Lawn and Sod

Parent Q&A

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  • Lawn sweepers... do they work?

    (1 reply)

    Does anyone use what's called a "lawn sweeper"? We have a large live oak that drops leaves year round and before purchasing, are wondering if one of these would help pick up leaf litter. Thanks!

    I would get a lawn mower that picks them up. We have a very large Camphor tree that drops leaves and berries. We use our lawn mower to vacumn them up. Works great!

  • Hi all—with mega-drought and water usage reduction, I know I’m not alone in trying to figure out a good lawn alternative. I’ve really gone down the rabbit hole researching this one, and would love some others’ perspectives/experiences. Brief context: We bought our house a year ago and are currently in the stage of “tearing out everything that was originally planted to sell the house,” so we’re essentially starting with a blank slate. We have garden beds along the perimeter of our yard and plan to add lots of native and drought-tolerant plants, but we’d still really love to dedicate a moderate-sized part of our yard to a “lawn-like” play area for the kids. A traditional grass lawn is out for pretty clear water-consumption reasons, and we’re not interested in artificial turf. I’ve read up on lawn alternatives ranging from yarrow (who knew!) to clover (there are really some clover die-hards out there!) to Dymondia (not sure I like the look of a whole expanse of it) to a native fescue mix (doesn’t seem to hold up well to play and foot traffic), and so far my winner in theory is a bee turf mix—something like this seed blend from West Coast Seeds:

    The selling points of the bee turf, to me, seem to be:

    -good for pollinators

    -soft underfoot and holds up to play/traffic once established

    -a blend hopefully means that the “lawn” will stay relatively green or visually interesting year-round instead of dying off or going dormant completely like a monoculture would

    Anyone tried a bee turf mix like this? Any other thoughts or things I should consider? TIA!!!

    I don't have experience with bee turf personally, but I've also been researching grass alternatives! I haven't figured out a good solution for our yard yet. My fear about bee turf is that there could be too many bees and my toddler would get stung. Other than that, bees are great.

    We don't have this exact turf, but we do have kurapia in our front yard. It seems very similar except that the kurapia is more vine-like. Yes, it grows well without a ton of water. It's pretty. And wow does it attract bees. Like A LOT of bees. That's fine with us because it is a ground cover and not a lawn substitute for us, but there is no way we could sit on it or walk on it barefoot. So, if you're looking to cover an area with something that's green, drought resistant, and good for bees, your turf mix looks like a good solution. If you want to use the area as you would a lawn, I would reconsider.

    We installed the California Natives sod by Delta Bluegrass Company last year, and it has stood up well to traffic by our now-three year old and his friends. 

    I've tried a few native options:

    1) Larner Seed's "Lawn" mix of Yarrow and Poppy. That's nice for the Meadow-y part of the lawn, but can get fairly tall, so I don't really think of it as a steppable lawn.

    2) Woodland strawberry (Fragraria Vesca) - A native strawberry, medium-height, actually does produce some teeny strawberries. Not that steppable either, but nice as a groundcover otherwise.

    2) Lippia Repens (Phyla Nodifloria) - A native trailing groundcover that's quite low and highly steppables. I planted near a rock path and it trailed over it really nice, I'm now trying to get it over more of our yard. The flowers do attract bees, but I suspect the bees know to avoid a toddler. It does very well in the sun, not as well in the shade. You can pick some up at Oaktown native or Watershed nurseries, last I checked.

    We're in El Cerrito if you want to stop by and see those options.

    Have you looked into Kurapia?

    We are also looking into lawn alternatives (though we just have dirt and weeds right now 😅) but so far, Kurapia looks to be our top choice. Kelsey Fair (landscape designer) has a YouTube video showing it in her yard. We were also considering creeping red fescue but it sounds like it's not as great for foot traffic like you said.

    Kurapia is drought-tolerant, grows in sun and partial shade, and apparently does well and gets more dense in a good way when walked on. It flowers between May-Oct which attracts butterflies and bees but you can mow it to prevent flowering if you're worried about attracting bees while kids are playing (though mowing is not necessary). It does seem somewhat expensive but I think it's a great combo of low maintenance, apparently only needing 1x/month irrigation once established, as well as good underfoot for kids, dogs, etc. We are still finalizing our backyard design but I continually compare/consider whether other groundcovers or even artificial turf might be better but keep coming back to this.

    Will be following to see what you end up with.

    The answers you've already received are helpful - all great options. I wanted to add what we ended up doing, over the course of almost a decade: 

    Almost our entire property is a pollinator / fruit orchard garden, both native and non, almost all low-water (but for the fruit trees, which do require water to get established, but provide needed shade, nectar, and fruit!). However, we ended up leaving a small portion of our property as traditional lawn (also from Delta), and I must say - people and animals really appreciate having that soft 150 ft2 carpet to rest on. On this lawn we picnic, play board games, read books, and some neighborhood toddlers come over to sit on it. A couple of times we even caught raccoons having a special midnight dalliance, following a picnic, gathered from the neighbor's trash. When our son was younger our lawn was bigger, for playing soccer and catch. Now that we don't do that at home we've replaced that strip with a pollinator garden. Our garden brings us joy - watching the bees, butterflies, birds, and even mammals every day is actually one of my accomplishments in life. (When we bought our house it was just English and poison ivy, plus weeds and degraded soil.) It has been and sometimes still is a ton of work, but now we are more in the enjoyment phase of the garden, and we've all learned a lot through creating a very alive garden. We ended up compromising on various people's gardening philosophies to create the hodgepodge of our own garden - it's not purely native, not purely low-water, not formal, yet not untended - and it works for a wide variety of wildlife. I have also spotted bees seeming to drink the water off the grass, which we have set to use the least amount of water but still be enjoyable; we adjust usage based on weather. We take shorter showers and have water-efficient appliances, so our overall water consumption is probably lower than most. I'm glad that so many people are bringing in pollinator plants in a variety of ways - home ecosystems are really important! Also, Annie's in Richmond has lawn-replacement plants as well.   

