Lawn alternatives

Apr 24, 2023

Lawn alternatives

Apr 24, 2023

by Melody Kendall

Ongoing drought in California and world-wide climate change makes water conservation a very important topic.  One of the ways to conserve water in your landscape is to reduce or remove your thirsty lawn and replace it with a more water friendly option. The perks of removing your turf grass are numerous, though many homeowners still seek low-growing, grass-like plants to create the appearance of a lawn. There are multiple plant options; we will look at a few groundcovers, California native grasses, low-water landscape plants, xeriscape and succulents/cactus. 

Groundcovers: Many  types are available with different requirements and growing habits, but if you desire a tight, close to the ground plant these might just fit into your plans.  Landscape plants called groundcovers usually refer to low-lying plants with a creeping or spreading growth habit.  These types of plants are often used to cover sections of the landscape and require little upkeep. Usually a ground cover refers to low growing perennial plants, but some ornamental grasses, self seeding annuals and low growing spreading shrubs can also fall into that category. Choosing the plant for your needs requires some thought. Do you need the plant to cover a sunny flat area or a shady or part-shade area? Is there a sloping area of your landscape that would require some soil stabilization? What water is available in the indicated area?  Do you have fire mitigation concerns in your area? These are some of the considerations to be explored before choosing your groundcover option. Often the installation of a groundcover is more expensive than sowing grass seed. When considering the long term expense of feeding, watering and mowing turf grass plus the fuel costs in maintaining a lawn the initial cash outlay of a ground cover installation might not be considered a problem. When selecting groundcovers, consider the plant's growth habit as some groundcovers are very robust and can be invasive and spread to other areas of the landscape, choking out adjacent plants. It should be noted that cover crops and groundcovers, , are two different types of plants although there is some overlap. Cover crops are used as a living mulch usually in vegetable gardening or commercial food production. Most often they are annuals, intended to grow in one season and then tilled, adding nutrients to the soil. Groundcovers are ornamental perennial plants intended to cover a garden area for many years. By the way, if you choose a ground cover such as creeping thyme or a creeping mint species every time you walk on it or it is heated by the sun a wonderful smell will permeate your garden area, and the pollinators love them. 

California Native Grasses: California native grasses offer many beautiful perennial plants to add color, texture and movement in your garden each season with very little upkeep required. Being well-adapted to California regional growing conditions, many are able to survive drought conditions, heat, heavy rains or freezing weather. These native grasses also provide cover, food and nesting materials and sites for birds, pollinators and wildlife. There are even evergreen options that will provide color during the dreary winter months and come in tall, short and round varieties.  

Low-water landscape plants:  When making a decision about what to do with an area left vacant by turf grass removal, consider a selection of water wise plants. Waterwise plants are available that feature colorful flowers, interesting foliage, durable garden performance, and a habitat friendly nature. Often requiring little upkeep, low-water plants and shrubs  provide a totally different palette than the previously flat monotone turf covered area.  The list of available low-water plants available to the home gardener is large. Just about any desired design can be created using low-water plants. A good place to start is the California Native Plant Society's Calscape webpage Calscape link. There you will find lists of California Natives that are especially suited to our climate. There is even an option to type in your specific zip code to dial down the plant selection even more. Decide on your design plan first and then as you peruse the available options on the internet. Look at pros and cons of the available plants and then fill in your planned design with your selected plants. 

Xeriscape; Succulent and Cactus: Xeriscaping is a garden design concept specifically tailored to areas prone to drought and/or where water conservation practices are in effect. The plants in this type of garden are selected specifically for their ability to thrive in landscapes using a minimal amount of water. Plants do not need to be specifically succulents and cactus though often their particular growth requirements do well in a xeriscape garden. Look for low-water and drought tolerant plants. California native plants are a good fit because of their adaptation to our local climate.  Plants suited to xeriscape landscaping are sometimes referred to as ‘xeric' plants. Drought tolerant is a relative term as a plant considered drought tolerant in the northwestern US might cook in the desert country. 

When laying out your xeriscape garden design, clump plants with similar growth requirements together. Placing thirstier plants together in one group and low-water plants together in a different grouping will reduce the possibility of wasting water and/or overwatering. Make sure you have well-draining soil as drought tolerant plants do not do well in wet soggy soil.  Check your chosen plants' needs and mulch accordingly to hold the right amount of moisture. Though some xeriscape-friendly plants may prefer poor, dry and rocky soil, always check your selected plants' growing needs. 

Options for lawn replacement are limited only by your imagination. The desired finished look, upkeep required and water availability are just a few considerations to keep in mind. Information that has been provided will give you ideas and the impetus to remove your turf grass. Do research on your project and make a plan to have a successful project. 

Napa Master Gardeners are available to answer garden questions by email: or phone at 707-253-4143.  Volunteers will get back to you after they research answers to your questions.

Visit our website: to find answers to all of your horticultural questions.

Photo credits:

Information links:

UC Master Gardeners of Marin-groundcovers

Calscape list of Ca. Native grasses: 

UC Master Gardeners of Napa County: Las Flores Learning Garden

Ca gov-Xeriscaping