Mia Lehrer’s 8 Things To Consider Before Ditching Your Lawn

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Consider this before tearing out your lawn.

UC Verde Buffalo
House with drought-friendly “UC Verde” Buffalo Grass

Since California’s drought entered crisis stage, Angelenos have been rushing to rip out lawns, incentivized by guilt, rebates and growing water bills.

As a result, turf removal is becoming big business; and DnA has joined other media outlets in promoting the idea of a new kind of beautiful California garden — of succulents, cacti and other features of dry design.

But landscape designer Mia Lehrer says: not so fast. She and other landscape designers want Angelenos to know that getting rid of turf could mean the region’s beloved shrubs and trees could wither and die.

“What is really dangerous about turning off the water to our lawns,” she cautions, is that trees and shrubs in our gardens, and in parkways and parks “are actually getting that residual water from the lawn. So we’re really not just watering the lawn, we’re watering our gardens in general. So we have to be really careful about how we go about this. Ripping out a lawn has consequences to our watershed” regionally, and threatens to destroy the habitat that provides cooling shade cover and home to living creatures.

Tree People diagram showing root pattern of trees and how to conserve them in drought
Tree People diagram showing root pattern of trees and how to conserve them in drought.

Lehrer, whose firm Mia Lehrer + Associates has designed many Los Angeles private and public spaces, including the National History Museum Nature Gardens and Vista Hermosa Park, says that before we rush to rip out turf we need to think carefully about where to conserve lawns, while saving water and our delicate ecosystems, not to mention the region’s beauty.

“If we are going to end up with gravel and wood chips and five shrubs everywhere,” says Lehrer, “we are going to be in a bad place in the next couple years.”

“We love our lawns and we love to hate our lawns,” she says, adding that “this is a great opportunity to rethink our California gardens.”

Read on for Mia’s hints and tips for how to strike a wise and lovely balance between green and brown. Listen to her talk about the California lawn on this DnA.

Meadow by John Greenlee, an expert in native and climate-adapted meadows.
Meadow by John Greenlee, an expert in native and climate-adapted meadows. Image courtesy Greenlee and Associates

1. Use Water Wisely

There’s a sense of urgency about water conservation that is real, but we have to be smarter about how we use water. We can use grey water and rain water and reclaimed water, instead of potable water, to irrigate our lawns.

2. Prepare Your Lawn For Water Conservation

Regrade your yard and work on your soil, so water can be retained on site and penetrate down to recharge our aquifers.

3. Let The Water Reach the Water Table

We need to aerate those areas so the water percolates down goes deeper. There are aerating pieces of equipment that are in a roller and they make big holes into your lawn to let the water go down deeper.

4. Don’t Overwater

Lawns typically are overwatered. They need only be watered once a week and you usually see them watered every day. So, yes, we need to put our lawns on a diet and we need to understand that there are options.

Blue Gramma Grass Meadow by MLA
Drought-tolerant Blue Gramma Grass meadow by MLA

5. Ditto for Shrubs

Many of the shrubs we now have can also rely on less water, although we do want new plantings to be drought-tolerant or native. We can respect what’s already there and not start from scratch.

6. Cut The Size of Your Lawn

Think twice about how big your lawn is and if you really need it. If you are using it for the visual pleasure of looking at green–it does have a psychological benefit–think about making it smaller.

7. Use Different Types of Grass

You can create water conservation friendly lawns and meadows with grasses like Seashore paspalum, native bent grasses, and low-water buffalo grasses, which are wonderful.

8. Hold Your Horses

We urge people to become well-informed about California Friendly Gardens before rushing to remove turf, and to wait until fall to renovate a landscape, when it can be installed before the cooler and wetter winter.

Mia Lehrer + Associates is part of the Green LA Coalition, a group of public agencies, non-profits and community members that is currently working with Councilperson Koretz to write in better standards to qualify for the turf removal rebate, including taking a watershed approach to infiltrate and/or treat urban runoff onsite, and re-using rainwater or graywater in the landscape.

Members of Green LA are also working with LADWP to provide training for landscape professionals to install and maintain California Friendly Gardens. Click here for more information. 

For more on keeping trees alive while conserving water, check out Tree People

For more grey water systems, listen to this Which Way, LA?

Natural History Museum_Nature Gardens
Natural History Museum Nature Gardens, designed by MLA