How to Lose the Lawn and Create a Water-Wise Front Yard

by formerchef on February 15, 2015

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A good portion of the country is still buried under snow, but here in California we are facing an unprecedented drought. Water levels in reservoirs are at an all time low and the lack of water is starting to affect the agriculture industry, and thus, nationwide food prices.

Last year we let our lawn die. We could no longer justify watering the crab grass which had invaded the beautiful hand seeded lawn we’d put in ourselves about 5 years before. About the same time, I started hearing more and more about the Department of Water and Power (DWP) offering customers rebates for pulling out their lawns and replacing them with drought resistant plants. The program started a couple of years ago at $1 per square foot, went to $2 and then $3 when we decided to do it. Shortly after we applied it went up to $3.75 (though we did not quality for that)! Consider this, if you have 1000 sq feet of lawn, that’s $3750 of potential rebate!

The lawn, "before"

The lawn, “before”

If you live in Southern California, at the So Cal Watersmart web site. The rebate amount depends on the community you live in and the utility service you use. Other parts of the state, and I would assume, other parts of the Western US might offer similar rebates which is why I wanted to write about our experience here; to show people it’s not that difficult, nor does it have to cost a lot.

We started the approval process back in October, had the lawn removed in November, submitted for rebate approval in January, and in February found out the work was approved for the rebate. It will take up to another 10 weeks to get our check, but I think it will pretty much cover our costs.

We had the help of a landscape person to remove the turf, replace some soil and put in some pavers and the rest we did on our own to save money. We’ve removed a lawn in the past and it’s back breaking work as is trying to dispose of it. It was well worth it to us to spend the money for the removal and disposal. This was our biggest expense. If you can do it yourself, you will save a lot.

The yard, after lawn removed and with new pavers in place.

The yard, after lawn removed and with new pavers in place.

Some of the plants were purchased from a nursery and the rest were volunteers/transplants from our yard or our neighbor’s yard. The plants we put in included different types of flowering salvia, lavender, kangaroo paws, breath of heaven, lion’s tails, cactus, and many different succulents. There’s still room to add more plants, and I know we will, but I want to wait until these grow more first to see what kind of space we have. While the yard can’t be primarily annuals (which precludes using it for a vegetable garden) I’ll probably add in some herbs and maybe some leafy edible greens at some point.


Most of the plants have some sort of flower to attract the birds and the bees.

As for “design”, honestly, we didn’t have one. I just winged it, and it probably shows, but it saved us a lot of money (this could cost several hundreds and into the thousands depending on the landscape designer and work they provide) . The guys at the nursery were really helpful as to which types of plants are drought tolerant, and my mother helped with some of the selection as well. Then I just worked with what we had, moving it around until I was happy with the results.

Deciding which plants go where.

Deciding which plants go where.

To help us conserve even more water, we also installed in a rain barrel (free from a city giveaway) and a catch basin for the overflow (assuming we ever get more rain). The catch basin moves overflow water from the barrel away from the house and into the water table instead of down the storm drains. Basically, it’s just a pit filled with gravel which allows the water to seep in instead of flowing away. The first big rain we got filled the 55 gallon barrel in less than an hour. I was so enamoured with it I bought another for the back of the house (it’s this rain barrel). When both are empty, I’ll switch them out, placing the nicer looking one on the front of the house.


Free rain barrel (it used to hold Coca Cola syrup!) and the catch basin. The basin is lined with weed barrier and then filled with gravel/rock and even some block. it’s now fully edged with river rock.

Already in flower!

Already in flower!

Things we did to keep the cost down:

  • Bought plants from a wholesale nursery- we used Nick’s Nursery in Sun Valley. We spent about $150 on plants, most in 5 gal size, and probably would have spent double that at Home Depot or Armstrong.
  • Used cuttings and volunteer plants from our own and friend’s yards.
  • Bought and hauled the pavers and pebbles from a wholesale block yard-we used Badger Blocks in Sun Valley (having a truck helps)
  • Got free mulch from a city mulch recycling program
  • Utilized other free and recycled objects for the yard
    • Picked up some cool vintage concrete blocks for texture and planting when I saw a “free block” sign
    • Used some big rocks and a couple of logs we had (free)
    • Added a copper bird bath we had in the back yard
  • Did the design and planting ourselves.
  • Scrapped plans for decomposed granite pathways between plants; too expensive
  • Used less expensive paver blocks ($1.80 each) over the 24″ square pavers I wanted which were $22 each!

Important things to consider for the rebate process:

  • You must be approved to start work first (see the link above).
  • You must be replacing an existing lawn; it doesn’t have to be green but it can’t be a dirt patch.
  • Sprinklers are not allowed, nor any plantings which look like lawn turf.
  • Any watering must be done by hand or drip irrigation.
  • Artificial lawn is ok but read the rules.
  • Once approved you have 120 days to complete work.
  • Area must have 40% coverage in drought tolerant plants when full grown.
  • Replacement plants can’t be annuals (including vegetables).
  • You have to do all the work up front, and put out any money to complete the project before you get the rebate.
  • The parkway (the strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb) has different rules, so make sure you read them carefully.
Using found and free objects can add height and visual interest to flat areas.

Using found and free objects can add height and visual interest to flat areas.

Questions? Let me know. Have you done something like this yourself? Link to photos in the comments if you have them.


