Beautiful lawn with flowers

Love It or Lose It: Go Lawnless with Water-Wise Plants

Is your lawn looking tired and patchy after the long drought and then flooding from heavy winter rains? If you’re like many Californians, you’ve likely headed to a home and garden center looking for grass-growing essentials — stacks of grass seed, fertilizer, hoses, nozzles, mowers and irrigation systems.

A lush lawn is a beautiful thing. But fixing, watering and maintaining that green can also cost you a lot of green. Quenching your garden can account for as much as half of your household water bill, which means it makes sense to find ways to conserve water all the time and not only in drought years.

One alternative is to consider “xeriscaping” by replacing your lawn (or portions of your lawn) with a beautiful landscape of drought-tolerant, water-wise plants.

Xeriscaping? What’s That?

Even though xeriscaping (zir-ə-skāp-ing) might sound complex, it’s simply a landscape method that was developed for arid and semi-arid climates using water-conserving techniques.

The word comes from a combination of two other words: xeri, derived from the Greek word for dry, and scape, meaning a kind of view or scene.

Xeriscaping lets you create interesting landscapes using slow-growing or water-wise plants that require less water. Typically, xeriscaping also involves techniques that help improve water efficiency, reduce evaporation and cut down on waste.

Advantages of Going Lawnless

Some people use the terms xeriscaping and going lawnless interchangeably. Even though they’re very similar, removing your entire lawn is just one method of xeriscaping.

But going lawnless doesn’t mean having to remove the entire lawn. It can also mean replacing portions of the lawn using a combination of native, water-wise plants and other materials like stone or mulch.

  • Why go lawnless?Lawns are thirsty. One inch of water takes a little over half a gallon per square foot. That means that every 10-foot-square lawn area requires over 62 gallons of water. That may not sound like much, but think about it this way: a 100-foot-square lawn could use 6,230 gallons of water every time you turn on the sprinklers. Some xeriscape landscapes use one-third of the water required or less than regular lawn landscapes.
  • Attractive planting options. Water-guzzling lawns aren’t the only ones that look good. Many plants that use less water can be just as lush, colorful or interesting as plants or lawns that require more water. Choose from a variety of vibrant, fragrant and eye-catching native plants that require minimal watering. Many of these, with blooming flowers or lively foliage, can produce visual interest for your garden year-round.
  • Reduced maintenance costs. Most native or water-wise plants thrive with little pruning and fertilization. They’re also likely to be more resistant to pest and disease problems. And with little to no lawn, you’ll reduce or eliminate the need for a gas or electric mower, which means less waste (fewer clippings and trimmings) and pollution.

What Are Your Xeriscaping Options?

If you’re looking for a flat, traditional yard or garden with perfectly manicured, lush, green turf, xeriscaping might not be the right choice for you.

But that doesn’t mean you must settle on a desert garden filled with cactus and gravel either. That’s only one look you can create. There are hundreds of native plants to choose from that are both drought-tolerant and attractive. These plants are used to our unique California climate and have adapted to at least six months of dryness.

If you want to see a xeriscape in action, visit San Jose Water's Water Smart Demonstration Garden. In 2010, the entire lawn was removed and replaced with a new landscape that contains 21 species of drought-tolerant plants. It includes a more efficient drip system controlled by a weather-based device that adjusts the amount of water that plants receive based on actual needs.

Create the Style You Want

You don’t have to go entirely lawnless to reap water-saving benefits. One option might be to scale back the lawn and add a relaxing garden retreat using water-wise plants.

Xeriscaping plants run the gamut from classic succulents like yucca or agave to overflowing prairie plants and ornamentals. You can choose plants that add color, variety and are unique to your location, needs and style. Try expanding your outdoor living area. Add pathways, pavers, stone or a composite deck for usable space. Don’t limit your creativity. It’s even possible to create a romantic, cottage-type garden that attracts beneficial birds and insects like hummingbirds and bees.

What if you want to keep your lawn? Try drought-tolerant or native grass species instead. Want a natural, informal meadow? Native California bent grass withstands foot traffic and requires half the water and mowing maintenance of traditional turf.

Prefer a soft, green and “lawn-like” look? Try UC Verde Buffalo Grass. If you install an underground drip irrigation system, this grass saves about 50% on water usage. It can be mowed, left unmowed, withstands hard use and requires few chemicals and little maintenance.

How to Get Started with Xeriscaping

Water-smart gardening begins with research, information gathering and planning so you choose water-wise plants tailored to suit your distinct style and site conditions. You may even want to fill out (and keep handy) a Planning Questionnaire that assists you as you begin the process.

Step 1: Plan and Design for Your Water Usage

Before you start, it’s important to evaluate your water sources and determine how you will use your yard or garden. For example, will the space be an active, recreational space or a quiet, ornamental area?

It’s a good idea to group plants according to their water needs (hydrozoning) so that you water an entire area the same way and the same amount as you would water a single plant.

Step 2: Pay Attention to the Current Space and Layout

Consider the amount of available space and current garden layout to determine whether there are elements you may want to keep and incorporate into the new landscape.

Pay special attention to “hardscaping,” or the inanimate features of your landscape, such as pathways, patios, fencing, pergolas and decks, since different hardscaping options can affect your water usage.

For example, paving stones, decorative walkways, composite decks and sitting wells may make the space more attractive, functional and enjoyable, but may also affect how well water reaches your plants. Permeable solutions are a good option for any paved areas so that water can more easily reach thirsty plants.

Step 3: Choose Plants Wisely

Be sure to select plants that do well for both the climate and “microclimate” of your yard. Take into account factors like sun or wind exposure, the orientation of your house and whether there are large, shady trees.

Think about how much time, attention and water you want to give your new landscape. If you’re often busy and short on time, you may want low-maintenance options that make it look like you invest more time in your yard than you actually do.

Are you planning on creating an energetic, playful social backyard for entertaining friends — or do you need a relaxed or reflective patio off the bedroom? If you want to create a landscape that expresses how you want to feel in that space, try to find water-savvy plants that match the mood of the space you’re trying to create.

With so many options, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To help narrow your choices, you might start with a visit to a local nursery or demonstration garden that has already been transformed. For more design and water-wise plant ideas, try San Jose Water's Guided Plant Search or Garden Gallery.

Step 4: How’s Your Soil? Prepare Soil and Irrigation Systems

Healthy soils grow healthy plants. Well-drained soil — soil that can absorb a half-inch of water or more per hour — helps plants, grass and trees take advantage of water and nutrients. Good soil also helps foster healthy, steady growth that reduces the need for fertilizers and additional irrigation.

If you’re not sure what kind of soil you have, it might be a good idea to have the soil tested for organic and nutrient content, so you know what kinds of materials might need to be added to the soil (and in what amounts).

How will your new plants be watered? Even native plants will need more water until their roots have been established. And as efficient as your xeriscaped landscape is, it will probably need supplemental water on occasion. Consider incorporating drip-type irrigation systems that deliver water directly to the plants’ roots.

It’s also helpful to consult a watering guide and adjust for seasonal or local climate changes. Even though xeriscapes typically require less maintenance, that doesn’t mean you can plant them and forget them. Be sure to schedule pruning, fertilizing, aeration and other tasks regularly.