How did I removed 3,000 square feet of lawn, replace it with California native plants, expand my brick patio, add a fire pit area, convert a play structure to a grape arbor and add gravel paths and a creek bed all for FREE?
I had been thinking about removing my backyard lawn in 2013. California had now gone through a 3rd consecutive year of low rainfall. Water rationing was being discussed, again! This was the third time since we’ve lived on this lot that California has had a “severe” drought and the water provider has either requested customers, “voluntarily”, drastically cut back on their water consumption (which translates as “let your lawn die”) or they’d implemented water rationing and increase rates. (Which would happen in 2015).
Before this most recent multi-year drought, I had been thinking of converting the yard into a food forest. Now that my children are adults and out of the home, why were we keeping a lawn and play structure? A lawn that had become mostly Bermuda grass. I could make better use of my small plot of land by growing more food on it.
As I age I won’t want a garden that is as labor intensive as a lawn. Currently, I don’t have a gardener. I’m the gardener for this quarter acre lot. I hated the weekly work of mowing, edging, weeding and watering. I disliked the need to be spending money on fertilizer and water. Essentially throwing money away to keep something looking nice because that’s what is expected. Having a big lawn that we didn’t have children playing on anymore just seemed stupid.
I still want a garden that I could enjoy when I would no longer be able to get up into the hills and hike to my favorite meadows, streams, chaparral and woodlands. Slowly the idea began to evolved that I should reduce my lawn, increase the hardscape for entertaining and put in plants that would still be of value yet require less maintenance. I could make my backyard my own campsite. My goal would be to provide a place for natives bees.
I wanted to use drought tolerant native California plants. I would include several sitting areas for enjoying the garden. I wanted a slightly bigger patio and an area for a fire pit. I wanted to include some paths for garden access and interest. I wanted to use up a collection of eclectic bricks that we’d collected over the years. I wanted to reuse and recycle as much material as possible.
I had already started by mowing the lawn super short in the fall of 2013 (Ok, wrong time of year, but I didn’t want to wait until spring of 2014 to get started).
I watered it well, then covered it in plastic to solarize the soil. I was hoping we’d still have enough warm days to start the process. I wanted to do this step because I suspected there may be lots of weed seeds in the soil and this is a chemical free way of killing some of those seeds before germination without using pre-emergents which can be harmful to the natural soil biota.
By 2014 our water district offered a rebate based on square footage of lawn removed. We were now in the 4th year of this “great drought”. The time was right. Get rid of the entire lawn. I was going to do this! Though I wasn’t sure I’d apply for the rebate.
Armed with a tape measure, some graph paper and a can of spray paint, I started planning out my lawn-less garden.
I would need to start on the hardscape first. In the spring of 2014 I hired a friend of a friend who did stone and mason work. He was willing to work with my ideas and use the material that I had on hand. We expanded the brick patio by just 3 feet and incorporated a 13 foot circular area for our old fire pit.
Incredibly, with a creative design, we could move and use existing patio bricks and my collection of old bricks and not have to buy any new bricks for the expanded patio. I would buy bricks for the fir pit area. That brickwork hardscape was completed late spring 2014.
By summer of 2014 I had researched sheet mulching and attended a seminar on the topic. More and more people were starting to think along the same lines of how to reduce long term water needs. It was mentioned at this seminar that the local water utility still had funding for lawn removal projects but would run out of funds by the end of the year.
I decided to apply for the rebate program early fall of 2014. My site would be evaluated before and after work was done. Uh, oh! I had already started my work of removing the lawn and had completed the hardscape. My proposal and graph paper plans were accepted and approved. Now for my first inspection. Turned out they were so overwhelmed with people applying for the rebates that they wouldn’t be able to get out for several weeks to verify that my lawn existed. I was going to go forward with this project regardless. I communicated to them that I was sheet mulching in September and had already completed the brick work. I had to get started so that I could get my native plants in by winter. They didn’t have the staffing to get out to my site and ended up relying on satellite images and Google Street View from the previous spring to verify that I did indeed have 3,000 square feet of lawn at that time. I qualified for funding.
In September of 2014, I did sheet mulch the front and back lawns. I had saved and collected as much free cardboard as I could. Clearly, it was going to take way more cardboard then I could acquire. In the seminar a supplier was mentioned for purchasing huge rolls of cardboard. I drove to Richmond with my van and filled it with these giant rolls of cardboard.
I contacted local tree services and found several that would deliver shredded mulch for free. It was fall and they were busy pruning customers trees in the area. It saves them time and gas to dump a load of fresh mulch locally in someones driveway.
By the first of October both the front and back lawns had been completely covered by sheet mulching. I had already purchased my first set of plants from the UC Botanical Garden fall plant sale and I desperately wanted to get them in.
In the meantime, I put a sign in the front to explain to my neighbors that a “Bee Garden” would be coming soon. My husband had some different ideas.
By the end of the year, I had gotten my first foundation plants in. I started with tiny plants, most came in 1”-2” diameter tubes, some in 4” pots and a few in 1 gallon size pots.
Nothing larger then 1 gallon size was purchased. This kept the cost down. Small plants take to transplanting better then larger ones.
I did most of the labor myself. I had hired the mason for the brick work and had some helpers to work with me to lay the cardboard and move the mulch.
I had done it. The lawn was gone! Now it was time to wait for spring. My rebate came in around early 2015. It more then covered all my receipts and labor for the project. Which could only mean one thing, come fall of 2015, I could buy more plants.
Spring 2016 is now around the corner. Most of the plants have had a year to establish their root systems. Most, though not all of the plants, survived another dry year. I hand watered the natives about twice a month to carry them through the hot, dry summer of 2015. We’ve had to date, an almost normal winter rainfall. A welcomed relief after 5 dry years. But, we’ve now had a VERY dry February. The drought is far from over. We’ll need several normal rainfall years or above normal rainfalls to recover from this drought if we do recover at all. This maybe the new normal for California. Regardless, I think I made the right decision to remove 3,000 square feet of lawn.
I’m excited to see how the garden does this spring. I was amazed and please by how much these itty bitty natives plants did grow in that first spring. I even began to see an unexpected diversity of critters of all kinds visiting the garden. But, this will be the year I think my garden will really bloom.