    Hello! We just installed kurapia as lawn alternative, which we will use to do picnics and play fetch with our dog. The first months you do need to water it and afterwards it’s supposed to be quite drought resistant. We will wait and see, but it looks like a great option and allows you to have a green space with eh out the water needs. 
    good luck!

  • See & touch a Kurapia lawn near Berkeley?

    (3 replies)

    Hello— my family is looking for a low-water alternative to grass for a portion of our lawn and have read good things about Kurapia. We'd like this area to work as a play area for our daughter and can't get a good sense of what the plant actually looks and feels like from pictures online. Would anyone that has installed this lawn alternative near Berkeley be willing to let us come over to see & touch it for a few minutes to help make a decision? We'd also love to hear about your experience with installation, irrigation, and maintenance in this climate. Thanks!

    I had never heard of kurapia but you piqued my interest. It looks like this place sells sod. It may be possible to swing by there and see it in person

    So after reading this question, I got really interested, since I had never heard of Kurapia before. Went down the rabbit hole and am now also considering it. I reached out here to see if there was a way I could examine the sod: and they indicated that there is a public works installation of Kurapia at the fountain circle in Berkeley. I will go check it out in the coming days and report back if it is indeed Kurapia--because I always thought it was grass.

    Following up, the fountain circle looks like its grass. If kurapia was there, I don't think it is anymore.

  • Toddler-friendly grassy area

    (4 replies)

    Looking for ideas to create a usable outdoor space for toddler.  Our baby is super active, already trying to climb on everything she can at 8 months, and we really need more space for her to explore and play when we're at home, but currently, our backyard is covered in brick, concrete and prickly, uninviting "grass".  We considered putting in sod to create a small patch of lawn for her, but decided against given drought, etc.  We may still pursue a greywater system if this seems like the only way to create a space for playing, but hoping we'll find some other ideas here.  We don't have a set budget yet and have considered calling a landscape architect, but don't know that we necessarily need to yet.  

    Considering drought, artificial grass could be nice. There is a natural turf made with coconut fiber and cork.  Dimondia is a drought tolerant grass alternative. Do you have trees? Hammock is fun for little ones as well as bigger kids. Trex deck is softer, so when kids fall, which will happen, it's better than brick. Toddlers don't need a huge space. When our child was 0 - 4 years old, we had a tiny yard but we used every inch. We put variety of sand and water play area against the fence. On the other side of the fence, we set up art area for painting.  We had pots that our child used to "garden" and plant things. Sometimes they grew and fruited. Sometimes they didn't. We put a small playhouse that's made of plastic and big enough to fit 2 - 3 toddlers or one and a small adult (I'm 5'3''.)  A little patch of grass (the size of a king size bed) which was surprisingly big enough for 2 - 3 little toddlers to play on. We planted things that were child friendly -- they could withstand picking and crushing. If you have a space to put a trampoline (you can start with little ones for toddlers), it'll give you years of use. If your hardscape is flat, your child will enjoy using riding toys and soon balance bikes. Our friends also had a small yard and they didn't have any grass but they put climbing holds on the side of their shed in the backyard and put mulch over a rope bridge on the ground from the shed to their one big tree in the backyard.  They also put a slide into their sloped yard and a climbing wall.  Good luck!

    We tried a grass lawn a few years ago, but it was a pain to cut and to keep watered. Plus, as you say, drought! Fortunately, I finally found a native groundcover that's highly steppable - it's called Lippia Reppens or Phyla Nodiflora. Once you recognize it, you'll see it's popped up all around the brown grass lawns around here, and it does so well. Bees love the little flowers too. I got my starts at Watershed Nursery, but you only need a few to start, they trail all over. 

    We had some landscaping done last year that removed our similarly uninviting 'grass' and replaced it with dymondia, which I had never heard of before moving here but I take it is fairly common? It took a couple months to fully grow in, but I love it.

    We did a kid-focused yard redo last year, thinking about our toddler son and our nanny share. The yard is about 2/3 new sod and 1/3 a playset (swings, slide from a tower) on top of rubber mulch. The grass is already mostly dead but the rubber mulch and playset was so worth it! I knew the mulch would give the ground a lot of cushion and make the playset safer, but I have been shocked how much the kids play with the mulch itself. They dig in it like a sandbox, they make "cakes" with it, they haul it around in buckets. It looks like regular mulch but it's safer and easier to keep clean. He uses it every day for now so I'm not sweating the fact that he'll eventually grow out of playset. At least for myself, I'm waiting to hire a landscape architect to put in a beautiful stone area and maybe turn the lawn into a garden area until that point. Note: the kids use the mulch area and playset (my son, nanny share kid, the loads of neighborhood kids we've made friends with because they spied the swings) way more than the grass. The main thing we use the grassy area for is putting out a baby pool when it's hot.

    The concrete area may seem dangerous with a new walker, but don't discount having a safe enclosed spaced for riding scooters and pulling wagons as she gets older. Our patio area could use a redo aesthetically but serves its purpose for scooting and because it's not pristine I don't get uptight about kids chalking on the ground or doing any of their art projects there. I also love the suggestion about the pots for gardening. We have a weird built in rocky area that we filled with succulents and the kids have fun "gardening" too.

