Garden Q&A – How do I replace my lawn with a native garden?

CNPS Garden Q&A with Kathy Kramer, founder of CNPS East Bay Chapter’s Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour:

By Kathy Kramer
CNPS East Bay Chapter
Founder of Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour
How do I replace my lawn with a native garden?

1. Explore Lawn Rebate Options

Contact both your local water district and Save Our Water ( and check out their lawn removal rebates. Even if your lawn looks bad and hasn’t been watered in years, you may still qualify for a $2 per square foot rebate.

2. Sheet mulch

If you’ve applied for a rebate, don’t start work on your lawn until you’ve received approval from both your water district and Save Our Water. When you have approval, sheet mulch your lawn. (This means cover it with cardboard and wood chips.) Your lawn should be left to sit for three to five months; during this time the lawn will die, the cardboard will begin to break down, and your soil will be improved.

3. Get inspired

While your lawn is decomposing, take the opportunity to learn about native plants.  Get inspired by visiting private native plant gardens during any of the native plant tours that take place in April and May (see page 15). These tours give you the chance to get ideas for home gardens, see plants that appeal to you, take photographs, meet designers, talk with homeowners about their experience, attend talks, and more. If you missed garden tour season, visit botanic gardens that have native plant sections.  CNPS’ is a terrific way to find out what plants are local to your area and identify plants that match your criteria for desired water use, light, soil type, flower color, and more. Use the helpful plant list builder to create your personal wish list of plants best suited for your location and view shared lists and photos from other gardeners.

4. Get a consultation

A knowledgeable native plant garden designer can often save you money in the long run by helping you choose plants most likely to thrive, thus setting you up for success. Even if you know you want to design the garden yourself, a professional can review your plan to ensure that you have grouped plants that have the same water and light needs, and that you have selected plants for their mature size, not the size they are in their four inch pots. Contact your local CNPS chapter or native plant nursery for recommended designers.

5. Plan your irrigation

Once you have your planting plan it’s time to develop your irrigation plan.  An irrigation supply store might develop a plan for you at no charge if you purchase your materials from them.  (Just bring in your planting plan, and a sketch or photographs of your garden.) Or, an irrigation contractor can do this for you. Make sure that you or your irrigation contractor install the irrigation before you plant, so you are not squashing your plants when the drip system is being installed.)

6. Plant in the fall

Fall is the perfect time to get your plants in the ground. The days are shorter and cooler, and the rains can help your plants become established.

7. Enjoy!

Last, enjoy the butterflies, bees, and birds that will come to visit your garden for the seeds, berries, nectar sources, nesting material, and shelter you will have provided them.

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