured little bottlebrush-shaded oasis, giant agave, aloe and other plants that buzz to the sound of bees and other insects 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 still had no water meters and discussions of drought crises were still years away.

Jeff and Desiree Cherye stand with their dogs, Hank and Clyde, in their drought-resistant front yard in Sacramento earlier this month. They made the choice to remove their front lawn and replace it with drought resistant plants and an edible garden in their backyard. Paul Kitagaki Jr. [email protected]

He said he and his wife, both nurse anesthetists licensed at area hospitals, have never looked back.

“It’s mostly maintenance-free,” he said. “It’s beautiful…and I feel good not wasting that water.”

His landscaper was Roberta Walker, whose business in Sacramento has been quick as clients look to design their outdoor spaces to fit the reality of today’s California where drought is increasingly becoming the norm. Still, many people think a garden that only uses a little water must be lousy, she says.

“People have this idea that a drought-tolerant landscape is just rock and cacti, and it’s not,” Walker said. “A drought-tolerant landscape can feed your family and nurture pollinators – birds, bees and butterflies.”

Lower Cost Lawn Conversion

And you don’t necessarily have to hire an expensive landscaper to get that, said Chris Brown, the former executive director of the now-defunct California Urban Water Conservation Council.

He said he spent $600 to convert his yard in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento into a landscape of native plants.

Like McKeon, he did the work himself. He bought the plants from local landscape stores that sell them. He said the starter plants only cost $5-10 each and took off quickly.

“It’s full of all kinds of plants that belong here,” he said. “So they’re not really stressed during the drought, and I don’t have to water the lawn too much because I don’t have a lawn. I have a yard. I don’t need to water the landscape too much.

Drought-tolerant plants fill the front yard of Jeff and Desiree Cherye’s Sacramento home. Paul Kitagaki Jr. [email protected]

Brown acknowledges, however, that weed is going to be hard for some to give up.

For those who wish to keep grass around their homes, he urged them to consider replacing high water-consuming varieties with more drought-tolerant species such as tall fescue and Bermuda grass.

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

Suppose you have already opted for a drought-resistant outdoor space.

How do you convince your lawn-loving neighbors to lose their grass without being lectured about it?

Desiree Cherye, who has this whimsical drought-tolerant garden in east Sacramento, offered this advice.

“A lot of the time it’s me going, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so easy to maintain and it looks so beautiful,'” she said. “It’s more like promoting without shame.”

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Ryan Sabalow covers environmental, corporate and investigative stories for McClatchy’s California Newspapers. Before joining The Sacramento Bee in 2015, he was a reporter for the Auburn Journal, Redding Record Searchlight and the Indianapolis Star.

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