LIFE AFTER LAWN: A Davis Backyard Transformation

Photo of Ria de Grassi's backyard one year post lawn removal

In fall 2014 Ria de Grassi filled her yard with UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars and other low-water, regionally-appropriate plants. Here, one year later, she enjoys the space while reading in her outdoor seating area.

Look around your neighborhoods and it’s easy to see the toll four plus years of drought has taken on our outdoor spaces. When it came to cutting back our water use we eliminated the top consumer, our lawn-focused landscapes, but now what? Are “gold” lawns the new normal? Facing those same questions a year ago, Ria de Grassi, longtime Davis resident, removed her backyard lawn and hopes sharing her experience can help others who struggled, like her, with where to begin.

“I’m a single homeowner who works full-time and likes to travel,” says de Grassi. “I knew I couldn’t start this project without help, but I also knew the first thing any contractor would ask is what I was looking for in my life without a lawn. For me, the first step was to figure out what I liked. I did that by taking advantage of the free resources right outside my door.”

As a dyed-in-the-wool Aggie fan, alumna, and Friend of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, de Grassi got to know the plants she liked by walking the Arboretum, taking photos, and attending the free tours and talks they offer seasonally.

“Ever since my early days as a student, the Arboretum was my favorite place on campus,” recalls de Grassi. “So when I found out that Sequoia-level members of their support group are eligible for home consults, I jumped on the opportunity.

Photo of hummingbird in de Grassi's backyard.

A diverse mix of native wildlife enjoys the new landscape in de Grassi’s backyard. Here a hummingbird feeds on autumn sage, Salvia x jamensis ‘Hot Lips’.

“Ellen Zagory, their director of public horticulture came to my yard, got a sense of my personality, my lifestyle, what plants I liked and didn’t like,” explains de Grassi. “She then put together a list of what she thought would do well in my space given the variety of exposures, and told me which plants perform well next to one another. I never would have been able to do that on my own.”

Once de Grassi had a better idea of what she wanted, she hired a local landscape contractor. A good place to start this process is the California Landscape Contractors Association website which offers in-depth search functions for finding the right company. Many contractors will provide free estimates.

“They tore out just about everything except my mature trees, and created what I call my outdoor Zen space,” explains de Grassi. “My yard is now filled with low-water plants I love that also provide forage for more wildlife than I’ve ever had before.”

As an agricultural issues and policy analyst for the non-profit California Farm Bureau, de Grassi is well acquainted with the importance of providing a safe haven for bees so the majority of what de Grassi planted are selections of UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars—tough, reliable plants that have been tested in the Arboretum, don’t need a lot of water, and support native bird and insects.

“It’s true what they say … plant it and they will come. My yard is abuzz with activity from hummingbirds, bees, dragonflies, and today I saw a lizard in my yard for the very first time,” says de Grassi. “It’s not just the animals that are thriving either. Last fall the plants looked so small. I thought it would be years before I could see the tapestry of colors and textures coming together; it’s better than I imagined it’d be just one year later. Fall really is the best time to plant.

The transition to life without a lawn has been a learning experience for de Grassi, especially when it comes to managing her new sub-surface irrigation. This highly efficient system self-adjusts its watering cycle depending on readings it receives from a remote weather station mounted on her fence.

“I still need to make irrigation adjustments here and there, but my plants like it and so does my water bill,” explains de Grassi. “Even though I am using more water to establish my new plants than I will in a year or two, it’s still less than it would be if it were lawn, and it’s only going to get better.”

Photo of Ria de Grassi with the soil probe she uses to determine whether or not her mature trees need irrigation.

TThe mature trees in de Grassi’s backyard are on a separate valve linked to an above-ground drip irrigation system covered in mulch. To determine whether or not the trees need water de Grassi uses a soil probe.

The other thing that has changed is how de Grassi waters her trees. Because mature trees were incorporated into her new landscape, the drip irrigation system for them is above ground – covered with mulch – with its own valve. The rest of her landscape has a sub-surface drip irrigation system with multiple valves.

“Now I deep water my trees about once a month,” says de Grassi. “I use a soil probe to measure whether or not they need water. I push it into the ground to about 18 inches … if the probe is muddy all the way to the 18 inch mark, I know I can wait to water; if the mud doesn’t reach the mark, then it’s time to water. It’s kind of like testing whether or not your cake is ready to come out of the oven!”

