Will the Lawn Rebate Turn LA into a Gravel Moonscape?


That pesky law of unintended consequences! Drought conditions here in California prompted our water utilities to offer rebates for ripping out water hungry lawns. Unfortunately, as Ivette Soler has pointed out in a blog post, “The Road to Hell is Paved with Chunky Gravel and Indifferently Chosen Plants,” unscrupulous “landscapers” are taking those rebates and installing gravel and mulch moonscapes.

It’s an education problem. For most people plants are a sort of green background material. Our ancestors could distinguish between hundreds of plants, but that ancestral memory has been hijacked by commercial interests. Now, instead of plant identification skills, we name and distinguish things like cars and mobile devices. If there was a kind of car rebate program that inadvertently replaced BMWs with Pontiac Azteks I would guarantee you that there would be blood in the streets. We need a new cultural narrative and a crash course in plant appreciation.

Such a reeducation program is a long term project. In the short term, another local writer (who was a guest on episode 20 of our podcast), Emily Green, has a very useful series of posts, “After the Lawn,” that will walk you through a “safe and sane” lawn replacement.

Lawn replacement in our dry Mediterranean climate could serve as a positive step in bringing our culture, “back to the garden.” If we can shift away from lawns and gravel, we could create landscapes that support pollinators, birds and our own well being.

Leave a comment


  1. I can predict a spate of broken windows. What kid can resist throwing a pile of rocks? I have a chipped front tooth from my brother throwing a rock at me. Plus, have you ever had a “stone bruise” from stepping on a rock the size of those? Even with shoes on, damage to the sole of the foot is enough to make a person limp for days. Who is going to keep those huge rocks where they belong, behind the edging?

    There are all the other problems you list. Official controls will probably have to be put in place to determine the size of rock, types of plants.

    I am glad I live in a wet part of the country even though I complain about the grass and weeds growing so fast.

  2. I agree that this trend is disturbing. There are all sorts of impacts associated with gravel mining in rivers (loss of spawning habitat, turbidity, etc.), so gravel as a landscaping material is not particularly great for fish. Angled gravel (the kind from quarries) has its drawbacks as well… Not to mention it’s hideously ugly.

  3. Phoenix, Arizona is an alienscape of rock and cacti. Honestly, if people were educated a bit more we could have lovely yards of native vegetation and california poppies. Or deep rooted perennials like sages. My parents live in West Los Angeles, and my dad religiously saves and reuses sink water for watering the many fruit trees he planted in our former front lawn. We used to have our washer water go to our orange tree in the back. Certainly there must be people looking into grey water systems in Socal? But quite frankly I can see why things are going the way they are. There is very little interest in gardening and landscaping culturally in Los Angeles, it is such a huge difference from Portland. Portland has multiple garden and plant events throughout the year, with people attending in the thousands! The plant events in L.A. are far fewer if at all, with very minimal attendence. This reflects a lot in the landscaping, or lack of. :/

  4. OK, I’ll bite. Say you have a $2000 budget and 60 hours of labor. What’s a good plan for a nice low water garden? Say you need to cover 20×30 then 30×4 along the sidewalk.

    • I converted my whole front yard to drought tolerant landscape. I’d say the cheapest ground cover is Lantana. It spreads really well. I used Senecio, Salvia Amistad, Jerusalem Sage, Kangaroo Paws, Flax, Lions Tail, Fire Sticks, Aeonium. It looks wonderful, and it only took a few months to fill in. Dont buy any big plants, buy the smallest size that they sell. The salvia that I planted that was in a 6″ pot is now 4″ wide, same goes for everything else.

      Lantana is great for by the sidewalk.

  5. Thanks for this post. This Flintstones solution to drought is blighting our region and will intensify heat. The strangest part about them is that these gravel patches are going to fail even by their own briefs. A year from now they will be rocky weed patches. Those who imagine that weed cloth or, worse, plastic sheeting under the rock, will prevent that don’t know weeds.

