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Authenic California beauty

“Ugly” Is Not a Turf Replacement

Mike Evans

© Tree of Life Nursery, August 2015

OK, we can’t just keep on bein’ quiet about a subject that is screamin’ for attention. Turf replacement… and the new look that is transforming the southern California landscape. Time to weigh in. Read the article below… sorry about the article’s length. We hope the content makes it worth the read. Enjoy.

A practical approach to authentic beauty instead of grass.


The statewide drought is fast making every useless (not utilized) patch of lawn a thing of the past, and it’s high time. Not only does that grass use copious amounts of water, but the polluted runoff, the impacts of constant maintenance (including noise), the green waste, and the whole carbon footprint for turf adds up to one big negative in our seasonally dry climate. “Useful” grass, i.e.; a playground is not the issue here. Turf managers can look forward to successful careers properly managing healthy green lawns for sports and leisure. It’s the default lawn that serves no function or purpose we need to eliminate completely.

Too bad it took so long for this to really sink in. We hope that “better late than never” proves to be a truism in this case. We hope that if we start saving landscape water, we can keep saving landscape water, even when the rains return. Our track record on this is not very good. In the past we have consistently gone back to “business as usual” during wet years, and talked water conservation during the dry ones. The only difference is, this drought has been long and dramatic… and expensive. We really can’t go back to our old ways, ever. If we have learned anything this time around, it is that when there is no more water, there’s no more water.

The severe drought put many water purveyors into an emergency mindset, and they offered numerous incentives to get their point across to the public. In the fervor that followed, mostly to get rebate money before it dried up (yes pun intended), many projects were planned and installed in a reactive mode, and they show it. The “look” of the southern California garden is changing fast, and not wholly for the good. The effects of our shift to drought tolerant landscaping will be long lasting, so we had better get it right. The new landscape has to be pretty, without long delay, explanation or excuses. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but so is ugly. We want the transformed landscape to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing and it should only get better with time.

Fact is, a well-tended lawn is predictably pleasant. If you absolutely need the “lawn” look, just keep the grass; choose the right variety, aerate, water and mow it properly, and accept the fact that it is basically an environmental bummer, but for whatever reason it is worth the cost to you and society.  The flowing green carpet has become part of our psyche, and if we really want to keep it there (in our psyche) we either need to a) keep adding water, or b) move to Ireland. If we choose to stay here, “a)” is not an option because there is no reliable new source of water.  So when we stare reality in the face we realize the following: California… more people, hotter and drier, less water. We need to change our psyche. This can be done.

But, to make that change (in the name of water conservation), do we have to embrace unattractive gardens? Certainly not! This is unacceptable. “Ugly is not a good turf substitute.”

What Is Ugly?

Artificial turf? Yes ugly. Don’t even go there. New planting with no rhyme or reason? Ugly too. Here’s a theme we see pop up over and over… “Ten Random Succulents On Drip, Swimming in a Deep Sea of Mulch.” Not pretty at all. Dead trees? Unacceptable. Colored gravels in patterns? Really? Weedy patches or remnant turf around new plants struggling to survive? Of course not.

To avoid these easily recognizable and just plain ugly “syndromes,” let’s achieve functional beauty by exploring some key planning and planting principles. Consider the following points whether you are replacing existing turf, or working on a new design that might have traditionally been planted with turf, back “in the good old days.”

What Is Beauty?

A self-sustaining functional landscape, featuring regionally native plants, will invite people’s interaction and engagement and pass the test of time. It will be aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound. It will use about one tenth the water needed to support the former turf grass lawn.

Use The Space

What will the space be used for? If baseball, keep the grass. Call it “useful turf.” If drive-by viewing i.e.; a center median, parkway or street corner, only viewed from a car window at 45mph, then it’s a new game. Out with the grass, in with attractive combinations of native plants: authentically themed, passive, solid, layered, sustainable. If you have a space accessible to people, come on in!

Come On In

In turf replacement for any size accessible area, remember: Grass out, people in. Invite passive use for people on foot. Think about pathways, walkways, landings, benches, a birdbath or some other feature, gates, low fences, walls, hedges and edges, stepping stones, a gazebo, entry trellis, interpretive signage, steps, ramps, or garden art. This is where, with good planning, you can transform a piece of useless turf into an actual garden. Choosing beautiful plants for use inside your new garden is the easy part. First determine the highest and best use and design accordingly, not just for water savings but for the whole experience. Make it intimate and engaging. It does not have to be extravagant or expensive. Usually less is more.