What is next for de Grassi? Her front yard! She’s applied for and been pre-approved to receive a rebate from the State of California’s lawn removal program ( and this week not only is that lawn coming out, she is visiting the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden plant sale this Saturday to stock up. They’re celebrating 10 years of Arboretum All-Stars and will have their largest inventory to date of low-water, regionally-appropriate plants including California natives and Arboretum All-Stars, of course.

To learn more about de Grassi’s life after lawn, see photos, learn more about her plant selections, and other sales, visit the UC Davis Arboretum’s website at

Learn more about the Arboretum’s FALL PLANT SALES

SEE A PHOTO GALLERY OF de Grassi’s backyard transformation

A partial list of the plants in Ria’s backyard

  • Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ – aster monk
  • Hydrangea quercifolia – oak leaved hydrangea
  • Bouteloua gracilis – blue grama grass
  • Epilobium canum – California fuchsia
  • Erigeron karvinskianus – Santa Barbara daisy
  • Heuchera ‘Rosada’ – rosada coral bells
  • Muhlenbergia rigens – deergrass
  • Nepeta x faassenii – hybrid catmint
  • Origanum vulgare ‘Betty Rollins’ – dwarf oregano
  • Solidago californica ‘Cascade Creek’ – Cascade Creek California goldenrod
  • Cerastium tomentosum – snow-in-summer
  • Ceanothus x pallidus ‘Marie Simon’ – Marie Simon ceanothus
  • Hesperaloe parviflora – coral yucca
  • Lavandula x ginginsii ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ – Goodwin Creek lavender
  • Salvia greggii and Salvia x jamensis – autumn sage
  • Teucrium fruticans – bush germander
  • Callistemon ‘Little John’ – Dwarf Callistemon
  • Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ – Ray Hartman ceanothus
  • Eriogonum fasciculatum – California wild buckwheat

10 Rising Stars

THE ORIGINAL 100 ALL-STAR PLANTS are not the only ones that we have found to have excellent qualities for gardens in our area. This season, our Teaching Nursery staff nominated ten plants that they consider “Rising Stars.” These plants have many of the same characteristics as our Arboretum AllStars—they are attractive, dependable, drought tolerant, low maintenance, and provide value to our wildlife. Interested in trying out some Rising Stars in your garden? They will all be available, along with many All-Stars, at our upcoming FALL PLANT SALES, while supplies last.

1. Photo of Aster MonkASTER MONK
Aster x frikartii 'Monch'
A winter deciduous perennial that produces lots of lovely, 2-inch wide daisies in clusters in summer and fall. Long-blooming, it is a magnet for many native bees so it is perfect for the native bee conservation gardener. (Size: 2’ T x 3’ W)
2. Photo of silvery blue Russian sageSILVERY BLUE RUSSIAN SAGE
Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Blue Lisservy'
This silvery blue produces metallic silver stems and leaves topped with spires of lavender-blue flowers. Drought tolerant and summer blooming, it is a great choice for attracting native pollinators. (Size: 24” T x 12” W)
3. Photo of winter red geranisumWINTER RED GERANIUM
Pelargonium 'Winter Red'
Diminutive in size only, this geranium produces lovely, narrow-petaled, salmon-colored flowers above green foliage especially in cool weather. This sturdy and dependable plant grows beautifully in our gardens in part shade. (Size: 18” T x 18” W)
Agave americana 'Mediopicta Alba'
Well adapted to our dry summer climate, agaves have long been used as accents in California gardens for their striking sculptural form and creamy stripes. Thankfully this variety will only be half the size of its parent species. (Size: 4” T x 6’ W)
5. Photo of Australian fuchsiaAUSTRALIAN FUCHSIA
Correa pulchella 'Orange Flame'
The beautiful rusty-orange flowers of this low, evergreen shrub brighten up gray winter days and provide a sought-after food source for hungry hummingbirds. Plant it in well-drained soil, partial shade, and enjoy! (Size: 2’ H x 3’ W)
6. Photo of coyote brushCENTENNIAL COYOTE BRUSH
Baccharis 'Centennial'
Propagation Manager Lisa Fowler loves the feathery flowers of this hybrid shrub. It is tough, drought tolerant and useful as a large-scale ground cover. (Size: 3’ T x 3-5’ W)
7. Photo of 'australian rosemaryAUSTRALIAN ROSEMARY
Westringia fruticosa
With grayish leaves that produce small white flowers for much of the year, coast rosemary provides a useful option for the lowwater gardener. It has been dependable and long-lived for us and is hardy to about 20°F. (Size: Certain cultivars mound to 4-6’ T x 4-6’ W )
8.Photo of oak leaf hydrangeaOAK LEAVED HYDRANGEA
Hydrangea quercifolia
Missing masses of flowers in your low-water garden? Fear not! When grown in the shade, these oak-leaved hydrangeas not only tolerate our water and heat, they produce large white, conical, long-lasting flowers. (Size: 4’ T x 3’ W)
9.Photo of warriner lytle buckwheatWARRINER LYTLE BUCKWHEAT
Eriogonum fasciculatum 'Warriner Lytle'
Buckwheats provide a tough alternative guaranteed to bring movement to the garden when creatures come to collect its bountiful pollen and nectar. With needle-like leaves and a cloud of white flowers that turn copper by fall, this is a useful ground cover for dry areas. (Size: 12” T x 6’ W)
10.Photo of new zealand sedgeORANGE NEW ZEALAND SEDGE
Carex testacea
An evergreen plant, this New Zealand sedge needs shade in the Central Valley and some summer irrigation. Useful as an accent in container plantings, it’s stunning when backlight by the winter light where it will glow a lovely orange. (Size: 4’ T x 3’ W)