  • We are looking for someone to level out our backyard in West Oakland and install a micro-clover/drought resistant turf lawn in a portion of it (along with irrigation). I don't need a landscape architect, just someone who knows how to smooth everything out and do some basic soil remediation plus the install.

    Please don't reply with tips on not having a lawn - I am well aware of the water needs of different landscaping options, which is why we are planning to use plants with low water requirements to have a soft play area that complements the native plants and vegetable garden in the rest of the yard!

    Kevin of Garden Sense in last few weeks put in a new irrigation system in my backyard. His crew cleared a privet and some irises that were taking up too much space, pulled weeds, and moved plants to more favorable positions. He is expert at perennial selection and pruning. He planted lower growing plants  to fill in bare spots in the garden and mulched the entire yard. I look forward to an amazing spring. You can reach Kevin at florere [at] he is practical, experienced, and straightforward. I recommend him and wish you luck! 

  • Our lawn needs help.

    (2 replies)

    Does anyone have a recommendation for a person who is a lawn expert? 

    We spent $$$ leveling the backyard and putting in sod so that kids can run around and play. It's been less than 4 months and the grass is practically ruined. There are dead patches, some parts of the lawn stay moist all the time and the soil is very dark and hard. Some parts have white mold growing. I'm scratching my head... I grew up on the east coast and lawn was never a real problem. We just needed to water and mow. On the east coast, we didn't even have sprinklers...

    We're very sad and disappointed that the thousands of dollars we spent appear to be completely wasted. The landscaper whom we hired to do this job turned out to be a very bad listener and communicator and didn't do the job in a way that we asked and he didn't even know what type of grass he used. So, we don't feel comfortable having him go back to troubleshoot... We asked him to go back and he said to increase water pressure for the sprinklers? Another landscaper recommended that we add top soil and re-seed. Basically, one guy is saying it needs more water and the other is saying it needs less water. 

    Because we already spent so much money, we don't have a ton of money left.  But, backyard that cost so much money is making me very sad, so even if it means we have to forego our summer vacation plans and eat out less, I'd like to get this lawn fixed up and begin enjoying the backyard.

    Thank you for your recommendation. 

    Yeah this is a problem with people who move from the east coast (like me!). It's very hard to get used to the idea that grass lawns are not practical here, not at all. In fact I interviewed an expert for an article I wrote a couple years ago, and his opinion was that grass lawns in California are as bad for the environment as fake grass made of plastic. Watering the lawn is a huge waste of a precious natural resource. Turf grass simply doesn't work here. There's a really nice book called "Lawn Gone!" that has a lot of ideas for kid-friendly drought-resistant lawns, and another one called "Reimagining the California Lawn" by Carol Bornstein with a lot of suggestions for grasses that are tougher and easier to maintain than sod. And/but you can just google "drought-resistant backyard" or "landscaping without grass" to find entirely alternate ideas that may require some reframing of your own expectations, but will really make you happy in the long run. 

    Yes, you need to know what kind of grass you have in order to treat it properly, as different kinds of turf have different requirements.  Some need more water, some need more sun, many need regular fertilizing, almost all need great soil.  The velvety green grass of the East often needs way more water than the coarser varieties better adapted to the drier West Coast.  Plus you really need to prepare the topsoil.  Most commercial "topsoil" is crap; you need amendments and for the soil to be soft and un-compacted.

    The fastest way to get a nice lawn is to prepare the soil properly and install sod that is adapted to your growing conditions.  Since that will cost, you may want to do only a small area.  For a cheaper interim solution, you could put down a thick layer of sawdust for a soft playing area.  Downside is the kids tracking it inside.  But come the fall, you can add some manure or nitrogen to break down the sawdust and improve the topsoil.  Or plant a cover crop and till it in.  Or use wood-chips for a longer-term solution that won't require so much water.

  • We have a semi-new lovely little lawn that is being overrun by what I believe to be oxalis. My husband and I are pretty cautious about chemicals & the babes (3yo &1yo) so I'm afraid to use just any old weed killer, but I am nervous about our grass disappearing if I don't do something. Any of you go through something similar and find a good solution?  

    Thanks so much! 

    You don't need a lawn that looks like fake grass. Having some "weeds" can make it more beautiful and welcoming to wildlife. If you let the dandelions grow, butterflies will come to nectar. A diverse habitat instead of a sterile lawn will invite insects which will bring birds to eat them. Think of it as a meadow instead of a lawn. If you try to keep it just the same as when it was put in, you will make yourself miserable. Enjoy the evolution and the sturdy plants that add themselves to the area. I definitely prefer weeds over toxins. 

    Oxalis is really invasive. I think if you try poison you will kill your grass too. You need to pull it out by the roots, including the tiny bulbs.  You have to keep at it, but eventually you will get them all out.  I actually find it pretty satisfying to pull oxalis, if the ground is moist like now, after the rain. Get yourself a Japanese hori-hori knife. Or use a sturdy knife that has a 4" blade at least. Stick it straight down into the soil about an inch away from the base of the oxalis and then grab the oxalis cluster just at the base and gently pull it out.  It's fun! I once paid my kid and his friend a quarter per oxalis (with roots intact only!) and got my whole yard cleared of them in an afternoon.

