High Water Bills? Maybe it’s Lawn Removal Time

High Water Bills? Maybe it’s Lawn Removal Time

It’s the time of year of high water bills – and perhaps time to think about replacing plants that need too much water, or maybe even taking out some of your thirsty grass.

I recently came back from the Midwest where drought conditions have prompted many folks to let their lawns go dormant. When I came back I was struck by the irony of how we here in SoCA keep watering our grass during the many months of no rain while our friends in other places let theirs go dormant.

We’ve removed nearly all of our lawn (helped by the fact it was dead when we moved in four years ago.) I’ll share our method but wanted to share other ways. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG), a botanic garden in Claremont CA which features California native plants provided much of the info below:

Why remove lawn?

In addition to lower water bills and lawn care savings, other plants, especially California native plants offer better habitat value – numerous bees, butterflies, lizards, bees & other insects make our yard their home now. Also, check your city for lawn removal rebates.

Our lawn replacement after 18 months

Ways to remove lawn?

  • Digging out the grass
  • Cutting off the water supply (it’s good to let your neighbors know what you’re doing…)
  • solarization
  • lasagna-method—laying cardboard sheets on the grass, covering it with mulch, wetting it down and allowing the whole thing to decompose over time.
  • Herbicides or pre-emergents – However, I discourage this because they side effects and the above non-chemical methods work

According to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, “the best method depends on the type of grass, whether it is in sun or shade and what will be planted in the new garden.: For example, Bermuda grass in the shade can be killed easier by taking the water supply off. In the sun Bermuda can survive on virtually nothing. If you expect to plant a groundcover, you will pay special care to removing weeds because they will be very difficult to control when you have to pick them out of the new plantings. However, the grass and other weeds will likely require some ongoing removal. Here is an article for more info.

Planning landscape after lawn removed


Our lawn was already dead so we hired help to dig it out. We ended up having to pull up remnant grass for a couple years but it really wasn’t difficult, especially since the grass blades were obvious between our growing native and drought tolerant plants.

Keep in mind your existing trees,: Trees in your grassy areas are important and will need the water they are used to. For example, our magnolia tree needs more water than our new landscaping gives it, so our rain barrel system provides extra water in the rainy season, and we water it extra other times of the year.

What to replace it with?

Lawn or groundcover: Although California native plants do not behave quite like turf, there are several native plants that make nice, low groundcovers.

  • A mix of blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides) makes a nice native turf (Western, not California native). Although some say buffalo grass grown from plugs does better, we did a mix of both, which did well. See article about our process here. According to Emily Neiman of Native American Seed, planting with enough seed will help prevent weeds that sometimes comes up with lighter seeding rates.

    Blue grams and buffalograss mixLawn or ground cover: Although C

  • Yarrow, (Achillea millefolium‘Rosea’) can also be used as a turf substitute (see Lummis House in Los Angeles) . Can be mowed. Is more for looks – will take some foot traffic but is not a play surface
  • Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilus) is another native turf substitute that has a dense, dark lawn look. It requires water, though probably less than traditional turf grasses. Leave it be and create a meadow garden. or you can mow it occasionally.

Hardscape/stones: Recycled concrete, flagstone, decomposed granite or other inorganic surfaces can also be used for a low maintenance garden area that will take foot traffic. These permeable surfaces reduce urban runoff that is responsible for much of our coastal pollution.

Native plants/drought-tolerant plants: This was our choice and we’re very happy with it. We planted a variety of plants (sages, ceanothus, manzanita, buckwheat plus others) See write-up http://www.ci.redlands.ca.us/utilities/water_conservation2.htm

To decide, figure out what you need for play areas and for pets. We kept a small area for our dog. Reduce your own lawn to the minimum to meet your needs, Make sure to reduce the water on that area as obviously you won’t save water if everything gets the amount of water required by turf, and many low-water use plants will fail in these conditions.

For more info:

Yarrow and Mallow are beautiful alternatives

RSABG articles



Here are write-ups of three examples of area residents who replaced their lawns (including our photos and write-up on the City of Redlands website)

Our experience

The Abrigos Native Plant Landscape

Kathy and Roger’s Hardscape 

Susan Damon’s Midwest experience

City of Redlands Fifty Nifty Plants Brochure of  50 waterwise suggestions, plus photos of  California lilac, lavender, nevin’s barberry (one of our favorites), yarrow

Nevin’s barberry offers great summer color

Las Pilitas website – great website to look up plant suggestions

More website articles on our experience

DID YOU KNOW??   Lawn satellite images show lawns are America’s greatest crop – covering 63,000 sq miles, and using 19 trillion gallons water

About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.


  1. The cost of water services is why too high in Redlands, Ca

    The problem isn’t the amount of water used..but it doesn’t matter if you use no water, the water costs remain approx., $100 a month…. that is a lot of money when you use little water.

    The costs are not in ratio to water use.

    The homeowner must pay these costs regardless of how much water is actually being used.

    Disgusting….and it is unfair, especially to people on a fixed income.

  2. It makes a lot of sense to remove your lawn if you live in So. Cal. Aside from the rebates, you will use 60% less water with a drought tolerant landscaping plan. Saving water & money is a great way to go for Californians.

  3. MIMI BARRE says:

    Do you have names and contacts for people who remove lawns by digging them out, putting in a drip system, and planting the plants that the nursery and I select? I talked to a person at the Sustainability Fair at U of R last year. I lost his name.

    • Linda Richards says:

      It has been a challenge finding people. I do know Todd Smith is very familiar with drought tolerant and native landscaping (909)794-1374 Work or (909)496-0065 cell. There’s also John at 909-252-2791 who I’m told does lawn removal, stonework, walkway and planters – BUT DO NOT let them trim trees!

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