A couple of days ago, I received a question from a gardener, Christian in Newport Beach, that I think summarizes how a lot of homeowners might be feeling right now. Christian writes, “I want to get rid of my lawn completely; I’m tired of watering, fertilizing and mowing it. Also, I know that we are going into a drought and I don’t want to just have a brown lawn if water restrictions go into effect. My problem is, what do I replace it with so, that all my neighbors don’t complain about my yard not fitting in to the look of the neighborhood. Any suggestions?”.

A lot of gardeners in Southern California are probably contemplating their lawn at the moment. Few would argue that, for the most part, lawns are more tradition than function. Think about all the lawns scattered in front of the homes up and down your street and around your neighborhood. How often do you see children playing on these lawns, volleyball games, croquet or badminton? Are pets using them? Sunbathing?

My hunch is that Christian, like most of us, does not use his lawn for activities. More likely, it’s just an ornament in the front of his home. Christian is questioning if the tradition of a lawn is now past its time; like septic tanks, kerosene lamps and wood burning stoves.

For a moment let’s only focus on the issue of lawns and water; forget about the mowing, fertilizing, weeding, chemicals and so on.

Stay with me here as we do a little water math. Say you have a front lawn about 20 feet by 25 feet. That’s a pretty small lawn on average, but we’ll use it as an example. Assume it is a fescue lawn, such as Marathon II, the most popular turfgrass in Orange County. For a healthy lawn, most homeowners apply about an inch and a half of water each week during the summer and about an inch in the winter. On average that’s 390 gallons of water per week or 20,250 gallons per year. If your lawn is twice this size, or if you have a front and rear yard, double this quantity to 40,500 gallons each year.

That’s a lot of water. Now add in mowing each week, fertilizer about every four to six weeks, a gardener to do the work and you can start seeing why lawns are losing favor rather quickly. Tradition is losing out to practicality.

So what can Christian install in place of a lawn? The answer is “almost anything”.


For most of us, a mixed landscape is the most appealing. Rather than one plant to replace the grass, a well designed blend of several compatible plants, groundcovers, perennials, shrubs and a tree or two make the most attractive presentation. A landscape such as this will be well accepted by the neighbors, look terrific, cost less, need less maintenance and use a whole lot less water. If the plants that replace the lawn are just a little bit water thrifty, the total water savings can be substantial.

Here are some examples of the water savings that would be realized by converting 500 feet of turf, with appropriate irrigations:

Common plants like ivy geraniums, boxwood hedges, roses and a Jacaranda tree:

7,600 less gallons of water each year, or about 37% less water than the grass would be using.

Lower water plants like rosemary, lavenders, phormiums and an olive tree:

15,200 less gallons of water each year, or about 75% less water than the lawn.

Super water-misers such as baccharis, native salvias, ceanothus, matilija poppies and a palo verde tree:

Your water savings would be in the neighborhood of 17,700 gallons next year, or 87% less water.

Christian, thanks for asking about replacing your lawn. Yes, you want your landscape to blend into the neighborhood and you don’t want the neighbors to give you odd looks. But I suspect that they may be thinking about the same thing as you. Yes Christian, you might become the first house on your street without a lawn.

The time may come when the home with a front lawn is the one that looks out of place and gets the funny looks from the neighbors.

Perhaps that time is nearer than we think.