How to create a budget-friendly, drought-tolerant DIY garden

Long before Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District declared a water emergency and mandated one-day-a-week outdoor irrigation, Sarah Lariviere, an avid gardener, was thinking about ways to conserve water.

During the pandemic, the young adult author found inspiration on the long walks she and her husband took in their Burbank neighborhood. It wasn’t the endless array of lush green lawns that moved them, however, but the occasional drought-tolerant landscape that materialized between the lawns.

“I grew up in the Midwest, so I was drawn to landscapes without grass,” says the 46-year-old. “I love the wild look of colorful wildflowers.”

Triggered by a record three-year drought in California, Lariviere decided to educate himself about water gardening. She took a personal class on native plants in California at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants. She consulted the SoCal Water Smart website, which offers step-by-step instructions for transforming your lawn with drought-tolerant alternatives to grass. She took an online course on lawn removal taught by virtual trainers at Green Gardens Group. When she learned that Burbank residents could request up to three shade trees for their homes, she researched which trees would best suit their microclimate.

Sarah Lariviere in her front yard in Burbank, which used to have a lawn.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

After initially renting elsewhere in Burbank, Lariviere and her husband Tim Mapp purchased a 1940’s bungalow in March 2021. By then, Lariviere felt ready to uproot the lawn and create a low-water landscape.

Her goal for the garden, she says, was to “increase biodiversity in our landscape, conserve water, provide habitat for butterflies and birds, and enjoy the fragrance and beauty of native plants, trees, and flowers.”

Lawn in front of a house

The front yard before it was removed.

(Sarah Lariviere)

A month after purchasing their home, the couple removed the Bermuda grass. “We dug it up by hand with shovels and pitchforks,” she says. “Sometimes we had to cast it to make it pliable enough to remove. I won’t lie, it was groundbreaking.” They previously lived in Texas and tried leaf mulching there, but “the grass kept coming through the cardboard.”

The couple eventually removed about 2,500 square feet of lawn, including the front yard, park strip, and backyard. Working in the sweltering summer heat, the couple ended up renting a Home Depot lawn trimmer, which costs about $97 a day, to help them get the job done.

Although embarrassed to remove the grass so soon after moving to a neighborhood full of manicured lawns, Lariviere was pleased to find that her neighbors didn’t mind.

“We met so many neighbors who wanted to know how we took out our lawn,” she says. “They stopped all the time and said nice things. That was really encouraging.”

And after: Drought-tolerant native plants replaced thirsty lawns.

And after: Drought-tolerant native plants replaced thirsty lawns.

(Sarah Lariviere)

After creating a planting plan on Socal Water Smart’s website, Lariviere submitted it to the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California for a lawn removal discount.

The landscaping project was completed in six months, and Lariviere says she received a check for $4,700 shortly after a representative from Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District came out to appraise her property. The check was paid for the entire project, except for the handcrafted Mexican tiles from Colores de Mexico in East Los Angeles.

“I’m highly motivated,” she says. “I’ve had an interest in gardens and landscapes for a long time and was really excited to have so much space to play. I won’t say it didn’t take time. But it was really fun.”

A front yard

The front yard and park strip are filled with mostly Californian plants.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In the front yard, Lariviere installed a sidewalk paved with yellow Arizona flagstones and planted mostly California Natives: penstemon, monkey flowers, California fuchsias, desert mallow, fragrant pitcher sage, Apache plum, and stunning pink Clarkia, making a statement on the side of the home that they painted in a Frida Kahlo-esque blue-black color.

A view of the front yard of Sarah Lariviere's Burbank home

Native plants grow along a dry river bed paved with pebbles.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In the park strip, she planted white sage, rock purslane, Germander sage, ice plants, and sprinkled Theodore Payne’s roadside wildflower mix, which was a magnet for bees, before the gophers went after the plants.

The backyard is more eclectic with a mix of natives, succulents and edibles growing randomly around the landscape, including tomatoes and herbs in two galvanized steel troughs with “giant bottoms” (bottoms removed to make ground contact and then filled with sticks, manure and compost ). ). To attract resident insects, she scattered a selection of Theodore Payne wildflower seeds, including #1 Rainbow mix, #2 Shady mix and #6 Roadside mix, which thanks to the dynamic variety of colors, shapes and textures of the flowers put on a show.

