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Save the trees!

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As California suffers through its fourth year of extreme drought, the focus for many homeowners has been on lowering water use.

With so much residential water being used outdoors, on lawns and plants, that’s a great place to start conserving water.

Lawns of course are the biggest water hog, and also are in no way native to Central California. With our Native Plant Nursery, SRT promotes the use of native or noninvasive, drought tolerant plants in place of grass. 

Trees, too, are an important part of the Valley ecosystem. They provide shade that shields homes from summer heat, lowering air conditioning usage. Trees also help clean the air, so important in this valley next to the mountains, where air pollution gets trapped. 

Many local trees are more acclimated to drought, like our native Valley Oaks, but even they have been suffering from lack of water lately. Our Kaweah Oaks Preserve has lost some trees and many others are threatened if rainfall doesn’t return to normal, not just for one winter, but for several in a row. 

That’s why we’re watering some of our KOP trees and looking for sources of water that will allow us to continue to do so until nature brings us rain and more rain. We encourage you to water your trees as well, even if it means getting creative and reusing water. 

Below you will find several stories SRT staff has put together to explain how to remove your lawn, plant native species, and water trees without getting fined by your municipality. No matter what the weather does, these stories offer good advice for making your home a better, more environmentally friendly place. 

Read on, and remember to Save the Trees.

How to remove your lawn, part one

So you've made the decision: You are ready to rid yourself of at least some of your water-loving, money-stealing lawn. Congrats! You are doing a good thing for the environment, and in the long run, you will save time as well as money with your new, easy-case, beautiful yard.

That’s right – I said beautiful. Just because you give up your grass doesn't mean you have to replace it with stark, ugly things that never (or rarely) bloom. You can have cacti and succulents if you want them, but you can also plant flowers that bloom all spring and summer long.

But how to start? How do you get rid of your lawn before you put in those lovely plants?

You could use herbicides and spray all the grass you want to get rid of, but that’s not really environmentally friendly. And if you have kids or pets that use your lawn, you might not want them exposed to things designed to kill one form of life.

There is a better way. It’s called sheet mulching or the lasagna method. I’ve done it myself and, trust me, it’s easy (and if you hate grass like I do, kind of fun. Die grass, die!).

Start by marking off the area you want to de-grassify. You could spray paint a border, or just mark off the area in your head if it’s not too large.

Next, mow the lawn as short as you can. No need to pick up the clippings – they can be part of the lasagna.

After that you start the lasagna with some noodles – cardboard noodles in this case. Grab all those old boxes you've been meaning to recycle, or ask a store or your friends for some, but get enough to cover the entire area you are working on. Cut them to make sure you cover every inch.

Another option is to use layers of newspapers if you've been holding onto a couple bags to recycle. I used a lot of newspaper on my old lawn, but sadly, most of us don’t have newspapers around anymore. If you do use newspaper, make sure it’s black and white only – color dyes can harm your soil.

Of course cardboard and newspapers are a wee bit unsightly, so you are going to want to cover them up. I usually start with a bunch of plant material or compost – also not the most attractive, but it adds loads of nutrients to your soil, which your new plants will need. Mulch makes for the final layer, like cheese on your lasagna (are you hungry now? I am). Mulch will look nice and not upset your neighbors. Use a good 4 inches worth, or more, to make sure everything is covered well and no grass or weeds make their way through.

Do this in the spring, and let it bake in the Valley sun all summer long. Your grass will be dead by fall most likely. Let the ground overwinter, and think about what you want to plant in the spring. We’ll give you some ideas in future postings here.

Buh-bye, lawn!

- Diane Aden Hayes

How to remove your lawn, Part 2

So, what once was your lawn is now percolating beneath cardboard and mulch. Or maybe you didn’t actively seek to remove your lawn, but it’s frying under the summer sun anyway, and dying of thirst thanks to new water restrictions.

Either way, it’s time to think about what you can do in place of that lawn, so you’ll be ready to plant later this year, like in October or November. Not sure where to start? We can help!

The first thing to do is come up with a plan. Write it down, sketch it out – but do more than think about it in your head, it’s far too easy to lose things up there.

You need to get ideas about what you want your grass-free or low-grass yard to look like. So become observant – walk around your neighborhood or other neighborhoods to see what you find attractive. Visit some nurseries, and write down the names of plant you like. Take a look at city parks and along trails – many of those already have waterwise plants in place.

Take photos – you want to remember how tall that plant was or what color the blossoms were. You can do a little research then too, to see if those plants are drought tolerant, or what their sun needs are. Read some magazines, look at plant catalogs, see what draws your eye.