Roasted Vegetable Salad with Thyme Vinaigrette

by formerchef on February 7, 2015

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Apathy. It’s a bitch.

When I started this blog (five years ago next month), I was filled with all sorts of hope and promise. I wanted to show people that cooking didn’t have to be intimidating, that it doesn’t have to be hard. Then the blog took off; traffic increased, it got all sorts of attention, and with it, my excitement grew. People were commenting, asking questions, getting involved, and I felt like I was making a difference. It was exhilarating and exciting and most of all, motivating.

Then, about two years ago, people stopped commenting. I wondered, “Is it me? What am I doing wrong?

Around the same time, I started seeing the same reaction from other bloggers. Call it the Facebook Effect, or Silent Blog Syndrome, but whatever it is, it’s pretty well documented that people have stopped commenting on blogs, and many have just stopped reading blogs all together. And if they do, they may just “like” the post on Facebook instead of commenting on the blog post itself.

Why does this matter, you ask? It matters because comments are the only form of currency I have. I don’t make any money from this blog; I don’t do sponsored posts (and for that, I hope you are thankful) and the ads and Amazon affiliate links I do have, net me coffee money and that’s about it (they certainly doesn’t cover the cost). So where’s the motivation to continue if no one is reading? I kept at it, but I could feel my will slipping with every new post I’d labored over but no one seemed to read.

What happened next is that nasty bitch Apathy reared her ugly head and whispered in my ear, “Why bother? Nobody cares…” and with that, I stopped posting for a while.

I thought long and hard about giving up blogging all together, but I don’t need to do that, I just needed to give it a rest. Since no one is paying me to do this, in virtual hugs or in actual dollars, I can simply take my time and do it when I want, right? If people like it, and learn from it, great. If not, then I’ve got a nifty little virtual cookbook here with some pretty pictures to share with family and friends.

Oh, and Apathy, you can just STFU.

Because I can’t leave you without a recipe, I give you this versatile salad; serve it warm in the winter, room temperature at a garden party in spring, or chilled in the summer. It travels well and holds up to being made in advance. Enjoy!

Oh, and if you like the dish, or struggle with apathy yourself, let me know.


Roasted Vegetable Salad with Thyme Vinaigrette

Yield: 4 Cups


  • ½ pound green zucchini
  • ½ pound yellow zucchini or yellow crookneck squash
  • ¾ pound eggplant
  • 6 ounces baby carrots (or large carrots peeled and cut)
  • 1 each fennel bulb
  • 8 ounces red onion
  • 6 ounces baby bell peppers (or cut assorted yellow, red, and orange bell pepper)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • For the dressing:
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Slice the zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant into 1 inch wide strips and then cut into 2 inch long pieces.
  3. Cut the fennel bulb in half and remove the core. Slice into ½ inch wide strips. Cut the red onion into ½ inch wide strips.
  4. Cut the baby bell peppers in half and remove the stem and seeds and then cut the pieces in half lengthwise. If using full sized bell peppers, cut them into 1 inch by 2 inch pieces.
  5. Place the zucchini, squash, and eggplant in a large bowl and toss with half of the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread out on a sheet pan.
  6. Toss the carrots, onion, fennel and bell peppers with the other half of the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread out on a sheet pan.
  7. Put both pans in the oven and roast until then begin to soften and brown. After about 15 minutes, check and stir up the items on each pan.
  8. The carrots, onion, fennel and pepper should take about 30 minutes to brown and the squash and eggplant will take about 35-40 minutes.
  9. When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool on the pan for 15 minutes and then combine all the roasted vegetables in a large bowl.
  10. In a small bowl, whisk together the extra virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar, shallots, salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Whisk in the fresh thyme. Pour the vinaigrette over the roasted vegetables and gently toss with a large spoon so all vegetables are coated.
  11. The salad can be served immediately or within two hours at room temperature or can be chilled and served later. The vegetables do improve in flavor if allowed to marinate in the dressing for a few hours.

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How to Make Homemade Mayonnaise

November 29, 2014
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This post is part 2 in a series on emulsified sauces. To read part 1 which covers history and how to make Hollandaise Sauce, go here. Mayonnaise was originally called “Mahonnaise” from the town Spanish town on the island of Minorca called Mahon, captured by the French in the late 1700’s. It’s said a French general’s […]

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How to Make Fish Fumet (Fish Stock) and Seafood Stock

September 30, 2014
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This post is the last in a series on home made stocks. Make sure you check out the posts on chicken stock, veal stock and vegetable stock for more on the basics of making stock.  Fish fumet (pronounced foo-may) is a fish stock made from fish bones (and sometimes the head) of white fish such […]

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California Caprese-Tomatoes, Fresh Mozzarella, and Avocado

August 17, 2014
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It’s the middle of August and my tomatoes are almost done. I’ve had a banner year in terms of yield, but since I planted in April and we have an early growing season, almost everything came ripe at once in July. I always say I’m going to stagger the planting, but I never do because […]

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Emulsified Sauces and How to make Hollandaise

August 10, 2014
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Emulsified sauces are one part chemistry, one part culinary magic. Take two ingredients which, “like oil and water”, should not blend together, and with a little effort, they become one delicious whole. An emulsified sauce is literally the blending of fat (butter or oil) and water (wine, vinegar or egg yolk- which is more than […]

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