Gardening,  How to/ Basics

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

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.


  • Pam Valente

    Timely post. I have been reading all week about NASA of all institutions predicting world record droughts in the west and midwest starting mid century. Truly frightening information about the world the young children of today will inherit.

  • teresa

    Hi Kristina,
    nice of you to spend the time to share your efforts here and all the details on what you did to save, etc. Thank-you for that! We’re in Santa Rosa (northern Cali-60 miles north of San Fran) and it’s almost as bad…it’s all bad, isn’t it? We’re thinking of doing the same kind of thing, but the cost will be high…not sure how Sonoma County will rebate but thanks to you, now I’m inspired to find out.

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