    Gardener Mom

    Sorry I missed your post the first time.  Wow was I in the same boat last year.  It was my first year with a new garden and it felt like an invasion.  So this is what I've learned so far.  I initially thought it was important to pull them up by the bulb and that would "get rid of them".  I was surprised to learn that for that one bulb there are several more below the ground energized to send another oxalis sprout up to the surface.  From searching the internet and extensively questioning multiple gardeners my best advice is this.  If it is a garden that has not been weeded in a long time you may have A LOT beneath the surface.  Cardboard sheet mulching will help somewhat but will not entirely solve the problem.  Cardboard sheet mulching combined with diligent weeding every week or two during this oxalis rainly season will exhaust the bulb and in a couple of years, yes years, you will see dramatically less oxalis.  There is no chemical pesticide that will work for this.  If you were going to start a garden you could lay black vinyl over the space but it would take months before you could start your garden and you would have to provide nutrients to the soil.  All in all there is no easy solution.  Don't despair that more will pop up RIGHT AFTER you weed.  Just know that it is a process that will take years.  I'm in that process now and have just decided to throw money at the problem by hiring weeders.  If you want to see a good website regarding oxalis you can look here  Best of luck.  Thank you for taking this challenge on.  You will notice a lot of homeowners in Berkeley have just given up the battle.  And also, Oxalis will hurt other plants and really does not fit into the pretty wild meadow look as far as I can tell.

    We have an oxalis infestation in our front yard, and I'm a librarian, so I've done extensive research on it.

    No chemical works on oxalis according to the experts. So don't bother. As a previous poster suggested: the only recommendation I have found is to pull the oxalis by the roots or dig it up and be careful to catch those white "bulblets" - if you leave those, you'll get more oxalis. And be persistent, get them young, and hopefully you'll eventually wear out the plant enough to stop. But keep in mind: this is considered one of the top three most pernicious weeds in the world, so it's not going to be easy or quick. I am hoping the persistent weeding and digging eventually does work. 

  • Water Usage Assessment

    (2 replies)

    Hi!  Our family is spending a fortune on water, but our yard is still full of dying plants and brown grass.  We don't want to keep ramping up the amount of watering, and we have 2 kids so would like to keep open grassy areas.  I feel like we need professional help to figure out what we can do to decrease our water bills and improve the efficiency of our outdoor watering technique.  Is there any such service that can do a water usage assessment?  I appreciate any help. 

    Is your irrigation on a timer? Do you have drip or spray for your plants? A timer and drip irrigation for all but the lawn is an essential component for using water efficiently. You could add some compost (get by the 1/4 yard at American Soil - specific one for lawn) and lawn fertilizer over the top and water in well. A good irrigation consultant can help you assess your current irrigation set-up. We have an Irritrol controller that adjusts to the weather (our max water adjusted for storms and cool weather). Shrubs and trees should be watered deeply but infrequently. 

    Visit a nursery for assistance.  Are you sure you have soil to support a lawn?  For the most part the Bay Area has horrible soil.  We watched as a realtor had sod installed on a house for sale.  The lawn looked great for a month or so, then over the next several months it died off.  There's a lot more to a good lawn then just watering.

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Advice: Removing a Lawn Advice: Lawn Installation & Maintenance

Removing a Lawn

Lawn replacement ideas

July 2013

We just filled an old, leaky pool so now we have a lovely, level patch of dirt. We had planned on putting sod down but I recently read an article about isotoma (Blue Star Creeper) as a no-mow lawn replacement option. I'm curious if anyone has experience using it either as a lawn replacement or in an area around pavers (where it gets a good amount of foot traffic). We have two active kids so it would get a good amount of running, jumping, bike riding, etc. Any suggestions for places to buy it or contractors to install it? Or other suggestions for lawn replacement (not interested in fake sod). Thanks!

This is a question I've dealt with many times over my 30+ years as a landscaper and the short answer is that there is no such thing as a good substitute for lawn for the kind of use that you have in mind. There are groundcovers that can make nice visual substitutes for a lawn and maybe handle a little light traffic, but none of them can handle kids' play. I'd suggest going back to your idea of sod- choose a tough dwarf tall fescue turf and let it root in for at least a month before letting your kids loose on it. Don't use the newer ''no mow'' fescue as it is very lumpy and not good for play.

As far as a groundcover to use between pavers, the toughest and best in my experience is Wooly Thyme, which requires sun, occasional water, and isn't fussy about soil. Another tough GC that works well between stones is Labrador Violet, which can take some shade; it is, however, an aggressive spreader. By contrast, Isotoma needs very good soil and very regular water to look decent, and I don't recommend it. Cecelia

Getting rid of lawn - landscaping ideas?

April 2013

I am thinking about getting rid of our lawn and replacing it with some sort of low maintenance drought resistant garden. I started to look for landscaping ideas online and I havent found the right fit for our yard yet. We can't afford to hire someone to design the yard but I am wondering where other BPNer's have found inspiration and ideas for their gardens? Where did you start? Any amazing sites with examples of the transformations? Pitfalls to avoid? Are there landscaping students out there who want to get experience with a lawn conversion project? If so, where can I find them. -ready to lose the lawn

I've gotten great inspiration, ideas and tips on garden tours. 2 are coming up soon. Both are well worth your while. Tina

A few years ago, EBMUD put out a book called 'Plants and Landscapes for Summer- Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region.' The book is an amazing resource for this region. The book is still available on Amazon (and no doubt other places as well) Carrie

We used the landscaping design service through Navelets in Pleasant Hill. Essentially you purchase a $150 gift card (which you will end up spending on plants) then submit a drawing of the space and write about what you like or dislike, etc. A few weeks later we met with our designer (who really knew her stuff) who went over the plans, showed us the plants in stock, advised us on special orders, what stages to do when, etc. Look them up online for more detailed information. We are taking our lot in stages and are so far truly pleased with the results. Finally getting some curb appeal

Simple. Go on the 'Bringing Back the Natives' garden tour on Sunday, May 5. It's free. Take your camera. You can simply copy what others have done and get all the 'how-to' info right from the people who did it. It is very inspiring. Register now and get the guide to plan which gardens to visit. You might even be able to ask the organizer which gardens she recommends that you see for your particular site. This tour is a fantastic opportunity for anyone wanting to landscape in the east bay. I never miss this tour.