When turfgrass is gone, you need a vision for your clean brown dirt, but it shouldn’t be another monotonously green carpet. You need a new look. There is no “turf substitute” that looks like turf and saves water. The currently popular “meadow sedge” is nice, sort of like a lumpy lawn. It uses about the same amount of water as turf. So if you want a “moist meadow” look, you can have it, but you won’t save much water. Other non-grass groundcovers may grow fast and stay low, but what is the purpose of a solid planting of those? A sea of a single-species low growing shrub? Why? Not beautiful. Definitely not functional.

In your imagined design do not trade one green carpet for another. Your design is to be different from turf. You are substituting high maintenance green carpet for sustainably beautiful diversity, varying plant forms and honest function.

The Ups & Downs

In your design, (before you plant) include subtle topography, swales and basins for water infiltration, naturalistic mounds and “stream beds” for special plants. Make your landscape a super efficient sponge. You can include stones and boulders for a completely natural look. Allow for overflow during big storms, but build your low spots in such a way as to capture almost all the water that comes in. Rain is the best water, and the price is right, so stop directing it into the gutter.

Plant Cover

Strive for diversity but not confusion. You should combine several varieties, and if you do it nature’s way, the results will be elegant and simple. As a general rule, avoid designing with geometric swaths, grids, or artificial patterns. Make interesting combinations, utilizing repeating certain elements and placing accent plants in key spots. Allow enough space for individual plants to grow and perform their best. Typically, trees need to be 25’+ apart, big shrubs 10-15’, smaller shrubs and subshrubs 6-8’, and semi woody plants and little flowering accents about 3’ apart, with some groundcovers on closer centers, but be careful to not over-plant. Overall, it is much easier to plant the smaller divided spaces created by paths, steps, planter walls, and accents, than to fill a large area with any sort of meaningful combination.


Bare earth, pebbles, decorative round natural gravel, decomposed granite, boulders and groups of stones, rock dust, and red clay top dress are some of the suitable mineral (non-organic) treatments for the soil surface around plants. They can be very effective and you don’t need a thick layer. You can combine their use and achieve an authentic southern California “look.”

Regarding bark and compost (organic) mulch products, be very careful in their use and avoid overuse. You should apply it sparingly, keep it away from the crown of the plant, and be sure it is of high quality. Not every site needs bark mulch or compost on the soil surface. In many cases it is not helpful to the plants, largely because of its mixed makeup (from green waste) and the physical and chemical properties inherent to compost that is not “finished.”

It’s OK to leave your natural soil in a tidy condition, raked and graded, with no weeds, maybe some patchy spots of mulch to keep the soil cooler. Clean chipped wood and bark products offer a pleasant, uniform appearance, but if they are applied too thick, irrigation is difficult to manage and warm season plant diseases can become a problem. Weed seeds have been known to hitch a ride on mulch that has been processed or stored incorrectly.

Avoid using a thick layer of any organic material that will knit itself together in a mat, repel water when dry, or remain saturated for a long time after watering. For a tidy “look,” bark and wood chips, screened to ½ – ¾” size will allow good water infiltration, cool the soil, and discourage weeds. Unless thoroughly composted, avoid finer materials, as the temperatures and microorganisms present in the composting process can be injurious to the plants’ crown, stems and leaves, especially in hot weather.

Many native plantings look completely natural with accents of decomposed granite, boulders, stones, and pebbles scattered here and there on mounds and swales, and strangely “unnatural” when the plants get lost in a consistent thick layer of imported organic mulch. Properly planted and established, the new plants will eventually cover and shade their own root zones and a few will generate their own natural leaf mulch over time.


With turf removal on the rise, we are seeing a marked decline in tree health. The collateral damage on our lawn-based urban forest, resulting from the change in watering will have long term effects on our environment. Trees provide shade and natural cooling, and improve air quality. They are attractive on the skyline and constitute a valuable component, the overhead layer, in any garden. Lawn trees, for the most part, have never been watered correctly. Many mature trees in turf have shallow root systems that barely survive on frequent, shallow sprinkler watering. These are the ones that typically blow over in winter storms, in times of saturated soil and strong winds. These are the ones that will suffer when the lawn watering is shut off. Our four/five-year drought has already had a negative effect on many.

