Replacing the Lawn and Cash for Grass

Oct 28, 2023

I was lucky enough to buy a small Napa house in 2008. Trees, shrubs, and a lawn dominated the large backyard. Mowing the lawn took a long time due to the rocky terrain and poor shape of the lawn. Not what I wanted to do on a Saturday.

Then there was the weeding and watering. The landscape was not on a drip system and moving the sprinklers around was a chore. Remembering to turn off them was another one. Waking up to find a waterlogged lawn after forgetting to turn the sprinklers off was disheartening.

Then I heard about Napa's Cash for Grass program. The city pays residential water customers up to $750, or a dollar per square foot, to replace existing lawns with low-water-use plants and permeable hardscape and to install drip irrigation—all of which saves time, water, and the environment. That sounded like a winner to me.

The process was easy. I called the city water department and scheduled a pre-inspection appointment with the specialist. After an inspector came out and measured my lawn area, I received a letter approving me for the maximum amount of $750, to be paid when the project was completed within the four-month timeline.

That was the easy part. I had been busy thinking about all the benefits of saving water, time and work while enjoying a beautiful yard, but I hadn't thought about the details. I hadn't considered how to take out the existing lawn, or how much effort and expense that would entail. The devil is in the details as they say.

After researching, I opted to eradicate the lawn with a process known as sheet mulching or cardboard mulching. Some refer to it as lasagna mulching because it requires making layers of cardboard and organic materials. I chose this method because it was inexpensive and had many benefits. The cardboard kills the grass while feeding the soil with organic matter, smothering weeds, and trapping moisture. What could be better?

Sheet mulching involves layering cardboard over closely cut and watered grass, overlapping the cardboard by at least six inches to keep out aggressive weeds and sunlight. You wet the cardboard thoroughly, then cover it with a layer of compost and leaves. Earthworms like cardboard and come up to feed on it, improving the soil in the process.

I soon identified the stores with the biggest cardboard boxes, found out their delivery days and made several trips to load up my small station wagon. After removing any tape and staples, I layered the cardboard over my back lawn. As you might imagine, this process took several weeks.

Once I finished laying the cardboard, I ordered a mound of compost from Napa Recycling & Waste Services and had it delivered to my driveway. A kind neighbor helped me cover the cardboard with two inches of compost, one wheelbarrow load at a time.

For the first few days, the compost was covered with small flies and emitted a deep earthy smell. Thankfully, both the flies and the odor went away.

Next came the drip system. I hired a company to install regulators and lay irrigation lines. Smaller drip lines would be added once the plants were planted.

Looking out over my large compost-covered yard frightened me. I felt like I had artist block. How do I design my yard?

I had ideas from garden tours, Native Plant Society sales, garden magazines and books, but I was unclear how to put my ideas into a cohesive design. I decided to hire a landscape designer to consult on a plan and in the end it was worth it. We discussed my goals, budget, plants, and the types of gardens that inspired me. She came up with a plan for me that I could implement on my own.

Since I did not have to have my yard completely landscaped within four months, I could work on the plan over time. I planted three bare-root trees, an olive tree, a lemon tree, and a few drought-tolerant plants to start. I had an area dug out for a sunken “secret garden” in a back corner, and placed steppingstones around the yard.

My son and his fiancée built three raised beds for vegetables, and I planted a small herb garden. By the end of the fourth month, 50 percent of the former lawn area had been planted and it was time to call the inspector.

I am definitely saving water, but I probably spend more time in my garden now than I spent mowing the lawn. The difference is that now I enjoy being in my garden.

That experience was 14 years ago. Napa still offers the Cash for Grass program, but now they have added the Flip Your Strip program. You can earn two dollars per square foot to convert your parking strip, the area between your sidewalk and street. You can also receive a discount on an easy-to-install sprinkler controller that provides self-adjusting schedules. Yout customize your yard-watering needs, determining exactly where and when to water.

You can also get a rebate on a smart home-water monitor that helps detect leaks and reduce your water bills. Call your local water department for specific details and offers in your area.

Library Talk: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County and Napa Library for a free talk on “Finding Our Place in Nature's Community Through Books” on Thursday, November 2, from 7 pm to 8 pm via Zoom. We'll share books that inspire us to learn about other species, work toward balance with nature, and live in harmony with nature. Register Here to receive the Zoom link.

Food Growing Forum:Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a free workshop on “Favoritie Food Plants” on Sunday, November 12, from 3 pm to 4 pm via Zoom. Master Gardeners will share the edible plants that they consider to be must-haves in their gardens. Get cultivation and harvest tips, too. Register Here to get the Zoom link.

Help Desk: The Master Gardener Help Desk is available to answer your garden questions on Mondays and Fridays from 10 am until 1 pm at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa. Or send your questions to Include your name, address, phone number and a brief description