The options are almost endless. Big plants, little plants, colorful ones, plain ones. Do you want green plants that flower, or is a desert-like landscape your thing? Take the time to decide on your favorite style.  Or mix styles – it’s your home, do what makes you happy (while saving water, or course).

But beyond specific plants, get an idea of what feel you want your yard to have. Casual? Formal? Do you want plants in place of lawn, or maybe hardscaping or mulch where the grass once grew. Or perhaps a green groundcover in place of grass tickles your fancy and your feet.

Take a good hard look at your yard, too. Is it flat, or does the ground slope gently? Maybe you’d like it to be a bit uneven, to make it seem more natural.

Draw, write, erase, look some more. Repeat as often as necessary. But have a plan before you plant.

And remember, you don’t have to do everything all at once, nor do you have to remove all the plants you have now. If you love some less-than-waterwise plants, it’s OK to keep them! Azaleas, roses, camellias – a few won’t hurt to keep around. And of course bigger plants like trees and shrubs – they help cool your house and clean our air, so those are important to keep.

But you will want to expand your palette, past the traditional to the drought-tolerant. In all likelihood, you already have some of these in your yard, like lavender, rosemary or autumn sage. Now you want to add some new plants, be they California natives, or waterwise plants from the U.S. Southwest or Australia. For trees, natives like Valley Oaks are always good, or consider the incense cedar in place of the coastal redwoods we see so commonly in our Valley neighborhoods.

If it seems overwhelming – either financially or mentally – take your time. You don’t have to do everything at once. Do one section of the yard now, more next year as you get a better idea of what you like, or when you see something new that inspires you.

And be realistic, because it will take some work to make your yard beautiful and efficient. For example, while you are planning, you will want to consider how you irrigate. Now would be a good time to switch to a drip system if you can. Or perhaps you can start using greywater from your washing machine to water some of the trees in your yard. If you are going to keep some of your old faves that need more water, you’ll want to make sure they get a watering station that goes a little longer than it does in more drought-tolerant zones.

Consider your soil, too. Valley soils are mostly depleted of nutrient value. You’ll want to amend them with compost and organic soils (native plants are especially fond of all things organic, and grow much better in those soils). Soil is the key. We spend so much time thinking about beauty above ground, but the reality is, we need to think about below the surface too!

A good topping of mulch is a necessity, at least 2-3 inches’ worth. Mulch holds in moisture so plants stay wetter and cooler longer – meaning you could use 30% less water. You can use chipped bark, compost or even rock, depending on your tastes. Just make sure you don’t mulch over the stems of plants, especially smaller, more tender ones. That could lead to rot.

Still unsure what you can do with your yard? Here are a few samples of plants that will thrive with less water, while still providing beauty!

- Diane Aden Hayes

How to remove your lawn, part 3 - and get PAID for it

We’ve talked a little in the previous two stories about how to remove your lawn, but now let’s talk about why you should do so.

Of course it’s mostly about saving water. You know we’re in a drought, and conserving water is important. Putting water  on grass is one of the most wasteful ways to use it, because grass, quite frankly, is a water hog. Keeping it green requires near constant watering in the summer Valley heat. If you don’t water it, though, it looks hideous.

So getting rid of your lawn will save water, and improve your yard’s look by replacing brown grass with plants and flowers that bloom or add shade. Using native and drought tolerant plants means you won’t water so much, which saves water and – added benefit! – saves you money. Yay!

But, you are grousing, you won’t see those savings for a while, because you’ll have to pay for new plants and ground covers where your lawn once was. Too expensive, right?

Wrong. You can now get not one, but two rebates if you replace your lawn this year. Between the two, you should be able to buy lots of plants or even pay for some work to be done on your yard’s grass removal. 

So if being a do-gooder isn’t enough incentive, now you can get paid to remove your lawn. How can you beat that?

Locally, California Water Service has a program that pays $1 per square foot of grass removed from your yard. You must remove at least 250 square feet of lawn, with a maximum of 1,000 square feet, to qualify, and you can’t replace the grass with artificial turf or warm-season turf grass – actual plants and trees are required. But you can sure do a lot with $1,000, can’t you? For more information, visit the Cal Water website.

The state of California is also getting in on the rebate action, and they offer $2 per square foot of lawn removed, up to 1,000 square feet. And yes, you can apply to both programs, meaning you might get a total of $3 for every square foot of lawn you take out. Nice!