In order to actually improve tree health, you need to do more than simply maintain them in their shallow-rooted state. In time, they will create valuable shade, leaf mulch, and microclimates for the new native understory replacing the turf. Initially, they are going to need a few deep soakings, to get moisture down to cooler levels and to encourage long term deep rooting. Assuming that the tree species have compatible water needs as the new native planting, they will eventually be happy on the same irrigation regime. However, if they are water-loving species, especially inland where it is hot and dry, you may need to replace them, as they will not be happy with your efforts to conserve water.

As discussed above, creating swales, basins, berms, and check dams will allow rainfall to soak in, and irrigation water to be more effective. Since most old turf is growing in severely compacted soil, you might have to aerate in the shade/drip zone of the tree canopy as well. This may involve using a soil auger to drill a series of holes 1-2” in diameter and 18-24” deep which can be backfilled with coarse sand. To promote deep soaking without damaging too many roots, consider digging “radial trenches” in a pattern much like spokes on a wheel. You do not have to use the trunk as your hub or starting point (too many big roots), but make trenches that begin in the shade and extend beyond the drip line. A year later, if possible, you can make new spokes in the spaces between the old spokes.

Also, investigate breaking the soil surface and cultivating 6-8” deep, but be careful; in some situations, this may damage feeder roots more than it helps water percolation. High quality organic mulch placed over the root zone of established trees will help maintain soil moisture and discourage weeds.

Now begin to coax the roots down by getting warm season irrigation to infiltrate through the surface layers. Use cycle/soak watering or pulse irrigation to promote deep rooting. These techniques involve combining two or three sequential waterings to constitute a single irrigation “event.” For example, when needed, you would apply ½” precipitation each morning for three days in a row, totaling 1½” precipitation for that irrigation event.  Typically, you would only need to water like that every 3-4 weeks, warm season only. In years of normal rainfall, many of our trees plus our lovely new native plant gardens will get by with little or no supplemental water in winter. Pulse irrigation simulates a storm that brings intermittent rain showers. All the water soaks into the ground.

Your goal is to make sure rainfall stays on the site and goes into the ground, and that summer irrigations are efficient. By the second or third year, the tree will have transitioned into its new healthier state, with deep roots in cool moist soil. With proper planning and initial care, the trees will be happy growing with their new companion plants, and using a lot less water than they did in the former lawn.

Effectively use every feasible technique to make the root zone a place where water can penetrate deep. Simply understand that trees are valuable and should receive special care when you remove the turf, particularly for the first couple years. Making turf replacement truly beautiful will include improving the condition of existing trees.


Tree of Life Nursery specializes in California native plants and has been growing in San Juan Capistrano for nearly forty years. We stand ready to recommend combinations of wonderful plants for any project. Please contact us. We want to help you transform your turf area into a beautiful garden. Check out the rest of our blog for more inspiration.


In developing the principles and practices discussed here, I assume that we want truly livable gardens; defined as outdoor spaces that welcome us in. By definition, these places will be intimate, quiet, tranquil… and of course beautiful, and inviting. In building gardens to replace turf, we should be making meaningful experiences. By planting for biodiversity, we provide opportunities to celebrate the seasons, creating places for interaction with nature, where we coexist with the birds, butterflies, beneficial pollinators and all manner of (as John Muir called them), “our fellow mortals.”


Our outdoor spaces, public and private, are an extension of our personality. To the degree that we relegate and surrender our shared environment to low-bid standards, and settle for “ugly” (supposedly in the name of water conservation), we compromise our very identity. The gardens of southern California are historically among the most beautiful in the world. Our incredible climate has given us a place where literally everything will grow… but in many cases this luxury comes with a caveat… “Just add water.” Lots of water. Now that we have so many more people, it is getting hotter and drier, and we have less water, we need to adjust our lifestyle with more meaningful design and improve our methods… without sacrificing our identity. This can be done, but we have to start calling it like it is. We need to take an honest approach to our environment.

The current large-scale landscape transformation is happening fast, so when you see a turf replacement project that is truly beautiful, take note and use it as an example. Tell the homeowner, the city, parks department, water district, or local jurisdiction, “Good job.” But here’s the key: when through ignorance, careless cost-cutting, or thoughtless action, someone tears out turf and builds something truly ugly… or allows old trees to die in the process… or essentially makes for more busy work for maintenance crews, or the run-off issues become worse, please don’t use it as an example for your project. What’s more, call them out. Speak up on behalf of our cultural identity.

We need gardens we can be proud of; public and private, and we need to conserve water as well. We deserve a return to California’s excellent horticulture, artistic design for usable outdoor space that invites us in, long term sustainability, and most of all, beauty.

With or without a drought, we can do this, but we have to do it right.