Celebrating 10 years of Arboretum All-Stars

Photo of UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars.

Many of our Arboretum All-Stars will be available for purchase at our Fall 2015 Plant Sales.

by Ellen Zagory, Director of Public Horticulture for the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden 

Originally posted on September 23, 2015


THIS YEAR OUR UC DAVIS ARBORETUM ALL-STARS CELEBRATE THEIR 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY. It’s an anniversary worth noting not just because it’s been a decade, but because of the impact the plants and overall program have had on the improvement in sustainability of our landscapes. This has become even more important as California continues in its fourth year of drought. We were ahead of the curve on our recommendation of water-conserving species, and I believe that is one reason the All Stars plant list has been adopted widely.

The Arboretum’s landscaping philosophy has always come from a place of conserving natural resources. From the beginning, the Arboretum relied on hoses and portable spray irrigation to establish and maintain plantings, and this “manual” system was operated by limited staff. That maintenance restriction meant that our horticulturists have always selected and tested plant species that could tolerate infrequent, but deep, irrigation. Then, a little over ten years ago, we decided that it was time to share the expertise we had accumulated about excellent, low-water plants for our region. There were other lists for California, but none that took into consideration the Central Valley’s blazing hot and dry summers and periodic freezing winter temperatures.

In order to create the list that ended up as our top 100 All-Stars, we developed strict criteria for selecting plants. We wanted plants that first and foremost needed very little water. They had to be attractive, easy for both beginning and advanced gardeners to grow, and have few problems with pests or diseases. We also especially wanted plants that supported native wildlife, such as birds and beneficial insects, and provided a variety of alternatives for year-round interest. We voted on those plants that we all felt best fit the criteria. And the Arboretum All-Stars were born!

We then developed an online database and planting plans, as well as signage on All-Star plants in the Arboretum. At the Arboretum Teaching Nursery we created demonstration gardens so people could easily see what an All-Star garden would look like. Many funders and donors, including our wonderful Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, supported this work over the years through grants, gifts, and time. Some supported the All-Stars Program directly, while others supported our nursery and plant sales program, which promote the All-Stars.

It is clear that the UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars Program has come a long way in ten years. We hope you have found the All-Stars list and other resources useful as you have designed and planted your own garden. Whether you are new to these plants or have been enjoying them for years, we invite you to our FALL PLANT SALES to celebrate this milestone and take home some more sure-to-please All-Stars!

Search the Arboretum All-Star database
Browse the Arboretum All-Stars

California Native Plant Planting Plan
Wildlife Attracting Planting Plan
Low-Maintenance Planting Plan
Teaching Nursery Planting Plan

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