On Sunday, April 14, the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour is hosting a 'Meet the Do-It-Yourselfers' tour of three gardens in Richmond, Albany, and Berkeley where homeowners removed their lawns and planted native plant gardens. Here is a brief description:

'On this tour of three gardens you'll hear about the lessons learned by do-it-your-selfers. Go ahead, ask about: how lawns were removed and plants chosen; which reference books were most useful; irrigation; the costs of materials, and where they were bought; how these homeowners proceeded with the design and installation; garden maintenance; and about the ups and downs of installing a native garden on your own.' The cost is $30 per person. Details are here (look under Select Tour #3): Kathy

You might want to check out - it's got loads of resources including, free, how-to talks with Bay-Friendly designers, model designs, how- to slide shows and more. These tools are meant for the DIY gardener and focused on converting your lawn sustainably into a garden you can use. Robin

How do I get rid of my lawn?

Nov 2010

How do I get rid of my lawn that is mostly weeds in a nontoxic way?I'm in a rental, so I'd like it make this as economical as possible - but I really want to enoy my backyard and just can't! It's all foxtails and brown weeds for most of the year. Kelly

Six years ago I rented a rototiller from Hertz in Berkeley and spent a very long, tiring day going back and forth across my lawn to dig it up. My neighbors all thought I was nuts, but it worked! I planted natives and neither the lawn nor the weeds (mostly!) has returned. BTW I'm an average sized, but incredibly stubborn, woman! Good luck.

There are several methods for dealing with that 'lawn' or weedy meadow, however you want to look at it. One method is to give it some summer water and cut it as if it were a lawn - weeds need far less water than turf, but when mowed can look pretty nice. A second option is to dig it out - cheap, but takes a lot of stamina and muscle. A third option is to tarp it until it dies (3-6 months). A fourth option that has become quite popular is to sheet mulch, which means covering the lawn with cardboard or newspaper and placing mulch on top. The lawn dies for lack of sun and air, and in time you have great soil to plant in. Heidi

Lawn alternative to traditional grass?

Feb 2010

We are very interested in possibly replacing our lawn with drought-resistant native plants-- preferably native grasses so that it can still be used as a ''lawn'' and not just be ornamental. We have started asking around and are finding that it is hard to find someone who can help. A workshop we attended focused on the type of landscaping that is purely ornamental-- attractive but not very kid- friendly for playing. Anyone do this successfully? Have an East Bay nursery or landscaper you would recommend? The grass is Always Greener

We used artificial lawn in our backyard to cover a large concrete spot and we never ever regretted it. It looks real, it is comfortable to sit and lay and play on. It can get pretty hot in the summer, though. The company we used is called synlawn ( Jules

California native grasses are naturally clumping. They are sometimes referred to as bunch grasses. They do not make a turf like our typical lawn grasses. You may want to consider something that isn't grass like thyme or clover. If you go to one of our great local nurseries, or the botanical garden at Tilden or at UC Berkeley, you could get some ideas of low-growing plants that aren't turf, but may still meet your needs. Alternatively, you can drastically reduce the size of your turf and plant the rest in perennials and vegetables and fruit trees, or you can go to water permiable pavers. anon.

Hi- I'm a garden designer, horticulturist, and landscape contractor with 30 years experience, and the truth is that there aren't any CA native grasses that can function as a fully usable lawn. Most are clumping grasses that are very lumpy and don't take well to mowing. The one exception to that is creeping red fescue which is fine textured, will thinly fill in, and can be mowed (or left unmowed), but it's not tough enough for heavy use. It does best in light shade with regular water (it will survive drought but will not be at its best) and can look quite nice when it's healthy.

You might want to check out Lara, who owns Bountiful Botanicals in Oakland. We've hired her firm to do basic irrigation repair at our house, but I think they are mainly known for their design services. She installed a lawn at one of my neighbor's homes, that is drought-friendly and native. It definitely looks like the type of lawn that you could still play on...the only difference I see between it and a traditional lawn is that the grass is slightly clumpier...but it looks great. Amy

Lawn Installation & Maintenance

Drought-tolerant backyard ideas - kids & dogs

Sept 2014

Our very small yard is nothing more than dirt right now. There is irrigation, and we had been planning on getting it tilled and then seeding a drought tolerant grass sometime in the fall (and hope that it rains to get the seeds started). We do not want a water thirsty yard, but we need something soft for the dog and kids. Soft woodchips are out because the dog will eat them. Is there really a type of grass, that when established, will not require much, if any, water? If not, any ideas about what else we could do with the space? No hardscaping, no woodchips or mulch. Another soft, drought tolerant groundcover might be okay. Thanks for your ideas. anon

Artificial grass is awesome. I was a doubter, too, but we LOVE the small patch we installed in our backyard. Zero maintenance and super great for our 3 year It dries quickly so we can be outside right after the rain and not get wet. It was expensive to install but has zero cost after installation - unlike a lawn that requires water and your time to maintain. With the drought it turns out it was very smart to do this - we'd probably be ripped out a real lawn now .... Artificial grass is lovely!

