Given the dire scenario of our water crisis and more future mandates to reduce irrigation in our landscapes, it’s time to reconsider having any lawn whatsoever. There are numerous drought tolerant lawn alternatives to consider. All too obvious choices are artificial turf (which will someday end up in a land fill), decomposed granite or gravel mulch. Some homeowners may opt to just use bark mulch as well to keep out weeds and minimize dust.

The aridification of Southern California is becoming more intense, but those who still want to be environmentally friendly may still want to have some plant materials to cover some percentage of their former lawn spaces. I’d like to address numerous choices of plants which can replace turf grasses.

Most of the plants listed below are low growing or with a prostrate growing habit. Some can spread several feet across once mature. These are the real winners, ones that take up “real estate” in our yards. Of course there are a plethora of choices when it comes to low water plant choices, succulents, ornamental grasses, sages, rock roses and so forth can be utilized to form a wonderful tapestry of color and texture, but given our love affair with lush green lawns, we need substitutes for the lawn itself. In cases where the foundation plants and the current layout of shrubs is sufficient, homeowners need guidance as to what to plant in those specific lawn areas.

See some of the best choices below: Each plant has its own attributes as well as irrigation needs.

Arctostaphyllos ‘emerald carpet – Carpet Manzanita
A true California native plant, it will grow up to 12” high and up to 6 ft wide. Dense foliage with white flowers in winter and spring is prefers full sun at the coast and some afternoon shade inland. Low water needs as a native, but still requires ongoing irrigation. And it is not suggested to walk on this plant, it will not tolerate foot traffic.

Carrissa ‘green carpet’- Green Carpet Natal Plum
An evergreen spreading shrub, ‘green carpet’ is 12-18” high x 4 ft wide. White flowers all year long and bright red edible fruits make this an attractive plant. All other parts of the plant are toxic. Full sun, protect from frost it has low water needs. It may also need an occasional trimming of any upright offshoots that occur to maintain a more uniform appearance.

Carex pansa – California Field Sedge
Another native plant or Sedge grass, it has a fine texture and creeping tendency at 6-12” high. It is often used in a natural lawn or meadow situation. Best grown in full sun to light shade. It can be mowed 2 to 4 times per year. As a drought tolerant plant, It offers the beauty of a green grass lawn without all the water. Surely, a soon to be favorite, one of several drought tolerant lawn alternatives.

Drought Tolerant Lawn Alternatives

Dymondia margarate – Silver Carpet
A true groundcover this evergreen perennial grows only 1-3” tall and will spread 1-2’. It is often used as a lawn alternative as it is one of the few plants that tolerate foot traffic. It prefers loam or sandy soils that are well drained. Small yellow flowers emerge in the summer and strong silver cast to this plant makes it live up to its name. A note of caution, if using silver carpet around step stones, the plant will continue to spread and will need some pruning or edging. Also, be alert as if any weeds such as oxalis or spotted spurge intermingle silver carpet you may have to remove large sections of the plant to eradicate the weeds.

Lantana white lightnin’ – White Lightning Lantana
A great heat resistant, low water (water only occasionally once established except for extreme dryness) this plant is easy care with year round white blooms. It is great on slopes and will cascade over walls growing 8-12” high by 3-6 ft wide. It is a great choice to cover a lot of space; it is not a plant to walk on as the stems break very easily.

Portulacaria afra ‘minima’ – Prostrate Elephant’s Food Plant
An outstanding ground covering succulent, it is typically only 6”-12” tall and can spread 3-4 ft wide. This plant will take full sun and even some shade. It takes very little water once established, and some possible supplemental water in dry summer conditions. Emerald green ½” long leaves sprout from reddish brown stems and tiny pale lavender flowers emerge in the summer. Its best attributes are having no maintenance and a great body of color year round. As a succulent it is not recommended for foot traffic. An interesting choice amongst many, it too is one of many drought tolerant lawn alternatives.

Ruschia nana – Dwarf Carpet of Stars
This is a plant for full sun and dry conditions. It grows only 2-3” high with green leaves with a rubbery texture. It will take foot traffic and each plant can cover up to 2 square feet. It blooms in the early spring and again in fall with no maintenance. This groundcover uses 75% less water than grass. The only disadvantage to this plant is that it can become woody after 3 to 4 years and should be replaced.

I hope you’ve found this both useful and inspiring to know that we can still have green spaces. Turf grass is no longer a status symbol, in fact now and in the future those with green lawns will surely be the outcasts of the neighborhood. We have to all acts responsibly with the water crisis in San Diego, and all of the southwestern United Sates.

Allow Letz Design the opportunity to offer suggestions while you ponder reducing your water (irrigation) bills. I’m still happy to suggest small areas of artificial turf, cobble stones and decomposed granite, but finding a balance to have some green in out front yards is still a reasonable requires. Contact me at