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New water-restricting ordinances threaten lawns - redesign your landscape to be drought-tolerant.
Help Your Landscape Survive Water Restrictions
July 15, 2009 by Evelyn J. Hadden

Question from Bonnie in California:

I am now obeying the law and watering twice a week. I live in the San Fernando Valley, which is about 20 degrees hotter than Los Angeles proper, in the summertime, and my lawn is on the verge of death. I'd love to find an alternative, but can't afford to dig up my lawn (which is huge) and plant another one. WOndering about gradually changing to clover and whether or not that's possible. Any help you can give me would be most appreciated.

Response from LessLawn:

Hi, Bonnie, and thanks for sending this timely question. I'm sure a lot of people are in the same boat as you, wondering how to respond to the new ordinance and watching their lawns die of thirst.

Because I'm not familiar with your site & haven't gardened in your region, I can only give you general answers and point you toward sources of more specific local information. Detailed and effective help will need to come from people who understand your local conditions well.

Clovers are healthy companions for grass. Clovers convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form that the grass can use, acting like a built-in fertilizer. They also stay green all summer, while many lawn grasses naturally go dormant and brown during the dry season. You could just seed right over your current lawn and that would be relatively easy and inexpensive.

However, I am not sure if there is a type of clover that can survive and stay green on twice-a-week watering in your area. Maybe you have a native clover species, or maybe another groundcover would be better. These are questions for your local experts. You could try contacting the Los Angeles County Master Gardeners.

There are some other techniques you might try. You can help your yard (including lawn) to survive with less supplemental watering if you add native trees for a bit of shade. As a bonus, this shade would lower the temperature in and around your home. There are a lot of beautiful Southern California native trees.

Native plants in general are a great way to get your garden off supplemental water. A native landscape doesn't have to be expensive and can be very low-maintenance. It could be as easy as finding the right seed mix to sow a meadow where your lawn used to be.

California Native Plant Society could help you find out more about your region's native plants. If you can find a nearby nursery that offers native plants, they might also have design resources like classes, books, and so forth. Or find a landscaper who specializes in regional native plants. There are some great ideas and information about drought-tolerant landscaping and native California plants at the Sonoma County Master Gardeners website.

Another thing you might try is using your rainwater to irrigate your landscape. It's surprising how much water one rainfall will deliver, and even when rain is infrequent, capturing that water can go a long way toward irrigating plants. Brad Lancaster's books discuss rainwater harvesting in the desert and explain how to design a yard that passively collects water rather than promoting runoff. We're not talking rain barrels here, but shaping the ground so it collects rain and stores it for plants. The biggest thing to know is that you want your plants to be growing in low areas, with water draining into them from paths, roofs, and pavement. Lancaster lives in Arizona, and some of his information is pretty localized, but the drylands design ideas in his books would apply to your area.

If you decide you want to design a new landscape (not just replace the current expanse of lawn with some other groundcover like clover), you could smother some future garden space this fall, then let the smothered areas make better soil for you over the winter while you consider designs. Smothering your lawn with wood chips or leaves (whatever organic material is available to you in quantity) can convert the dying sod into water-retentive, friable soil for you over a period of months. Then when you do plant or sow seeds next spring, your plants will have a good start. And while you're waiting to plant, a smothered landscape would look & feel better than a dead lawn, as at least it is a placeholder for a future garden.

A simple design, for instance, would be to dig a shallow basin in the area where you'd like to keep a (smaller) lawn, direct your roof's drainspouts to it, and seed it with drought-tolerant grass/clover or a native low meadow mix. Then plant the sides and surrounding higher ground with good hardy native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Space them at recommended distances for your area so they can live on rainwater alone. Mulch them too to retain soil moisture.

Whatever you and your neighbors decide to change in your landscapes, I'm sure many of us in other areas will be watching you for ideas about how to respond to increasing water shortages. I hope we will see lots of creative responses - that's what we humans are known for, right?

Thanks for visiting LessLawn. I hope this helps you find answers, and I wish you the best of luck.

Evelyn Hadden
LessLawn Editor

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Related LessLawn articles :

Other resources :

Visit the national Lawn Reform Coalition website for ideas about regionally adapted lawn species, lawn alternatives for arid landscapes, and more.

Browse Brad Lancaster's book on shaping the earth to collect rainwater for landscape irrigation:

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond (Vol. 2): Water-Harvesting Earthworks

For those living in the USA, find your state's native plant society in this list.

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