Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lawn

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Some days the RSABG Garden Hotline (909-624-0838) seems to ring continuously; others are fairly quiet. On average we receive over one thousand calls each year. In order to track these calls I developed a form with general categories describing the questions. These include: Can you suggest a plant for…? Where can I get…? Why is my plant doing poorly? Is my plant dead? How should I care for my plants? And finally, the most challenging question: How can I change my lawn-dominated yard to a low-water use, native garden?

At the risk of revealing my age, I must say that this question always brings to mind Paul Simon’s song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

“The problem is all inside your head”, she said to me
The answer is easy if you take it logically
I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free
There must be fifty ways to leave your ….

The fifty or more ways to leave your lawn range from tearing everything out and starting with a blank slate, to transforming sections of your yard, and finally for the most cautious people, to trading out individual plants for water-conserving natives. The advantages and disadvantages of each approach are pointed out in an article on the Rancho website in the Gardening with Native Plants section (

The transition, regardless of which of the three approaches you follow, can be divided into two main parts: removing the old landscape, and creating a new one. Again, as Simon’s song implies, leaving the old may be the easy part. You can kill your lawn with a deadly instrument like a shovel, an herbicide, neglect, or suffocation. Some grasses do not go down easily and may take more work, but in the end you can get rid of your lawn.

October 2002
More challenging, and hopefully more fun, is the next step. In fact, I believe this is what really holds people back. Unless you have a better picture of the future, you may be reluctant to leave the comfortable and unsurprising past.

So you need to have a sense of what your future without turf will be like. The best way to do this is to visit gardens like Rancho. Walk or hike our local mountains to begin to “play the field.” Walk around your community to see what your neighbors are doing. Progress is slow but there has been real movement towards creative and sustainable landscaping practices.

Once you have a general sense of what you want your new landscape to look like, start jotting down notes on how you want to use sections of your yard. Do you want a vegetable garden? Do you have a dog that needs an area to run in? Even if you hire a landscape professional, this planning will yield better results. Finally, develop a detailed landscape plan with appropriate paths, irrigation, and plants. Preparation can be done any time, but for the greatest success be sure to put your plants in during our cool, wet weather – late fall and winter.

October 2007

The future, after leaving your lawn, is bright. It will be less certain, but more interesting. It can save you time and money, while delighting you with birds and butterflies. So have courage and take the first step – “get yourself free.”

Brenda Butner night shade (Solanum hindsianum ‘Brenda Butner’)

2 thoughts on “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lawn

  1. While your blog may be California specific this definitely applies to gardens and gardeners everywhere. <BR/>I’m taking the section at a time approach and adding individual plants in some areas. Slow because I want to learn as I go,it is easier and more affordable.<BR/> I loved the dry creek or wash areas surrounded by plantings that we saw out west in many gardens.How do they keep the weeds at

  2. Thanks for your comments. Before moving to CA 12 years ago I gardened with native plants in NJ but did not get into it as much. One of the differences is that in CA there are undeveloped areas, usually in nearby mountains, that serve as models for native flora and plant associations.<BR/><BR/>Regarding weeds and dry western gardens, I have found that with so little water in summer, weeds are less

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