In an unprecedented move, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has imposed watering restrictions of one day per week starting June 1. It's the beginning of the end for lawns in Southern California, and I'm excited to see residents bid farewell to water-guzzling, sterile turf in favor of climate-appropriate plants that provide ecosystem services to pollinators and other wildlife.
With Summer approaching, it's a great time to let your lawn die and remove it, come up with a planting plan, then establish new plants in the fall and winter when cooler temps give them an advantage in establishing. You can even receive a rebate for every square foot of lawn you remove. Not the DIY type? MWD provides a list of contractors you can hire to do the job.
If you want to start planting now, warm season grasses like Blue Grama (bouteloua gracilis) are a great way to go. For a native lawn that only needs to be mowed once or twice per year, I also love the meadowy look of Creeping Red Fescue (Festuca rubra 'Molate').
Another great option is to plant an herbaceous groundcover like Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). You can plant the straight species which has white flowers, or one of its many, colorful-flowered cultivars like 'Moonshine' 'Paprika' or 'Island Pink.' Yarrow can be planted as starter plants, and will often reseed itself after it flowers which is a huge plus for me. I like how the little sprouts will come up to fill in empty patches between plants.
If you choose to go the rock garden route--whether it's your whole garden or just one small area, succulents like dudleya and lewisia work great. Many shrubs and perennials from Mediterranean climates also work well in rock gardens and look so cute peeking out from between the cracks. Never underestimate the value of adding a dramatic boulder even a medium-sized rock to your landscape to break up the sight lines.
Groundcover shrubs are also a great option, if you don't mind walking around them. In my parkway, for example, I have planted Canyon Gray Sagebrush (Artemisia 'Canyon Gray' pictured above) which branches out covering an eight-foot radius in any direction, and suppresses weeds everywhere that it covers. Plus, it smells amazing. Another low-growing perennial I love is Red-Flowered Buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens), which gets attractive reddish pink flowers with a long bloom season. Since these plants have woody stems that will crunch underfoot, I have added some pavers in between them to denote a path across. Mulch or gravel can also be used to do this.
Watering once a week is plenty for many California native, Mediterranean, or desert plants. Along with trees, they prefer a deep but infrequent watering in order to establish a strong and drought-resilient tolerant root system. Hand watering or using drip irrigation is best, since you will need to water deeply at first then and less as the plants become established. Besides being less work overall, nothing beats the joy of seeing neighbors and passersby stop to enjoy the garden, even crouching down to read the plant labels.
Climate change the reality we face, but those of us who look after a bit of land can make a difference by making better plant choices. For regions with a long dry season like Southern California, it's time to say bye-bye to lawns. Are you ready for the change?