Although a great idea, landscaping to conserve water is rarely practiced in our town. Most homes have wide expanses of spray-irrigated turfgrass, one of the thirstiest choices for green space. There are plenty of groundcover alternatives, low spreading flowering plants, and even less water-needy grass available.
So why do people in a climate with less than 8 inches of annual rainfall demand lawns that look like colonial England or rural Kentucky? Because we never learn otherwise, our neighbors all grow big lawns, and aesthetic values aren't re-learned so easily.
We have watered, in a naive custom, as much as we wanted for generations, designing bigger water systems and billion-dollar state projects. Changing climate means we no longer know how much rainfall and Sierra snowpack to expect, and wisdom dictates we re-evaluate our consumption of this precious resource.
Shrink the lawn
Many of the most attractive yards in town feature garden beds and less turf. Along the sides of the lot they have landscaping, so the lawn doesn't stretch from one property line to the next. If the lawn is only as wide as the house, and the edges have attractive plantings of woody plants and herbaceous perennials, water can be saved and the property enhanced. Revising the sprinkler system to have one or two fewer rows of spray heads, replacing the outer part with plantings, would be a good idea for so many properties in town. The beds don't have to be straight -- a curved outline can work wonders.
The lot where our house resides measures 75 feet across, with only 34 feet of lawn. The driveway takes up part of the space, and beds of drip-irrigated rose bushes and groundcover line the edges. The total amount of irrigated turf amounts to less than half what it might have been.
The simplest way to remove turfgrass is with a turf cutter, a gas-powered machine available at local rental shops. It moves along slowly, a big blade underneath cutting into the topsoil, lifting loose mats of grass that can be rolled like sod. Turf cutters are heavy and powerful, and typically can be rented on their own trailer for transportation.
Changing to low-flow irrigation may not even require digging any pipe. Some irrigation companies make adapters that replace spray heads with drip outlets.
In my garden, there are a couple of dozen Pepco Octabubblers, a type of drip hydrant that I found at Ewing Irrigation. The eight drip outlets are barbed to fit quarter-inch standard drip tubing, and plastic inserts within the hydrant allow the flow from each to be 2, 6, 10 or 20 gallons per hour respectively. Rainbird Irrigation offers a similar device that holds eight drip emitters inside a mushroom-shaped black plastic top.
Grass bred at UC Riverside
One of the most water-efficient grasses for lawns in our region is El Toro zoysia, bred by horticulturists at UC Riverside in the 1970s. It also takes little fertilizer. Unlike most turf grasses, it is planted from unrooted cuttings, literally boxes of coarse grass clippings, with their stems alive, which are spread over the site and provided a partial cover of topsoil to help keep them in place.
El Toro zoysia is a winter-dormant grass, like hybrid Bermuda, so some homeowners prefer it be overseeded with winter rye, so the lawn in winter is green, not pale brown.
Zoysia grass is stoloniferous, meaning it spreads by stolons, stems that run horizontally. This has posed something of a problem in my garden, with grass that can grow right under a 42-inch-wide concrete walkway and sprout up on the other side. Structurally containing the lawn was not a necessity I foresaw. It's an excellent choice when given a spot where its growth habit helps smother out weeds, provides a nice springy turf that feels good on bare feet, and conserves water and fertilizer. In our climate, for walking on barefoot, there aren't any lawn substitutes besides genuine grass.
Don't even think about dichondra around here, unless you want to make its care a full-time job.
Lantana and verbena
Lantana and verbena are great plants for drawing butterflies, especially those frisky orange skippers. Both genera have clusters of small flowers and bloom for about half the year.
Lantana grows larger, with stiff stems, and verbena is generally soft-stemmed and lies flat.
They look good together, and can be very colorful. These are great choices to replace some turf in sunny spots. Generally, lantana comes in warm colors -- red, yellow and orange -- as well as white and pale violet. Verbena comes in nearly every color, from red to purple, including cultivars with multicolored petals. Although verbena is sold as an annual, available in flats, most cultivars are good for several years.
Mexican evening primrose and cranesbill geranium
Aggressive groundcover plants that spread, Mexican evening primrose and cranesbill geranium require containment or they can go all over the place. They look lovely, bloom throughout the warm months, and take little care besides watering. Mexican evening primrose fills the space between my neighbor's driveway and mine, providing a shaggy carpet of pink blooms underneath 20 rose bushes. After the frost hits, I trim it down to nubs. In spring it re-sprouts and gets covered in flowers at about the same time the roses produce their best display. This groundcover gets no additional water besides the drip lines under the roses.
Cransebill is not your typical florist geranium, although is a close relative. It's a feathery-looking spreading perennial with pinkish or lavender solitary flowers about an inch across. The stems root as they spread, and some varieties re-seed, too. It can spread several feet a year and, like Mexican evening primrose, should only be planted where it can grow out to the edges and there be contained.
Gazania and arctotis
Gazania and arctotis, daisy-flowered groundcovers, take heat extremely well and grow very low to the ground. Plantings of them tend to develop bare spots over the years, and either new ones can be purchased, or existing ones can be multiplied by cuttings taken in cooler weather, and planted right into the open spots. Arctotis is a larger plant, and is available in burgundy, making a nice contrast to the warm tones of gazanias.
Cotoneaster and star jasmine
Cotoneaster and star jasmine are woody plants suitable for large areas. Much of the front landscape of the State Farm offices on Old River Road is planted in low-growing cotoneaster bushes, formed in curving masses about a foot high. There are many cultivars available, not all of them groundcovers. Some of their relatives are large bushes that produce a lot of red berries to attract birds.
Star jasmine is a woody vine that adapts to all sorts of uses. Although taxonomically it's not a true jasmine, that doesn't stop big beds of it from smelling simply amazing in early summer. To make star jasmine thrive, the soil should be well-amended with organic matter like compost or rotted manure before planting. It doesn't tolerate compacted alkaline soil so well (which is why some of it in town is just surviving, not thriving).
A trip to a good local nursery will reveal many more choices of groundcovers and lawn substitutes. Those listed above are best for large sunny areas.