  6. Wow, L.A. must have a different lawn rebate criteria than where I live. In order to qualify for the rebate in the Santa Clarita Valley the removed lawn must be replaced with at least 50 percent plant material. There’s no way that harsh lunar looking landscape would ever be acceptable here.

  7. As a resident of the pinnacle of rock landscaping, Las Vegas, I can tell you that there are more problems associated with it than just the poor aesthetics.

    You increase the heat island effect, your cooling bills in the summer rise dramatically, you lose the “cool, cool, cool of the evening” by holding on to the day’s heat, you get weeds you have difficulty eradicating (that are almost always the allergen-producing kind!), they increase the rate of evaporation of water from the soil, and you get sued when someone slips on a rock that has errantly been moved from its bed.

    Add that to the fact that over time, all the pretty colors of the rocks get bleached and washed away and you end up with pale shades and an overwhelming gray-washed environment.

    Wood-chips from an arborist are a much better alternative. They don’t create dust, they don’t blow away, they keep down or eliminate the weed problem, they allow all the rain to soak deep into the earth and they eventually become part of a healthy soil. You can get them for free in most cases and you won’t strain your back hauling them and raking them into place. When you plant your landscaping plants under them, they support the growth of the plants, hold in moisture reducing the need for constant watering, add biomass to the soil and provide a haven for soil-building and plant-enhancing flora and fauna.

    Did I mention they are free?

    There are better alternatives to rocks.

  8. I am presently digging up gravel …. red shale…. ugh. It is not easy or light work. Gravel has no positive place in landscaping. It will soon be full of weeds. As others have said, it hold the heat. Wood chips are the answer, and they never have to be dug out. You can lay cardboard down first if you like, and it will help kill any grass or weeds under it. As the wood chips break down over future years, you just top up with more. Often they are free at community depots.

  9. This is a wonderful article which will spark many ongoing (hopefully) productive conversations regarding xeriscaping. Here in Colorado, we too get rebates for removing lawn but we have to submit a landscaping plan that includes planting native, low water, xeriscape plants to get approved. I removed 3/4 of the lawn in front and put in several native plants and my water bill was reduced by over half. For the back, I planted micro clover and this is an incredible alternative to grass. As an aside, clover was actually the original lawn for those living arid climates. The root system of clover is very deep and the bonus is that it acts as a natural fertilizer by fixing nitrogen into the soil. Win/win.

    This line really struck a chord with me:

    Our ancestors could distinguish between hundreds of plants, but that ancestral memory has been hijacked by commercial interests.

    Thankfully though, there is a growing trend (and this post proves as much) of people who care enough to conserve water. Now, to continue the educational process! This post and the one you link to are integral to that. Thank you!

  10. It looks like southern California gets chunky gravel and we get river rock here in the Midwest. The scourge of poorly thought out drought tolerant landscaping is not something that is affecting just the southland.

    Here in Iowa every new house is built with beds that contain a few scraggly yews or arborvitae surrounded by acres of river rock. Underneath the river rock is the scourge of landscape fabric. You can spend an entire summer just rehabilitating a single bed with appropriate plants and water conserving mulch. Ugh.

  11. Coming from the Bay Area to Scottsdale, AZ was a huge shocker for me because of 1) the lack of greenery and 2) space between houses. I live North of Scottsdale now and it is beautiful without the stupid lawn to mow. Desert landscaping is very beautiful, not just a pile of rocks. You have to conserve H2O and use drought tolerant plants/flowers. My garden is full of life with birds, hummingbirds, bees and butterflies while still conserving H2O. There’s no reason to have lawns and lakes in the desert. Come on! This is a big part of the reason why CA is in trouble now-too many wasteful individuals, not to mention all the oil fracking you have going on that wastes billions of gallons a day besides destroying the whole ecological landscape.

Comments are closed.