Excerpted from The Davis Enterprise
March 6, 2015
by Katie Hetrick
As with any long-term relationship, deciding it’s time to break up with your lawn can be a difficult decision.
Will you miss it? Will it be worth it? Will you be happier? There are so many unknowns. Sometimes it is best just to take the plunge and not over-analyze the situation.
That’s what Stacey Parker, a new Davis homeowner and horticulturist for the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, did last year. She envisioned her front yard as a place that could be aesthetically pleasing, home to native wildlife and a low-water draw — an attractive idea, given the rising cost involved in keeping lawns green.
“This is the type of work I’m involved in with UC Davis campus landscapes, so I figured why not do the same at home,” Parker said.
About UCD, Parker said, “We’re realizing huge water savings, thanks in large part to thoughtful plant choices, not to mention a world-class irrigation crew — I wish I could have used them” at her home, she joked.
Parker may not have all the same resources as UCD, but what she lacks in assets she makes up for in ingenuity. A true economizer, Parker decided to employ one of the least expensive methods for removing her lawn — sheet mulch.
Sheet mulching involves smothering your lawn with cardboard, covering the sheets with 6 inches of mulch, then waiting for your lawn (and any weeds) to die. Voilà, six months later, you are ready to plant your new, sustainable, environmentally friendly plant palette.
Seems easy enough, and it can be, but there are a couple of tips that Parker would like other lawn conversion do-it-yourselfers to consider should they embark on the same sheet-mulching journey.
Start with a master plan
“Consider hiring a professional to help with your design,” Parker said. “Beginning with an overall vision for what you would like your landscape to become allows for flexibility. You can start small while knowing how one piece fits into the larger puzzle.”
Include extra layers
Parker had multiple reasons for deciding on sheet mulching; besides it adding much-needed carbon back into the soil, it’s easy to come by, and its environmental impact is low. But one thing she wishes she had done was use more … more cardboard and more mulch, especially in areas adjacent to her neighbors.
“Weeds are wily creatures,” Parker said. “If you share a property line with a neighbor that waters regularly, no matter how little water they use, that portion of your yard will require extra layers of cardboard and extra mulch to smother the grass and weeds below.
“Any additional water supply causes the cardboard to breakdown quicker, allowing weeds less resistance when attempting to emerge.”
After saying goodbye to her lawn, Parker couldn’t wait to fall in love again with her new front yard. She sheet-mulched last spring and began planting in the fall, unaware that the pernicious weed varieties infesting her yard don’t emerge until winter.
Among others, they include the lovely, yet insidious Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae) and a bit of creeping woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculatus). These weeds have tough and drought-tolerant bulbs that can persist in the ground for many years.
“The length these weeds go to in order to reach some sun is amazing. They take sharp left turns, sharp right turns, they go around and back up,” Parker explained. “If you can’t remove them completely, you’ve got to exhaust all their energy. We’ve got a lot to learn from weeds about resilience!
“Long story short, if you can, you want to wait at least year post-sheeting-mulching before you begin planting, especially if, like me, you choose not to use herbicides. … This is, without a doubt, the hardest part for plant nerds and curb-appeal enthusiasts alike. It’s hard to focus on the future when you want everything done, low-water and beautiful, now.”
What Parker did instead was focus on her trees.
“For all the landscape pioneers out there switching from traditional, lawn-focused landscapes, to diverse, low-water landscapes — don’t let your trees get caught in the crosshairs! They may not need a lot of water, depending on the depth of their roots, but they still get thirsty!”
Added Parker, “I was careful to remember to water the tree in my front yard. It provides a great deal of shade — a huge blessing nine months of the year — but it also made plant selection a little more difficult for me because I couldn’t rely on my favorite full-sun plants for bursts of seasonal flower color.
“I love it now, though, because what I get instead is a mix of textures, leaf forms and hues of green that provide visual interest year-round.”
Parker jokingly refers to her yard as “50 Greens for Shade. Right now there are only about 33 varieties of plants, but I’ll get to 50 at some point! I’ve got yellow-greens, blue-greens, gray-greens, red-greens, purple-greens, variegated color leaves and so on. All the colors are there, they may just not be from flowers.” (SEE Stacey’s Plant List.)
Homeowners like Parker who are making changes to their landscapes to save water and be more sustainable are developing what the UCD Arboretum has coined “the new front yard.”
For links to information that will help area homeowners in their quest to break up with their lawns and create a new front yard, visit http://arboretum.ucdavis.edu and click on “Drought Resources.” To see photos and follow along with Parker’s front lawn removal process, and to find out more about her plant palette, visit http://publicgarden.ucdavis.edu/staceys-lawn-removal.
Interested in talking to experts about the lawn removal process and getting inspired by a wide selection of water-wise plants? Attend one of the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden’s spring plant sales, where you’ll find the area’s largest selection of attractive, low-water, easy-care, region-appropriate plants, as well as wide array of experts who can advise on topics like lawn removal.