What can I use as a turf substitute?

Lawns use a lot of water, generate green waste, require fertilizer and pesticides, and must be mowed and edged. But, there is nothing else quite like them. They create a tough, durable surface that takes foot traffic and can stand up to pets and children. My feeling about turf is that it is ok for limited areas. Decide exactly how much you need for play areas and for pets. Remember that kids can play in parks where the city is responsible for lawn care. Reduce your own lawn to the minimum to meet your needs, and landscape other parts of your yard with low-water use plants. Be sure that your irrigation system is set to provide the correct amount of water for each different area. You will not save water if everything gets the amount of water required by turf, and many low-water use plants will fail in these conditions.

A mix of gramma and buffalo grass is an interesting, partially native turf. It has fine blades that are not dark green. Weed control can be an issue since the grass may not be dense enough to crowd out the weeds. Gramma grass, Bouteloua gracilis, can be planted by seed during the summer (June/July). It grows when it is very hot. After seeding, water 2-3 x/day for about two weeks. You are just misting to keep the germinated seeds wet. Buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides (native to western prairies, not CA) can be used to fill in. This must be grown from plugs, not seeds. You can buy a flat of it and divide it into plugs.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium ‘Rosea’, can also be used as a turf substitute (see Lummis House in Los Angeles). Again, weeds can be a problem since the “lawn” is not dense. Yarrow can be mowed. It requires some irrigation. Be aware that yarrow causes resistant grass stains on clothes. Yarrow can take limited foot traffic but will not provide a durable walking or play surface.

Clustered field sedge, Carex praegracilus, is another native turf substitute. This looks more like a dense, dark lawn. It requires water, though probably less than traditional turf grasses. It can be mowed occasionally, or left unmowed to create a meadow garden.

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.

Links and Resources:

Buffalo Grass Lawn (how to establish)

Non-lawn Front Yard, Tree of Life, Sage Advice

Cal Poly- San Luis Obispo, Leaning Pine Arboretum puts in Carex praegracilis lawn (scroll to near bottom of page)

San Marcos Growers, Carex praegralicis

San Marcos Growers, Achillea millefolium

Curto, Michael and David Fross. “A Sedge by Another Name… Is Confusing.” in Pacific Horticulture, Jul/Aug/Sep 2006. pp. 42-46.

What does my native garden need in late spring?


  • After annual wildflowers have completed their bloom period, collect wildflower seeds from spent plants to share with your gardening buddies and save for next year. If you will not be watering through the summer, allow the wildflowers to reseed the beds themselves.
  • Remove messy plants, as desired, but consider leaving some seedheads to feed the birds.
  • For California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), remove some and cut others to the ground, allowing them at least one more display this year.
  • Remove weeds, especially those that haven't set seed yet.


  • Spread mulch, organic for woodland and riparian beds, inorganic for chaparral, scrub and desert areas. Be careful to keep mulch away from the plant stems so as not to encourage rot in this sensitive area.
  • Mulch reduces weeds, enriches the soil (if it is organic) and gives the garden the “cared for” look so important for any garden, native or not.


  • Pinch back monkey flower (Mimulus species), sage (Salvia species) and other perennials, especially on young plants, to encourage the development of a tighter, bushier form with copious blooms.
  • Pinch back ceanothus and other spring flowering shrubs after they have finished blooming. Be sure to leave the spent flowers on the shrubs that will develop showy or desirable fruits.
  • Deadhead and pinch back perennials to extend the flowering period. With flowers, it is often the case that the more you cut the more you get. So bring your partner a lovely bouquet and enhance your garden.


  • Most California natives do best if planted in the late fall to early winter. You will have more luck with perennials and plants that require year around water, such as coral bells (Heuchera species and cultivars), penstemons (Penstemon species and cultivars), yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens).


  • For native gardens, it is often important to provide supplemental water during dry winters. This is the time of year chaparral and scrubland plants are actively growing. Now that spring is here, if the rains have stopped, you can provide some infrequent deep watering before the plants have entered their dormant period to extend their growing season. You need to check your plants often.
  • Get to know them so that you can tell when they are slowing down for the long, hot summer. As the heat sets in and your plants stop growing, taper off the water. Watering during the summer encourages disease and unsustainable growth. Summertime in southern California is perfect for soft gray colors, slow growth, less physical work and the spicy smell of sage and sagebrush. Get ready to sit back and relax.

Visit Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden to see our outstanding wildflower meadow, Pacific Coast Hybrid irises, and other spring flowering perennials, shrubs and trees.

Should I water in the summer?

As the heat turns on and California native plants slow down, so should your watering. During a plant’s first few years in your garden, anywhere from one to three, you must check it often. Water it enough to keep it going, since its root system is not fully developed, yet not so much that it puts on unsustainable, excess growth or succumbs to fungal and bacterial diseases. As your garden matures, it requires less attention. Depending on your plant choices, areas with established plants can be watered about once a month or less during the summer. Some plants like flannel bush (Fremontodendron species), should get no summer water at all.

Because conditions vary from garden to garden, and even within gardens, the best irrigation schedule is determined by watching your plants. In my garden, I manually set each zone on the controller. Beds with new plants receive water approximately once a week, although this depends entirely on how they look. If they are drooping and the soil near their roots is dry, I water them, making sure that the entire root system gets wet. New plants placed among established natives are watered by hand, as needed.

Autumn planting: get the dirt on soil prep

Considering converting all or part of your home landscape to water-efficient plants? With the planting season approaching—late summer and early fall are a good time to lay some groundwork as it were. Success in a sustainable landscape comes down to matching the right plant to the right place.

There are three variables that feed into the equation: light (sun and shade); soil (drainage and pH) and plant size. Plant size varies from plant to plant and is easy to determine from nursery catalogs, books and the Internet. The goal is to select a plant that will provide function (shade, screening etc.) and display (flowers, berries etc.) without needing constant pruning.

The August Getting Native segment offered insights on sun and shade; this segment offers some perspectives on soil.

Soil provides physical support for plants while at the same time provides their main source of moisture and nutrition. Garden soils vary from place to place just as plants vary in their tolerance of soils. So how can we tell what our garden soil will grow? The answer lies in understanding some basic properties of the soil. The physical structure (proportion of clay, silt and sand) and the chemistry (pH and nutrient profile) will tell you most of what you need to know. Some exceptions exist but, fortunately, these are rare.

A comprehensive soil analysis can be obtained from a soil laboratory and this is a good investment but, in most cases, not essential. Here are some basic tests you can conduct:

A percolation test will yield the next important property of the soil. How well does it drain? Is it slow (clay soil)? Fast (sandy soil)? Average (sandy clay)?

  • A simple 'feel' test can provide you with a good estimation of the physical structure. Is the soil mostly clay?, a mixture of clay and sand (sandy)?, silty?, etc.

Remember, the goal is to match the right plant to the right place. For example many of our Mediterranean climate plants, including California natives grow in fast draining, nutrient poor soils. If you find that your soil drains slowly and has a high percentage of clay, you will need to either improve the drainage or choose natives that will tolerate slower draining soils.

These are just basic insights into what is a complex subject. Further reading is recommended but we hope this will get you started and provide you with some information before you set about selecting plants.

Two new videos have been added to the Getting Native Facebook page to illustrate the tests we described above.

Pull on your gardening boots, dig in and find out what your soil is all about!

Next time we will discuss soil chemistry and round out this often-perplexing subject.