Here is a grass you might want to try. It needs sun to get started, so it is a little late to plant it now. I really don't know anything about it, myself. Anon

There's no such thing as drought resistant grass, it's all a marketing term to get you to pay for a more expensive bag of seeds. Last fall my lawn was like yours and thought the rains would water it so I would have to until the spring. The rains carried the seeds away, caused them to mold/rot and the dirt became uneven. The seeds which sprouted, died when the weather turned cold. Now I have to do it all over again. ANON

A couple of years ago, we planted Eco-Lawn (a blend) in our small Albany backyard as part of a drought tolerant re-do. We did water it the first two years to help it get established, so it hasn't yet been through a dry summer, but I completely stopped watering it a couple of months ago and so far so good. We don't mow it, so it ends up being bent-over waves of grass, but you can choose to mow it (high). The website FAQS point out that NO lawn will withstand the effects of a dog running constant circles, but it withstands our ordinary walking and playing. If your area is sunny, it's worth a look. One thing I like is that it really helps keep weeds down because seeds don't sprout well in that kind of grass (not weed-free, but better).

It is available at Annie's Annuals, and around here, fall is the time to plant it. Read the web site info thoroughly, and if you have questions, email them; they responded promptly when I did. R.K.

Lawn Help Needed

April 2014

We ripped out the concrete patio 2 years ago and had lawn put in. We looked into artificial lawn but those still get really hot in the sun so that wasn't a viable option. We have young kids and wanted a more functional area for them to play. It's been a great but the lawn is now more brown with lots of dirt patches. Watering schedule is the same (off in the winter; water deeply, less often). Our dog doesn't go potty on the lawn. We've fertilized it a few times last year and it's not any better. We've seen lawn seeds in the nursery. Do those really work? Or do we need to pay for lawn service? We have been managing our own yardwork since the installation. Thanks for any advice & tips! save the lawn

Lawn seed does work. Just block off the area from kids and dogs so it has a chance to grow back. You should do it during the rainy season.

Recommendations for lawn install

Feb 2012

Hi -- I'm looking for recommendations for someone to put in a lawn in our very small Albany backyard. We don't want a full landscape design or a big garden installation. I've looked at the archives, but there aren't really any recent recommendations for someone to do a small lawn project like this. We're looking for someone reliable and easy to work with who can give us a good estimate and stick to it. If you've done a project like this and have a recommendation, please pass it on. We may also install drip irrigation in some areas in the yard, so if the person helped you with irrigation, that would be great to know. Thanks! Want a patch of grass

I use 3 tiers of gardeners for my large property, and my mid-tier guy is your man. Call Santiago Samayoa at (510) 860-9251. He has done a lot of work for me, clearing, maintenance, weeding, pruning and has installed and repaired my irrigation on my large 1/2 acre property and installed small patches of sod (lawn) in areas of repair. He is super reasonably priced, comes when he says, does what he says, and wants to please very much so if anything isn't right he will fix it. He can easily install a lawn for you, and I highly recommend you have him put in irrigation at the same time. it is much more disruptive and troublesome and also more expensive to retrofit it. Lawns are sensitive and need regular watering and in the future if you go away you will be so happy you have the irrigation. Santiago also does regular maintenance if you want regular mowing. I also use another regular mower who has been with me for years and is reliable and reasonable in price: Enrique Sanchez (510) 812-4353. Kay

I used Pat Hannan of and found him and his team to be very competent and substantially less expensive than the others who bid on this job. It was a small lawn, like yours, and he was knowledgeable about grass types, irrigation, he put in sprinklers and a drain, and despite my laziness, it's looking great. He has also put in lawns for schools and offices that are VAST. He is extremely responsive and a very nice guy, easy to work with. His other specialty is hardscapes and building fences/decks - you can see samples on his website. Pat has become my go-to guy for everything related to the garden and I have recommended him to many people! His cell: 925-435-2801. Sarah

Where can I buy turf for my back yard?

Nov 2008

Can anyone suggest a good place to buy turf for my back yard, its about 1,000SF. mathew

Many years ago, I got dwarf fescue seed from Flowerland Nursery for my front lawn in Albany. Then, several years ago, I got sod from them (same grass as the seed I think) for a lawn in Berkeley. The dwarf fescue grows slowly, so doing it from seed takes patience. One of the advantages of dwarf fescue is that, once established, one doesn't have to mow as often! I have been very happy with their assistance and products. Flowerland Nursery at 1330 Solano Av in Albany (510-526-3550). Brenda

Seed or Sod?

April 2007

We are trying to decide whether to seed our 600 sq ft back yard or use sod. It gets a fair amount of direct sunlight over the course of the day. We would optimally like something that doesnmt consume too much water and can handle the impact of kids playing. Any recommendations? Thanks!

I'd go with a sod for a more instant effect. Typically, fine leaf fescues (Festuca rubra, Festuca longifolia, or Festuca commutata) are your best bet in the Berkeley/Oakland area. Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a coarser leaved, but tougher turf grass that can take more abuse. ray

Would you consider something like a red fescue or a California fescue for a ''meadow'' like appearance? It grows tall but only needs mowing about 4x a year and consumes far less water and can take foot traffic (am not sure how much).

