Sustainable Lawn Substitute with Native Plants

The Cheerful Gardener says...

With all the rain we just had in California it is easy to forget about drought-tolerant gardens and lawn substitutes. But now is the time to talk and plan before those dry and hot days of summer are here again. This edition describes one possible plant combination for a lawn substitute . This is a low-growing sedge with a tufted look which I think is very attractive. The native sedge carpet is interspersed with small plants to break the monotony, provide color, and a food source for the local butterflies and birds.

Carex pansa planted in the shade of Redwoods, UC Davis Arboretum

We all have preferences for our favorite garden style, so finding the right lawn substitute is like finding a painting you can hang on your living room wall and look at for twenty years. Since one newsletter can only hold so much information, I am writing a book that describes a larger number of options to suit different likes and dislikes.

Anytime you replace your lawn with drought-tolerant native plants, you are helping the environment a whole lot and saving yourself a bunch of money as well. Whether you are gung-ho about planting several acres with a native landscape that includes woodland, meadow, and water habitat, or whether you start with only a handful of native plants in your backyard, you will be doing your bit to help.

On another note, this is the time to go out in your garden and pull out weeds when they are still young and easily pullable. If left to grow taller and stronger, the roots resist pulling, or if they bloom and spread their seeds, then you have a bigger problem next year. Also the bigger the plant gets, the more nutrients they take away from the soil.

The natives that I planted last summer look excellent, the Sugar Bush (Rhus Ovata), the Ceanothus (Celestial Blue and Tassajara), White Sage (Salvia Apiana), the Buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens), the Yarrow, etc. are in excellent health with all this rain. And my newly planted meadow has sprouts everywhere and some early flowers like the wallflowers and gilia. I cannot wait to see how it will look in April.

Picture of Ceanothus 'Tassajara Blue' currently in bloom.

I hope you enjoyed this edition, and if you have a few blank spots in your garden please consider native plants!

Have a great Spring and write to me if you have questions on planting natives or if you would like a design for your front or back yard.

-Radhika
Founder--Native Again Landscape LLC

A Lawn Substitute with Carex pansa

If you are not convinced that you need to replace your lawn, then read on, at least until the end of the list of top three advantages: 1. Reduce water use and save overall energy used to pump water from the reservoirs. 2. Reduce your dollar cost from less use of water, fertilizers, and weekly lawn maintenance. 3. Save the local ecology and feel good about doing your part towards a greener life-style.

Before starting a lawn substitute design work, a landscape designer would question the home owner thoroughly about his or her needs.Is your lawn very small (10'x10') or large (100'x100')? Do you want the space to continue to look open and expansive? Do you want to carpet the space with a native grass, or would you prefer to dot the landscape with plants, shrubs and small trees? If the space is large, would you like to plant a few large trees to transform the micro-climate of your property? Would you love to provide habitat for local insects, bees, butterflies, and birds? Would you like to include edible and medicinal plants, and so on. There are a myriad possible ways to substitute a lawn with native and drought-tolerant flora. Photo below of my lawn substitute front garden, lush with the rain.

A lush front garden planted with drought-tolerant, mostly California native plants.

The answers to these questions would guide the designer towards a design that has a high probability of being liked by the home owner. I hope to address many different lawn substitutes in the electronic book (ebook) that I am writing.

This article is based on the use of a native sedge to provide a green cover and low native plants that border the landscape for color as well as attract butterflies, bees, and birds and provide them with important food and shelter.

To understand how to remove the lawn, how to convert the irrigation system, how to plant, and how to mulch, you should refer to my website. The different articles there discuss each of these practical aspects of lawn substitution. This article describes a plant selection suitable as a lawn substitute.

Ceanothus 'Julia Phelphs', a hybrid mountain lilac tolerant to home garden conditions.

The Californian native Carex pansa (Pacific Dune Sedge) is a popular lawn substitute plant. Natively it grows on sand dunes and just inland of the coast all along the entire Pacific coast from British Columbia south to Central California and the Channel Islands. You can read more about Carex pansa in the article written by David Amme here. The Bay Natives nursery has some nice pictures of this sedge being used in people's gardens here.

Carex pansa is a creeping sedge that provides a meadow-like look and fills in nicely over a single season with adequate water in its first summer. Ideally, once or twice a week watering is required in the first summer, which can be reduced to twice a month deep watering in subsequent years. Carex pansa can be left unmowed when it will grow to a

maximum height of about 10 inches. Mowing 2-3 times per year will keep the sedge healthy and lawn-like. It will tolerate moderate foot traffic. It is not suitable for heavy duty games like soccer or other such uses.

Scattering Carex pansa seeds don't sprout with reliability. Hence this is ideally planted from 4"plugs that are obtained from a contract grower and planted 10-12 inches apart. It will work in clay if you amend with organic material like wood chips and provided the clay is not heavily compressed from construction vehicles. It will take extra water and extra organic amendments to get it established under such dire circumstances.

Carex pansa will tolerate light shade, but it will not tolerate heavy clay, winter flooding, and shade simultaneously.

Where do you obtain Carex pansa as 4" plugs ready to be planted about 10 inches apart? You will need to contact one of the nurseries that does contract growing and commission them to do a contract growing for your landscape. So ideally this requires a bit of planning on your part and hence start thinking about this now and get ready to plant in the coming fall.

With all the Carex pansa plugs all planted, leave some border areas open where you can plant some larger shrubs to provide color and insect and bird food. Three plants that will serve this purpose really well are Ceanothus. Ceanothus 'Concha' has the best reputation for garden condition tolerance. 'Julia Phelphs' and 'Dark Star' are also ones that you can try.

Sambucus mexicana, Blue (or Mexican) Elderberry is a good choice for a small tree or large bush to use with once a month summer water. The flowers are white clusters in the Spring with edible berries later in the season. Plant several so you can share the berries with the birds and still have enough to make a pie or two.

If you need a plant for a shady spot, try Ribes speciosum (Fuchsia-flowered Gooseberry). It is great for hummingbirds and has large showy spring flowers, but beware the thorns and use it only in an out of the way corner that you can watch from a window.

Ribes speciosum, Fuchsia-flowered Gooseberry.

The plant substitutes in this article are suitable for a milder climate zone within about 100 miles from the coast or in the foothills, and it is not appropriate in the hot interior valleys or in the mountains above 4000 feet. Good luck, and happy planting.


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The Cheerful Iris Issue#005: March 26th, 2010

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