The state, being a government entity, of course has more rules for your grass-be-gone project to qualify – what a surprise, the government has more rules, huh? But none of them are difficult. The Department of Water Resources’ rules include:

Rebates do not apply for areas that are already bare land; dead or live grass removal only.

Your replacement plants must be drought-tolerant or California natives, and must include at least one tree (an already existing tree qualifies).

Exposed areas must be covered with mulch, decomposed granite (DG) or gravel. (You should be doing this anyway, to ensure areas stay moist longer when watered.)

You can’t get a rebate if you replace lawn with a deck or patio or other structure, but it’s OK to use pavers or install a brick patio.

You must use drip irrigation or micro-spray or hand water your new area. No inefficient sprinklers allowed.

No artificial turf.

See, the rules aren’t so bad, they are pretty sensible actually. For more information, check out this website.

Getting a rebate for removing your lawn is great, but putting in new plantings is a long-term solution, not something that will save you money overnight. New plantings will need to be watered for a bit when first installed (if you’re in Visalia you can get a permit to do this; visit the city's water info page for more information), but eventually your use will be lower and so will your water bill.

Next time, we’ll talk about how you use even less water by re-using it to water plants. It’s called gray water, and it’s easy, legal and fun! 

- Diane Aden Hayes

How to water your plants, part 1

Once you’ve removed some (or all) of the grass in your yard – or even if you haven’t removed any of it – you don’t want to stop finding ways to save water. And when you do water your plants, you want to water smartly, right? We have some tips.

First, remember that even drought-tolerant plants need some water, especially when they are being established.  They will need more water during the establishment phase as well as more frequent watering. Make sure the water gets down to the bottom of the rootball of your new plant(s), but any deeper than that and you’re just watering the ground, wasting it.

Second, make a plan for what you will and won’t water. If you still have a lawn, let it go brown as much as you can stand in the summer. Water it sparingly. But do water your trees and larger shrubs. They take more water than smaller plants, because duh, they are bigger.

They are also more important to us as a community resource. Trees offer shade, which reduces temperatures – even in your home. Then you spend less money on air conditioning. Everyone likes that!

Trees also help clean our pollution-laden air, which is pretty dang important in the San Joaquin Valley. We need more trees, not fewer, so keep your alive.

But of course that leads to the question – how much do you water? When? How often? Where? Of course to some degree it depends on the kind of tree, and its size, but we have a few tips.

Take into account the size of the plant you are watering. Bigger needs more. The line the tree’s canopy makes is a good indicator of where to put the water for your bigger specimens – the roots will go from the tree outward about to that line.

When do you water? Best to do it when there’s the least chance of it evaporating. In other words, when it’s not the heat of the day. Thanks to our dry climate, watering at night is not an issue, but past 8 a.m. and you will likely lose some of the water to evaporation.

What type of soil do you have? Clay-type soil structures are almost microscopic in size, and compress like sheets of paper, which means they hold more water. You don’t have to water so much with this type of soil (although you might get root rot if you overwater and the soil retains too much H2O). Sandy soils have larger sized particles so water and nutrients can flow through easily, meaning its hold on water isn’t much, so you have to water more often. Sandy loam type soils are a mixture. In fact, most soils here in the Valley are a mixture, although most are a higher percentage of one type.

Sun or shade? Sunny areas need more water; shady, less. (You knew that.)

Fall and winter are the best times to put in new plants, because even though the air is cool and plants’ tops are dormant, the ground doesn’t freeze so roots keep growing. As most of our rain comes during this season, you likely won’t have to water as much to get your new plants established, and by spring they will be ready to grow above ground.

Want to make your watering last longer? Use organic material, such as mulch, bark or compost, when planting to aid in water retention.  Studies show a 3- to 4-inch layer can save approximately 30% of the water you use.

One last thing on watering your plants and trees during the drought: Think about reusing water! Every drop counts, so when you are going to dump out the dog’s water bowl or a bowl of ice you cooled hard-boiled eggs in, don’t pour it down the drain! Take it outside and empty it on a tree.

Do you run your shower or a sink for a while, waiting for the water to heat up? Get a bucket to run the water into, and use it to make tree drinks. SRT will soon have shower buckets for sale, more info on that is forthcoming. You can reuse gallons and gallons of water every day using buckets or pails in your tubs and sinks.

Finally, if you are the handy sort, consider a gray water system for your washing machine. You can install a basic laundry-to-landscape system without getting a permit, and the water that would drain out of your washing machine instead gets piped out to the trees or plants you choose. Showers can also be hooked up for reuse but it’s more complicated and you need a permit from your city or county. We’ll talk more about that in our next story.

- Diane Aden Hayes

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