“Most people only walk on the lawn when they are mowing it,” said Mike Evans of Tree of Life Nursery in a presentation to the San Gabriel Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. I am always in favor of killing the whole lawn, and replacing it with local native plants, sometimes including a small meadow of flowering perennials and sedges. A well-designed garden with inviting paths, seating areas and water features can turn a formerly featureless and ignored lawn area into enjoyable and usable space.
Lawn has very little to offer in the way of habitat value, so every square foot dedicated to traditional lawn can be thought of as habitat stolen from butterflies, birds and all the other critters that live in Southern California.
Sometimes the choice is a cultural one. An arty neighborhood or hillside neighborhood is more likely to accept the removal of an entire lawn than a neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses with lawns to match. One of my favorite quotes is, “People who have never voted maintain their civic duty by mowing the lawn.” While some of us are courageous ground-breakers, willing to take on their neighbors or their city, others prefer ease in the neighborhood.
Lawn is functional if you have toddlers or dogs and prefer lawn areas for them to run around on. If you are making the choice on behalf of a small child, remember that giving the child uneven ground with different surfaces to walk and run on may stimulate more connections to form in the brain than a flat, carpet-like lawn would. Flat lawn may not equal smart child. Having butterflies, hummingbirds, lizards and other local critters in the yard teaches kids that they are part of an ecosystem. A family I know had a toad come to their Glendale native garden. For some families, playing ball is important, and that does require some type of lawn, though it doesn’t need to be grass.
Sometimes a best choice is to have a small meadow area that isn’t ‘real’ lawn, but uses natives that look green, use less water, and don’t need to be mowed or fertilized. Such meadows can be tolerant of heavy foot-traffic and even dog-traffic resistant, although you folks with digging dogs are on your own. I do have clients who have made a ball-playing lawn using a native sedge species.
One way to decide is to look at the kind of lawn you have right now. If you have a St. Augustine lawn not infested with Bermuda, sometimes the easiest option is to reduce the watering to a deeper and less frequent schedule, as little as once a week, and shrink the lawn, putting a wide border of natives around it. St. Augustine is also easily removed with a sod cutting machine or by hand digging.
If your lawn is Bermuda, it is harder to shrink. Bermuda will get anywhere, into native beds, into your vegetables, into the cracks in a sidewalk by both seeds and runners. It must be mowed frequently to prevent setting seed. Bermuda can also get into your yard from the neighbor’s yard. It can’t be removed with a sod-cutter, because the roots are too deep.
If the lawn is a tall fescue or ‘marathon-type’ lawn, watering needs are higher, and while shrinking the lawn will give you some relief from water bills, integrating this type of lawn with lower-water natives will be harder. Higher-water natives such as those from riparian areas can be planted with it. While these natives will add habitat value, they won’t save much water. This type of lawn can also be easily removed with a sod-cutter.
Under the City of Los Angeles DWP’s Residential Drought Resistant Landscape Incentive Program, the DWP will pay $1.00 per square foot to remove lawns and replace with native and drought-tolerant plants. Don’t just ‘go for it,’ since the DWP must send someone to your home to verify the lawn square footage. Other local cities have similar programs, so check around and see if you can get a check for letting go of the lawn!