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Every Drop Counts

Jun 20, 2023

A drought tolerant landscape adorns the front yard of a Sacramento, Calif. home owned by Jorge Azevedo. Azevendo had his turf removed in 2014 and is still enjoying this new landscape in June of 2015.

Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources

Having an eco-friendly yard doesn't have to mean replacing a lawn with sand and succulents. Ann-Marie Benz, California Native Plant Society's horticulture program manager, said that there are many misconceptions about creating a drought-resilient landscape, but that creating a native, water-wise yard can be incredibly rewarding — and done with a personal flair.

"The reality is California is a stunningly beautiful place, and we are harnessing the beauty of California by being smart about water, maintenance and having something different than what everyone else has. In a really beautiful way, (a water-wise landscape) is so much better than having a standard lawn if you want to have the new version of an attractive landscape," Benz said.

The greatest barrier to creating an eco-friendly yard for many people is inspiration; many people think their only option is to create a desert scape when, in reality, there are many options. She said the best way to find out what is possible in your area is by looking at other yards and going on local garden tours to see what kinds of water-wise landscaping others have created.

"If you don't want something that's the rock and plant look, you can have your English garden look," Benz said. "You can have a very modernistic look with big grasses. You can have a really comfortable play area or a native plant food garden. There are all kinds of looks you can get, but sometimes it takes looking around to get an idea of how beautiful they can be."

Second to inspiration, Benz said another challenge many people face is planting at the wrong time of year. Summer is too hot, she said, and redesigning a landscaping in July won't give plants a chance to grow. "Summer is planning time, and fall is planting time," Benz said.

Knowing where to find the appropriate plants is also an advantage. Benz said that many native plants aren't typically available at big-box stores, but local nurseries will know what to look for and how to care for a water-wise yard in their area. Often, homeowners can help offset the cost of purchasing plants at nurseries with local rebate programs.

"Learn how to take advantage of the rebates in your area. I can't stress how important that will be to make it easier. There are some areas that even offer some rebates for design services to assist with that," said Ashley Williams, press secretary for Save Our Water, a water conservation advocacy group.

In Santa Monica, the city provides two rebate programs, Cash for Grass and Spray to Drip. Cash for grass is a rebate for replacing a lawn with a California inspired garden and Spray to Drip is a rebate for replacing sprinklers with drip irrigation systems. The LA County Water Department also has a separate Cash for Grass Rebate Program at a rate of $1 per square foot with a maximum of $5,000. These are only a few examples of rebates available on the Westside for creating a water-wise lawn.

"I think the best stories are the ones where somebody has just planted in a new native garden and they start seeing butterflies and birds coming into their yard," Benz said. "(I love) sitting out and having coffee and watching your landscape be alive."

One of the greatest benefits of planting water-wise plants is that they are often native types of flora. Benz said that with climate change creating more acreage of native habitat will be important in the future to preserving biodiversity.

"If every standard lawn in our country was converted, we would get about the space of the national parks. Native plants co-evolved with the animals and pollinators that are there, so some pollinators are only reliant on one or two species," Benz said passionately. "By putting in these low water, native plant gardens, you are literally saving species and contributing to these bigger factors around biodiversity and habitat."

Williams agreed, saying that having a water-wise yard can be one of the most significant ways a household can reduce their water intake, with 60% of a household's water used for landscaping.

"Without action, our climate experts believe that weather could diminish California's water supply by up to 10% by 2040," Williams said. "So doing things like replacing your lawn with water-resilient plants can save anywhere between 30 to 100 gallons every time you water. So there are such large implications for our water supply. Over time, doing things like your transformations can have a huge effect and impact on and are important for us to consider in our journey through making water conservation a way of life."

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