Importantly, Calif. or red fescue, are one of many California Native plants you can choose from, which means they help protect and feed and attract hummmingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial critters. Do a google for lawn alternatives. See the California Native Plant Society website. I am doing a lawn conversion and replacing with Callifornia natives. Signed, No mo' mowing anymo'

Use sod, not seed! It's the soil preparation that is key to a lawn's success- same amount of work and materials there. Sod does cost more than seed, but it will help to smother out some weed seeds- when you encourage new grass seeds to grow and prosper, you are also encouraging every weed seed in the neighborhood to grow and prosper! If you take proper care of it with regular mowing (at the right height) and fertilizing and a realistic amount of water, sod will make a stronger and healthier lawn in the long run. No lawn is truly ''drought resistant'', but if you get it established so that it develops deep roots, the fescue hybrids need the least amount of water. if you have existing perennial weeds, like either bulbous or creeping oxalis, blackberries, and/or Bermuda grass (the WORST!) I strongly suggest that you use Round-up on them as many times as it takes to deplete the root and seed supply. Sod cannot smother out perennial weeds, and you will regret it if you don't take care of them beforehand- it's worth waiting to have a lawn rather than investing time and money in something that becomes a weed patch. Round-up does not stay active as a toxin in the soil, and it will not inhibit the growth of the new lawn or present a danger to people and animals. Also, don't use the lawn for at least 4 weeks after laying the sod- again, it's worth waiting. If you allow it enough time to really develop a good root system it will hold up much better to heavy use. Finally- DO NOT skimp on soil preparation- the more thoroughly you do it, the more successful the lawn will be. Cecelia

Last spring we seeded the ''lawn'' area (approx 20'x15') of our yard with Festuca rubra (red fescue). It's a native grass that can take foot traffic and doesn't get that tall. Mowing & watering is optional, and just depend on your tolerance for a ''messy'' lawn. We watered occassionally last summer, mostly because I wanted to be sure the grass really ''took''. We've never mowed the lawn - the areas that get more traffic are a little shorter and the other areas got to be about 4''-6'' tall. This spring the seed stalks have came up - they're about a foot tall. My 2-year old daughter and her friends love running through them & playing with the stalks.

We got our seeds from Larner Seeds in Bolinas ( - it cost about $15 bucks to cover our patch of lawn. It took a few weeks for the grass to come in - at this time of year you'll probably have to be good about watering the lawn for a while. We didn't use a pre-emergent to reduce weeds, but did spend many afternoons last summer with the kids weeding out the grasses that we didn't want. The folks at Larner are really knowledgeable & can help you with all those details. - love my lumpy lawn

Mud clumps all over lawn

Oct 2006

Last winter, I noticed a lot of pieces of mud all over my lawn. Now that the weather is getting cool again its happening again. It looks like the earthworms are excavating and pushing dirt to the surface. I know earthworms are good, but I also like to have a lawn I can walk on without shoes. Am I over watering? Has anyone else had this problem? muddy lawn

The piles of mud you are seeing sound like molehills. Unfortunaley, there isn't much you can do EGW

Could be racoons! They just hit our back yard (last year it was our front yard). They dig for grubs under your sod. They take up little bits of your grass and expose the mud underneath. Sometimes they will take up whole sections of grass sod. If you think it's the worms lower your watering, but it could be those cute furry creatures. Anon

Where to buy sod

June 2005

Can anyone recommend a place to buy sod for DIY installation? I'm specifically interested in shade-tolerant sods (any thoughts or recommendations there?) like maybe a fescue/bluegrass mix (based on what I've read, but I'm open to other suggestions). Thanks in advance for your help! JP

To answer my own posting in case anyone else has the same question: I went ahead and ordered sod from The Sod Shop in Martinez ( - they were very helpful, fast and well-priced. They recommended Mello Jade for shady yard. We installed it ourselves in an afternoon, no problems. It's been 2 weeks and the lawn looks great! JP

Remediating Soil & Lawn sprayed with weed killer

May 2005

Hi - we just moved into a new house in East Oakland and inherited a perfect lawn and a big plot of dirt out in back, not to mention two large containers of weed killer. We have a dog and an 8 month old and I am concerned that we are all being exposed to the weed killer that was undoubtedly put on the lawn and the backyard to keep the weeds away. Does anyone know how to deal with soil that has chemicals in it? And how does one safely clean up a lawn? Is it possible? Is there anyway to test for the toxicity in the soil? Also does anyone know a child friendly alternative to a lawn. I've heard of chamomile and clover, but do they create a cushion like a lawn would? thanks so much... Catherine

Depending upon when you moved into the house and when the previous owners last squirted/applied the weed and feed I would not worry. Most of it ends up in the soil(under the grass) or as run off after a few rains. We've had a really wet winter. The grass, after a few cuttings, will be perfectly safe for your dog and child. I would use the extra soil you have (in the plot) as a place to plant flowers. Dirt is expensive to haul off b/c of it's weight. So relax, enjoy the grass and carfully (and legally) dispose of the chemicals. We had the same situation when we moved into our home, and our previous home's owners had way more stuff than just weed and feed. enjoy the grass!

If the name of the chemical is on the containers, you can find out what its 'persistence' in the soil is. Some chemicals don't stick around in their original form for very long, others do. If the information on the label is not clear, you have several ways to get the info: Inquire at a nursery that sells chemicals (like East Bay in Berkeley). Or go online and google it. Or contact the company that manufactured the product and ask for the data on its toxicity and persistence.

The best way to hurry any toxicity out of soil is to leach it through with water. Water your lawn more frequently (and deeply!) than you normally would, but not so much that it is soggy all the time (bad for the lawn).