A huge raised bed made of sticks, chicken manure, soil, compost, and leaves will help retain water and provide water for nearby plants. Several small fruit trees will add beauty and fruit to the garden, including kumquats, bear limes, Meyer lemons, satsuma mandarins, pineapple guavas and Buddha’s hand citrus. A live coastal oak planted next to the circular fire pit she designed and built will eventually provide shade during Burbank’s hot summers.

A closeup of the huge house in Sarah Lariviere's backyard in Burbank

Succulents and cacti sprout in the giant.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

A giant

A giant in the backyard catches rainwater and provides water and shade for neighboring plants.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

More than 25 truckloads of mulch from the City of Burbank’s free mulching program help keep the soil moist, along with a dry river bed that lines Lariviere with rocks and pebbles. When it rained in December, she was pleased that she contoured the riverbed according to the California Friendly & Waterwise Landscaping Guidebook did what it was designed to do: collect rainwater from the roof.

Looking to the future, Lariviere hopes to add a gray water filtration system, irrigate the young fruit trees, add a water feature for wildlife without encouraging mosquitoes, paint the concrete walls, and one day, when everything is complete, open her garden to others as part of Theodore open Payne’s annual tour of the native plant garden.

Lariviere’s garden stands out from her block of lawns as a colorful and delightful surprise. It’s proof that you can have a beautiful garden without using a lot of water.

Portrait of Sarah Lariviere in her backyard

“I’ve learned that I like a little chaos,” says Lariviere. “I’d rather just throw in something I love and not worry so much about the planning. The garden reflects that.”

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m amazed at how little we water,” she says. When it rained in December, the rain provided enough water for the wildflowers to grow. “I keep an eye on all new plants to make sure they are okay. Now that it’s getting warm, I’ve tried to do each section once every 10 days. That means we have three casting days. I try to limit it to 20 minutes if it’s a tree or one of the newer natives.”

Of course, not everyone is about to give up their beloved lawn. Still, Lariviere hopes her native oasis will inspire others to consider low-water alternatives.

“It hasn’t escaped my notice that a garden is a luxury,” she says as she pulls some stray weeds from her front yard. “Overall, I’ve learned that I like a bit of chaos. I’d rather just throw in something I love and not worry so much about the planning. The garden reflects that. It is so beautiful and we can all enjoy the bees, butterflies and birds. It sounds like ‘Snow White’ out here.”

Have you uprooted your lawn and replaced it with drought tolerant plants? We want to hear from you.

monkey flowers

Bush Monkey Flower.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Native plants used in this garden

  • canyon sunflowers, Venegasia carpesioides (quickly set up, delicate, cheerful)
  • desert globe mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua (growing continuously since October)
  • fragrant pitcher sage, Lepechinia fragrans (smells heavenly, grows fast, velvety leaves)
  • apache plume, Fallugia paradoxa (a shrub with stunning feathery seeds and elegant white flowers)
  • Allen Chickering Sage, Salvia ‘Allen Chickering’ (fast growing beautiful purple flower curls)
  • white sage, Salvia apiana
  • Chaparral Clarkia, Clarkia affinis (large pink, orange-pink, reddish and white wildflowers)
  • Penstemon (Margarita, Black, Firecracker and many more)
  • monkey flower, Diplacus aurantiacus
    (yellow, orange, red and multicolored)
  • torrey pine, Pinus torreyana ssp. Torreyana
  • California fuchsias, Epilobium canum (red and salmon)
  • sage (Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii;
    amethyst bluff sage, Salvia leucophylla ‘Amethyst Bluff’ ; and Shirley’s Creeper Sage, Salvia ‘Shirley’s Creeper’)
  • trees (Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia and Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia)
Portrait of Sarah Lariviere at her home in Burbank

Author Sarah Lariviere has created a wild low-water oasis in a neighborhood with manicured lawns.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Helpful resources for water gardening

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