How to create a drought tolerant garden and replace your capybara lawn

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With numerous municipalities and states considering or enacting strict restrictions on residential lawns, you may have considered giving up your home’s lawn. Xeriscaping—or creating a landscape that requires little irrigation to survive—is no longer a radical idea, even if you don’t live in an area where lawns are restricted. Traditional lawn grasses are thirsty. Because of their shallow roots, they need between 20 and 60 percent more water than other plants in your yard to appear green and lush, says Haven Kiers, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Davis. The shallower the roots, the faster the grass dries out and the more water it needs, which isn’t ideal when parts of the country are grappling with an unprecedented drought.

At least 50 percent of the water in the western United States is used for landscape irrigation, says Lindsay Rogers, a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates. “When you replace your lawn with drought-resistant landscaping, you save about 40 percent on outdoor water use,” she says. “Not only is it important for water security, but you also save significantly on your water bills.”

However, transforming your lawn doesn’t mean five scrawny plants poking through a pile of rocks or a sea of ​​cacti and gravel. Native plants generally require less water as they have evolved naturally and adapted to the environment. “You can have a drought-tolerant garden—emphasis on the word ‘garden’—that’s both beautiful and sustainable,” says Kiers.

Here are some steps to transform your yard (or parts of it) into a more drought-friendly — but still inviting — space.

Take advantage of free and inexpensive help. Landscaping doesn’t come cheap. Contact your county extension office for garden retrofit tips and a list of plants appropriate for your area, says Allison Colwell of Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture in Phoenix. Or see if nearby colleges offer a landscape architecture program. Kiers says students looking for experience often take on projects for a reasonable fee.

The rise – and the beauty – of the native plant

Use online resources. For instructions on converting your lawn into native plants, visit the American Society of Landscape Architects website,, including “Sustainable Home Design: Improving Water Management” and “Sustainable Home Design: Applying Ecological Design”. Brandy Hall, Atlanta-based landscape designer and founder of Shades of Green Permaculture, is hosting a free online webinar titled Intro to Climate Action Landscaping.

Check out discounts. Cities, counties, states, and water districts near you may offer discounts for replacing your lawn with native plants or financial assistance for irrigation upgrades. Discounts can often be combined for additional savings.

Map your space. Sketch your garden, including a rough estimate of its length and width. Use circles to mark existing trees and shrubs, noting any trails or permanent features. Also determine if the soil is clay or sand; If you get it wet, clay will roll into a ball and sand will break apart. Note which areas are sunny or shaded and where it is wet, humid, or dry.

Once you have a blueprint, you can make copies and pencils in different designs and plants. Kiers says you should also take photos of your garden and bring them to your local garden center or hardware store to help the salespeople visualize your space and offer suggestions. “It’s important to study how big plants grow,” says Colwell. “When you find out a plant is going to be 5 feet tall, you want to put it in a spot that will allow for full growth so you never have to prune it.”

Decide what you want. Choose plants that can handle the conditions in your location. “We get 55 inches of rain a year in Atlanta. Drought may not be a problem, but flooding is, and 80 to 90 percent of the water that falls on a mowed lawn runs off rather than soaking into the ground,” says Hall. “Then we’re dealing with hot, dry summers, so we still have to irrigate. I look for plants that can handle 30 to 70 inches of rain per year and can handle hot and dry conditions.”

Kill and remove grass. There are several possibilities for this. One is to turn off the water and solarize the lawn by covering it with black plastic. The trapped heat will fry the grass and you can plow it into the ground. This usually takes about two months. Another option is to cover the area with pieces of cardboard and then cover that with a few inches of mulch. When the cardboard breaks down, it will kill the grass and you can replace it with new plants. Or you can dig up the grass and remove the top inch or two of soil, including any roots. This technique is the most labor intensive, but also the fastest.

Cover your floor. There are alternatives to the traditional water eating lawn. One is “no-mow” grass (sometimes referred to as “don’t mow”). This is typically a mix of low-growing lawn grasses – most a fescue mix – that require little maintenance, use less water, and can be maintained as a turf lawn or left uncut to maintain a meadow-like appearance. You can also mulch heavily, creating a living ground cover with plants like white clover, creeping thyme, creeping germander, or tomentosum that fill niches and retain moisture, says Kiers.

How to have a lush garden without using too much water

Rate the irrigation. In arid climates, a drought-resistant garden still needs water-efficient irrigation, Hall says. This could mean installing a low-pressure drip system that delivers water to the root zone; converting your existing sprinklers to drip; or retrofit pop-up spray heads with water-efficient hardware, such as B. an MP Rotator that disperses larger water droplets that fall to the ground instead of evaporating. If you’re using native plants in humid climates, you may not need watering once the plants are established.

Consider hiring a professional. Those unfamiliar with do-it-yourself gardening or on a larger budget might want to consult a landscape architect. To save time and avoid misunderstandings, prepare before your meeting. Take photos of plants and landscapes that you like. (Make sure it’s a viable choice in your area.) Hiring a company to do a full landscape overhaul can get expensive. Cost will vary based on square footage, density, existing plants, and soil preparation. In the Hall area, for example, a quarter acre starts at about $30,000, including design, vegetation, and labor, she says. Depending on the amount of welding capital you’re willing to invest, a DIY remodel for the same space would cost around $10,000 to $16,000, says Kiers.

Be prepared for maintenance work. Xeriscaping does not mean zero maintenance. Even drought-tolerant plants need water, and pesky weeds still need to be pulled. Yes, you will spend less time mowing, but you will need to trim native grasses, perennials, and shrubs every year or two.

Take it in steps. You don’t have to do everything at once. “Are there places like a sidewalk where a border of native shrubs would work? If so, remove the grass there and replace it,” says Kiers. “Then do another piece of lawn next year. An immediate garden is expensive, but landscapes get better over time – fluffier, richer and greener.”

Denver-based author Laura Daily specializes in consumer protection and travel strategies. Find them under

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