‘Cash for Grass’ program has transformed 2,000 lawns in Napa

Over the weekend, the UC Master Gardeners hosted a workshop at Napa’s Las Flores Learning Garden, which opened last summer, focusing on creating drought-resistant gardens suited to survive the seasons — and fluctuating water levels — in California.

The state’s most recent drought seems to be over, with snow still visible on the Sierra Nevada in mid-August and an unusually wet winter and cool summer delaying the Napa Valley wine grape harvest. Meanwhile, Napans are still using less water than in previous years, according to Josh Stokes, a water conservation specialist for the city of Napa.

Stokes said that July water use is often used as a barometer for looking at trends over time, since it is known for being the highest water-use month of the year. This year, he said that Napa saw a 16% reduction of water use from the same month in 2020, the third-lowest usage in the last three decades.

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While this could be in part due to a cooler summer, Stokes said large numbers of Napans are moving away from watering ornamental lawns, and it’s making a big difference.

He explained that having a lawn on the West Coast isn’t sustainable like it is in the East or the Midwest, even during non-drought years.

“Here in the West, we have six months of a dry climate,” Stokes explained. “When you have a dry climate, you’re not getting rain, so what do you have to do? You have to store these big bodies of water for people to dump on their lawns. It’s just not a sustainable way of life.”

Both Stokes and David Layland, a Master Gardener and past board president of the Napa Farmers Market, said that many locals have been replacing their lawns with native and low-water landscaping in recent years. In particular, according to Stokes, the city has seen an acceleration of lawn removals during California’s three major drought periods since 2007. 

Many have participated in Napa’s Cash for Grass rebate program, which began in 2010. The citywide program offers mostly grant-funded rebates to residents who remove their lawns and replace at least 50% of the space with “low-water-use, climate-appropriate plants” and up to 50% with permeable hardscape. 

The program provides rebates up to $750 — or $1 per square foot up to 750 square feet — for single-family homes, and up to $2,500 for multi-family, commercial and institutional residences.

To date, the city has given out more than 2,000 rebates, totaling $1.3 million and 2 million square feet of lawn removed. Stokes said that an annual saving of 50 million gallons of water can be linked to the program’s effects — both through those who have taken part, and those who have simply chosen to remove their lawns themselves after seeing neighbors and friends do so. 

Ian Hall, a landscaper who’s been working in the Napa Valley for over 20 years, said that the lawn has become a “relic of the ‘Leave It To Beaver’ days” here. He noted that especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest portion of his work has been taking out lawns and replacing them with drought-tolerant landscapes.

“I’ve been responsible for the death of many lawns here in Napa,” he joked.

Jokes aside, though, Hall said while about 75% of the projects he and his team do now are non-lawn projects, learning how to curate a drought-friendly landscape is important. If done haphazardly, it can end up looking like the overgrown, mismatched disaster some lawn-lovers see in their heads when they think of a grass-free front yard. 

But with the right combination of plants, cover crops, hardscape and boulders, a low-water landscape can look good year round, Hall said. In his work, Hall often includes both native California plants and as Mediterranean ones, since Mediterranean plants are well suited to survive dry seasons. 

As for what plants to choose, Layland said there are numerous options available.

He suggested taking a trip out to the Learning Garden at Las Flores Community Center to see an array of California flora and other sustainable vegetation that can thrive in Napa’s environment. Planted last June, the space currently has four gardens featuring different types of plants, depending on function.

There’s a native plant garden featuring California native species, as well as pollinator, succulent/dry, and low-water and low-maintenance gardens. Currently, the UC Master Gardeners are preparing to install a lawn alternatives section.

The point of these gardens is educational, Layland explained, and the gardeners’ hope is that they will be used by community members interested in doing their own landscaping projects.

The wait time for a landscaper is long these days, according to Stokes, since the number of landscapers in the Napa Valley is limited and interest in water-wise plantings is growing. The rates charged by landscapers — both to take grass out and swap in more climate-friendly greenery — has also skyrocketed because of the high demand.

“When I first started doing these projects, I was seeing anywhere from $4,000 upwards to maybe $10,000, but $10,000 was (what) would have been a very, very large amount of material coming in … with over 1,000 square feet of lawn, more or less,” Stokes said. “Since the (most recent) drought, I’ve seen the costs go up to over $20,000.”

Layland offered another option: Doing the project yourself. He explained that by coming to Las Flores, Napans can see what kinds of plants they might like, how big they’ll grow over time, and how they look with other native and low-maintenance varieties.

Currently, the group is working on getting identification placards for each of the plants in the garden, but most of the signage lists some of the plant varieties seen in each section. Additionally, on Sept. 30, the Master Gardeners of Napa County will host their Fall Faire at Las Flores, during which docents will be on site to explain all of the plants in the Learning Garden.

Layland said that including rocks or boulders like the ones in the garden is important when creating a non-grass landscape as well. “They protect the moisture in the ground and help prevent evaporation and weeds,” he explained.

Once you decide how to replace your grass, Layland said removing turf can be fairly easy to do on your own, too. He calls it the “lasagna method,” but it’s also known as sheet mulching. 

“You put down a layer of cardboard on the grass you want to get rid of, cover that in three to four inches of mulch, and that’s going to kill the grass,” Layland said.

Over time, worms will come up from underground and eat the cardboard as it gets wet during the winter, and by spring, the owner could be ready to put in new plants on the soil left behind.

Even with do-it-yourself options and Cash for Grass rebates, Napans should watch the costs of a landscaping project. Even doing it yourself, installing mulch can cost 40 to 60 cents per square foot, and an 8-by-20-foot space would likely require at least 10 plants of varying sizes, which cost between $10 and $15 apiece, according to Layland. 

Adding boulders and hardscapes can also get expensive — not to mention the costs of labor and installation, including the DIY kind.

Costs aside, some people are wary of parting with their lawns because of their function. Lawns are often great play places for children and bathrooms for dogs, and they can keep temperatures down during the hot season.

While there’s not a perfect solution, pea gravel can be a good bathroom space for pets, and using decomposed granite instead of concrete or brick can hold down ground temperatures. Also, using cover crops and trees for shade can be helpful for decreasing the heat further, according to Layland.

Replacing a lawn also decreases water bills over time, Stokes said, since the drip systems required to keep native and low-water plants alive use about 45 gallons per watering session, compared to 180 gallons an average-sized lawn in Napa requires per 15-minute watering.

Additionally, alternative landscapes can create habitats for California pollinators and insects, and help the state reduce overall water use as climate change increases the frequency and severity of droughts on the West Coast. 

“In the West, a lawn is not sustainable anymore,” Stokes said. “Taking out your lawn is the easiest way for us to save water.”

25% of the global population faces “extremely high water stress” annually, according to a new report.




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You can reach Katie DeBenedetti at kdebenedetti@napanews.com or 650-242-5071.

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