Native, drought tolerant yards can be green too

Hayden Webb, with Natural Earth landscaping company, and Deborah Kekone discuss the planned redesign of Kekone’s front yard recently in Claremont. Kekone and her husband David hired Natural Earth to remove the lawn in front of their ‘50s era tract home and replace it with a sustainable Japanese themed landscape. COURIER photo/Steven Felschundneff

by Steven Felschundneff |

Heading down Miramar Drive one can observe a microcosm of how Claremont residents are dealing with the ongoing drought.

Some people have drought tolerant landscapes that were planted years ago; others simply don’t appear to care about current mandatory water restrictions, with lawns as green as ever.

Several homeowners are in the process of removing turf and planting native, water efficient flora, and one has a recently installed bright green artificial turf.

A growing number of yards, perhaps even the majority, are dry and brown as the summer sun saps any and all moisture the one-day-per-week watering schedule has left in the soil.

But if you’ve had it with that dead lawn, a number of local organizations and businesses would like to help you transform your yard into a beautiful, yet water efficient, Southern California paradise.

Not everybody wants, or even likes, a cactus garden, but a desert motif isn’t your only option. Various plant species can provide a lush carpet that looks great without requiring the constant watering of turf.

Lauren Weintraub Stoebel, assistant director of visitor engagement, public relations and events at the California Botanic Garden, asked some of the experts in that institution’s employ for a list of species that could replace a lawn while requiring less water. Their suggestions include the following:

Carex varieties, also known as sedge, can take some traffic and can be mowed or “weed whacked.” It’s coarser in texture than typical lawns, but the sedge “lawn” at the Garden gets watered only about every other week, according to Weintraub Stoebel.

Phyla nodiflora grows low like grass except for stalks with flowers which can be removed if desired. The species doesn’t require nearly as much water as a lawn but just how much water depends on planting location. Like carex, it can take low-to-moderate foot traffic.

Achillea (yarrow) is a great groundcover that looks sort of like a very low-growing, feathery fern. It’s probably best in a bit of shade and will be lush and green if planted in just the right spot. In addition, fragaria, or wild strawberry, is similar to achillea with a slightly different look and similar water needs.

“These would both yield a low-growing, green lawn-like look, but are not suitable in areas where there is a lot of foot traffic,” Weintraub Stoebel said.

Of course, there is no need to hire a landscape architect to achieve a beautiful and sustainable garden. For residents who wish to perform a do-it-yourself project, the California Botanic Garden’s Grow Native Nursery offers a wide selection of California native plants, most of which require modest irrigation. The nursery is closed for summer but will reopen with its annual fall plant sale on Saturday, October 15, from 8 to 10 a.m. for members and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the public. The updated plant list for the fall sale will be sent out early on Friday, October 14.

In the meantime, the Garden itself is a great place to identify plants that could ultimately become part of your sustainable garden. Or just drive some neighborhoods to identify the landscape look and plants that appeal to you.

The Claremont Garden Club is another great resource, with plenty of knowledgeable people who love to talk about plants. The club is hosting an event, “Tips for a healthy garden during extreme drought,” on Wednesday, October 12 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Claremont United Church of Christ’s Louise Roberts Room, 233 Harrison Ave.

Sustainable Claremont’s Resource Guide includes “local organizations and businesses that specialize in water conservation, energy efficiency, and more sustainable management of our landscapes and natural resources.”  Sustainable Claremont is located in the Lenz Building at the California Botanic Garden, 1500 N College Ave. Hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

If you have the means and are interested in hiring someone to do the work, a number of local businesses will be happy to completely transform your yard, all the way from turf removal to finished product.

Claremont residents Deborah and David Kekone had been toying with the idea of removing the lawn in front of their 1950s era tract home for some time, but the water restrictions put the project in high gear. The couple, who are both designers, interviewed several landscape architects before settling on Natural Earth because the company’s representative seemed to really grasp the ideas the couple had for the project.

The plan was to create a Japanese-inspired garden but with plants that are suited for our climate. The Kekones also wanted to create a space where neighbors could congregate. The design, which includes a series of geometric-shaped retaining walls that can also work as seating, will draw inspiration from the Huntington Botanical Gardens. The goal, according to Deborah Kekone, is to create a beautiful yet functional and usable front yard in which the family will enjoy spending time.

Claremont resident Deborah Kekone displays a somewhat tattered copy of the plan for the complete redo of her front yard. She and her husband David hired landscape architect Natural Earth to design and build a sustainable Japanese-themed low-water garden. COURIER photo/Steven Felschundneff


The project got off to a slow start, largely because the nut grass that made up their lawn proved extremely difficult to eradicate. And then there was the faulty water main that needed to be replaced. In the end they elected to dig portions of the yard 12 to 18 inches below the old surface, to get rid of the grass completely, and to create places where rainwater could be captured.

“Our number one goal in sustainable landscaping is to create areas where water can slow down, kind of percolate down to the ground,” said Hayden Webb of Natural Earth. “But also create areas of interest so your eye is drawn to it. It’s a huge ethos with our company, changing the way you feel about a landscape, and we do that through topography.”

Although Kekone admits they have not actually selected the plant species yet, she knows what they don’t want.

“I wanted to stay away from the sage, lavender and rosemary that you see everywhere,” she said.

“We are going to be really selective with what we plant, and privacy is another thing I am mindful of. So, using a California native like a toyon, that’s a really nice shrub that creates a little bit of privacy … Manzanita can be used as a screen but it’s also an architectural plant,” Webb said.

Regardless of whether you do the work yourself or hire a pro, you can still qualify for a turf removal rebate from the Metropolitan Water District of $2 per square foot of grass removed. To apply visit and click on the rebate tab to find the turf removal program.


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