Turf Substitutes

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.

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 provides a terrific native turf. It has fine, green blades. Weed control can been an issue. The grass is not extremely dense so it does not crowd out the weeds.

Gramma grass, Bouteloua gracilis, can be planted by seed during the summer (June or July). It grows when it is very hot. After seeding, water 2-3 times a day for about two weeks. Misting to keep the germinated seeds wet.

Buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides (native to western prairies, not California) 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.

A yarrow, Achillea millefolium ‘Rosea’, is another option. 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.

Native Plants with Evergreen Oaks

An existing mature native oak is a treasure for your home and landscape. Any change to an existing oak’s environment is a gamble, some trees will survive and others will not. Remember to plant as far from the dripline as possible and never plant in the spring or summer when watering during the hot, dry weather will be required.

Some of the perennials that do well near oaks are coral bells, such as Heuchera maxima, H. ‘Opal’ and H. ‘Wendy’, Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), California fescue (Festuca californica), and California melic (Melica imperfecta). Shrubs that are found in oak woodlands include barberry (Berberis (Mahonia) spp.), silktassel (Garrya elliptica), holly-leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).


Plant Name



Common Name



Aquilegia formosa

Heuchera hybrids

Heuchera maxima

Heuchera micrantha

Juncus patens

Salvia spathacea

Satureja douglasii

Thalictrum fendleri ssp. polycarpum



Aristolochia californica (vine, groundcover)

Clematis lasiantha

Keckiella cordifolia (vining shrub)

Symphorocarpus albus



Dryopterus arguta

Polypodium californicum

Pteridium aquilinum

Woodwardia fimbriata



Festuca californica

Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’

Melica imperfecta



Heteromeles arbutifolia

Mahonia ‘Golden Abundance’

Mahonia aquifolium

Mahonia aquifolium compacta

Mahonia nevinii

Mahonia pinnata

Mahonia repens

Prunus ilicifolia

Rhamnus californica

Rhamnus crocea

Ribes malvaceum

Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum

Ribes speciosum

Ribes viburnifolium

Rosa californica

Venegasia carpesioides



Iris douglasiana

western columbine

coral bells

island alumroot



hummingbird sage

yerba buena

meadow rue



dutchman’s pipe


bush penstemon




wood fern

polypody fern


giant chain fern



California fescue

Canyon Prince ryegrass

melic, oniongrass




Golden Abundance barberry

Oregon grape

Compacta Oregon grape

Nevin’s barberry

Californica barberry

creeping barberry

holly-leaf cherry



chaparral currant

red flowering currant

fuchsia flowering gooseberry

evergreen currant

California wild rose

canyon sunflower



Douglas iris


California Fuchsia Provide Color and Nectar

The orange-red tubular flowers of the California fuchsia (Epilobium/Zauschneria species) are easy to grow and provide welcome color at this time of the year. Hummingbirds and bees also appreciate this late season bloomer. California fuchsia, unrelated to the shade and water loving non-native fuchsia, can look a bit unkempt without proper care.

O'Brien, Landis and Mackey in "Care and Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens" suggest the following to keep California fuchsias performing to perfection:

"Never prune your plant hard until after it is established (after one or two summers). Then, cut back hard every winter after the plant has finished blooming and before new growth appears. The plant can be cut back to short stubs about 1 to 2 inches long. If the plant is not cut back hard, new growth will appear at the tips of the existing stems and from the base of the plant giving it a 'messy' appearance." (pg. 121)

Visit the Cultivar Garden at Rancho to see a wide variety of California fuchsias, ranging in size and form from low-growing ground covers to upright subshrubs, and in color from white and pink to the more common brilliant reds and oranges.

General guidelines for pruning native plants

In general the best time to prune plants is after they have flowered but before they have put on a lot of new growth. For California lilac (Ceanothus species) and manznaita (Arctostaphylos species) this is especially important because late pruning removes buds for the next season’s flowers – and what a shame to miss out on these spectacular displays.

For plants that produce desirable fruits and seeds, leave the spent flowers so they can go to seed. Examples of plants with colorful fruits are toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), barberry (Berberis or Mahonia species), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and summer holly (Comarostaphylis diversfolia)

Be sure to leave some seeds for birds, insects and other critters you wish to attract to your habitat garden. Wild sage (Salvia species) blooms in spring, leaving interesting dried flowers that are an important source of food for birds through the summer. California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is another very important food source. It blooms in summer and yields attractive dried flowers with some seed for animals in the fall. Prune sage in the fall or winter when they are just beginning to leaf out again. The exact time varies with the weather. It was early this year due to an early rain and some cool weather in the fall. Buckwheat can be deadheaded in the winter, and usually requires little pruning.

Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) flower from spring to fall. Depending on how much water they get, they usually go dormant in late summer and fall. When the leaves are dying back, you can remove spent stems nearly to the ground. This keeps an otherwise messy winter plant looking good so that you can enjoy its spectacular flowers in the spring and summer. Place these large and ungainly plants in the back of your garden beds so they will not be a focal point when dormant.

Prune back bunch grasses at the end of their period of dormancy. For example, prune deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), a summer grower, in May or June, water it well and provide a light application of fertilizer. The plant will spring back in about a week’s time, looking lush and green. If you prune it during the fall or winter, while it is dormant, you will have to look at a sheered mound for several months.

Deciduous trees should be pruned lightly, as needed, when they are leafless and dormant. You will be able to direct you pruning best when the leaves are not present, and it is healthiest for most trees to be pruned when they are not actively growing. With all mature trees, it is best to consult a licensed arborist.

Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), should only be pruned in summer months, when their growth rate has greatly slowed. If you prune at other times of the year you can promote excessive, off-season growth that is susceptible to mildew when it is hot. Pruning of mature trees should be restricted to removal of dead branches and the few that truly weaken the plant’s structure, such as crossed branches. Removing dead branches, especially those dangerous to people or property, should be done when necessary. For all mature trees, very little live growth should be removed. In fact, many cities have strict regulations on tree pruning, particularly for heritage or native trees. They often require the services of licensed arborists, city permits and they may limit the amount of pruning of live growth to 10 percent or less of the entire canopy. Be sure to consult with city officials before pruning any oak or other significant trees.