There is no lawn replacement that is cushiony like a lawn, and nothing that will hold up to frequent use! Take my word for it- I'm a landscaper and have dealt with this question for 25 years. There are groundcovers, like chamomile, that can take light traffic, but this means only occasional very light use, like between stepping stones. Otherwise, it will not stay healthy, not look nice or feel nice.

Clover is tough, but not cushiony, and it attracts bees- good for your garden plants, but not so good for bare feet. Cecelia

Need a cheap lawn!

August 2003

We've lived in a rental for over 5 years and plan to be here for longer until that mysterios time when we can finally buy a house (probably not anytime soon). When we moved in, we put all sorts of plants and flowering bushes in the dirt-filled backyard after hours of hard labor to clear it out. Now we have a toddler and we just want a lawn back there so he can play in a fenced-in area.

Our landlady probably won't pay for it - so we have to come up with the money ourselves which is going to be really,really tough. But, it's has to happen - we just hired someone to dig out most of the old stuff and it's all dirt (sigh, again) back there.

Does anyone have any suggestions about how to install a lawn? I'm thinking roll-out sod/turf that will quickly root. But we have lots of weeds that grow back there, and as I said, very little money. I'm afraid if we just spread grass seed, we'll get an uneven, weed filled mess and I really am dreaming of a place that's fun to hang out with the kid.

Thanks for your advice and suggestions. If you know someone we could go to for this, that would be great too. jenny

Rolling out sod may seem like the better solution, but it really isn't. You have to weed, rototill and level the area in any case. Then, if you put in sod, you only have one kind of grass. Some areas of your lawn get more water, some get more traffic, some get more sun. The lawn will die in certain areas. You will forever be fighting to keep a perfect green carpt. A better and cheaper alternative is to seed it. Put in several different kinds of grass and dichondra. Then, when you find spots that aren't doing well, put in chamomile, lawn daisies, plaintain, and dandylions. This will create a beautiful butterfly meadow that is easy to maintain. a gardener

How to plant sod

March 2003

We recently moved to home with a backyard (our first ever). A significant portion of the yard was covered in Algerian ivy which I've spend the last month removing. We'd like to put in sod (where the ivy was) -- but we can't afford any of the estimates we've gotten so our only option is to do it ourselves. How do I know whether I need to amend our soil? Is the job as simple as rototilling, raking, grading and then laying the sod? Is there anywhere i can go for specific instructions? Thanks very much. Annette

We did our own backyard and nothing could be easier than laying your own sod. Having someone else do it is nothing but robbery! We were quoted $1200 to sod our lawn and we did it ourselves for $350 (the cost of the sod). The only tricky part is having a large enough vehicle to transport it (if you go pick it up yourself). Yes, you should ammend your soil. Ask at your local nursery for ammendment suggestions, pile it on and rototill it in. Or you can just throw regular fertilizer on it if your soil isn't too bad (ours was pure clay so we had to do a lot).

The just go ahead and unroll the sod, give it a good soaking with water (get it nice and soggy and keep it that way for the next 12 hours or so). You might want to get one of those little sod cutters if you have to work around any trees or other obstacles in your lawn. Also, sod is heavy so if you have a dolly or a wheelbarrow to move it from the truck to the yard that will save your back. email me if you have any questions and good luck! cameron

Doing a lawn right is labor intensive, but shortcuts will reduce its health and longevity. Soil preparation is key. Work the soil when moist but not gooey.

Our clay soils are compacted, & rototilling does not open them deeply (affects drainage & root growth). Break up with shovel & pick to about 12''.

All soils here need organic amendment- for a lawn, at least 1 part to 2 parts soil- turn in well to 12''. Then, rototil to blend the top layer finely.

Grade, & then water for a week or 2 to settle. Next do a finish grade with a grading rake, roll with a roller 2/3 full of water, grade again, roll again, etc. until the grade is just right (it will be a bit mounded until it finishes settling).

Spread starter lawn fertilizer, lay the sod, roll with the roller 1/3 full of water.

Saturate the sod, keep it very wet for the first week, then wet for 2 weeks, then moist for another 1-2 weeks. Don't use it for 4 weeks.

Consider putting in an irrigation system- you & your lawn will be grateful! Cecelia

Hi Annette, My husband & I have installed sod at 2 different houses relying solely on advice & supplies from Sloat Garden Center (SF and Marin); they are very willing to answer questions in detail over the phone. The hardest part is clearing out the weeds, so you're more than halfway! Get yourself a soil test kit and then augment according to those results. Grass likes nitrogen so we had to augment w/chicken fertilizer & forest mulch. If it's a large area, you might want to consider installing a sprinkler system (we bought a kit on-line from and it works great). Rake, level, and then roll out the sod like carpet. It's amazing how quickly you can go from brown dirt patch to lawn; it's really satisfying! -CG

We installed sod about four years ago. We learned so much. Make sure your sprinklers work REALLY well first. We just rototilled the soil with a lot of leaves in it. It was very inorganic sand/gravel/clay soil. The grass is still growing fine. However, we picked a very fine fescu and this is not the best climate for fescu. Half our yard is shadey and half sunny. As long as it gets water the grass does well in either sun or shade. I think it needs too much water and if I had it to do over again I would pick a less fine grass, even leaning toward a thick crab crab grass type, that doesn't need so much mowing or water. What ever type you choose be prepared for the racoons to roll up the sod every night ruining all your work for weeks. You can buy our live trap if it comes to that (540-8788). Every morning you will go out and have to stamp it down again. But in the end your grass will grow. Maybe seeds would be better (especially at this time of year) because you wouldn't have to battle the racoons, with plenty of water it grows well. Sarah