How to create a budget-friendly DIY drought-tolerant garden

How to create a budget-friendly DIY drought-tolerant garden

Long before the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declared a water shortage emergency and ordered outdoor watering limited to one day a week, Sarah Lariviere, an avid gardener, was thinking about ways to conserve water.

During the pandemic, the young adult author found inspiration on the long walks that she and her husband took in their Burbank neighborhood. It wasn’t the endless series of lush green lawns that moved her, however, but the occasional drought tolerant landscape that would materialize, sandwiched between the turf.

“I grew up in the Midwest so I was drawn to the non-lawn landscapes,” says the 46-year-old. “I love the wild look of colorful wildflowers.”

Precipitated by three years of record drought in California, Lariviere decided to educate herself about waterwise gardening. She took an in-person class on California native plants at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants. She consulted the SoCal Water Smart website, which offers step-by-step guidelines on how to transform your lawn using drought-tolerant alternatives to grass. She took an online class on turf removal taught by Green Gardens Group virtual instructors. When she learned that Burbank residents can request up to three shade trees for their homes, she researched what trees would best suit her microclimate.

A woman sits on her porch, surrounded by wildflowers

Sarah Lariviere in her front yard in Burbank, which used to have a lawn.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

After first renting elsewhere in Burbank, Lariviere and her husband, Tim Mapp, bought a 1940 bungalow in March 2021. By then, Lariviere felt prepared to tear out the lawn and install a low-water landscape.

Her goal for the garden, she says, was “to increase the biodiversity in our landscape, conserve water, provide habitat for butterflies and birds, and enjoy the scent and beauty of native plants, trees and flowers.”

Lawn in front of a house

The front lawn, before it was removed.

(Sarah Lariviere)

One month after purchasing their home, the couple removed the Bermuda grass. “We dug it out by hand using shovels and a pitchfork,” she says. “Sometimes we had to water it so that it would be pliable enough for us to remove. I won’t lie, it was backbreaking.” They previously lived in Texas and tried sheet mulching there, but “the grass kept coming up through the cardboard.”

The couple ultimately removed approximately 2,500 square feet of lawn, including the front lawn, parking strip and backyard. Working in the blistering heat of summer, the couple eventually rented a sod cutter from Home Depot, which costs about $97 a day, to help them finish the job.

Although she felt self-conscious about removing the grass so soon after moving into a neighborhood full of manicured lawns, Lariviere was pleased to find that her neighbors didn’t mind.

“We met so many neighbors who wanted to know how we were taking out our lawn,” she says. “They would stop all the time and say nice things. It was really encouraging.”

And after: Drought-tolerant native plants replaced thirsty turf.

And after: Drought-tolerant native plants replaced thirsty turf.

(Sarah Lariviere)

After creating a planting plan by consulting the Socal Water Smart website, Lariviere submitted it to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for a turf removal rebate.

The landscape project was completed in six months and Lariviere says she received a rebate check for $4,700 shortly after a representative from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California came out to assess her property. The check paid for the entire project, excluding the handcrafted Mexican tile from Colores de Mexico in East Los Angeles.

“I’m highly motivated,” she says. “I have a long-standing interest in gardens and landscapes and felt really excited about having so much space to play with. I’m not going to say it didn’t take time. But it was really fun.”

A front yard

The frontyard and parking strip are filled with mostly California native plants.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In the frontyard, Lariviere installed a walkway paved with yellow Arizona flagstone and planted mostly California natives: penstemon, monkey flowers, California fuchsias, desert mallow, fragrant pitcher sage, apache plume and stunning pink clarkia that makes a statement along the side of the house, which she painted a Frida Kahlo-esque blue-black color.

A view of the front yard at Sarah Lariviere's home in Burbank

Native plants grow along a dry riverbed paved with pebbles.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

On the parking strip, she planted white sage, rock purslane, germander sage, ice plants and scattered Theodore Payne’s roadside wildflower mix, which was a magnet for bees before the gophers went after the plants.

The backyard is more eclectic with a mixture of natives, succulents and edibles growing haphazardly throughout the landscape, including tomatoes and herbs in two galvanized steel troughs with “hugel bottoms” (bottoms removed to provide soil contact and then filled with sticks, manure and compost). To attract native insects, she scattered an assortment of wildflower seeds from Theodore Payne including #1 Rainbow mix, #2 Shady mix and #6 Roadside mix that put on a show thanks to the flowers’ dynamic array of colors, shapes and textures.

A hugel raised bed made from sticks, chicken manure, soil, compost and leaves helps to retain water and provide water to neighboring plants. Several small fruit trees will add beauty and fruit to the garden including kumquats, bearss limes, meyer lemons, satsuma tangerines, pineapple guavas and Buddha’s hand citrus. A Coast live oak tree planted next to the circular fire pit she designed and built will eventually offer shade during hot Burbank summers.

tiny succulents and cactuses cacti sprout in a sandy hill

Succulents and cactuses sprout in a sandy hill in the backyard.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

A hugel

A hugel in the backyard captures rainwater and provides water and shade to neighboring plants.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

More than 25 carloads of mulch from the city of Burbank’s free mulch program helps to keep the soil moist along with a dry riverbed that Lariviere lined with rocks and pebbles. When it rained in December, she was delighted that the riverbed she contoured according to the California Friendly & Waterwise Landscaping Guidebook did what it was designed to do: capture rainwater from the roof.

Looking ahead, Lariviere hopes to add a gray water filtration system, irrigate the young fruit trees, add a water feature for wildlife without encouraging mosquitoes, paint the concrete walls and someday, when everything is established, open her garden to others as part of Theodore Payne’s annual native plant garden tour.

Lariviere’s garden stands out as a colorful and delightful surprise on her block full of lawns. It is evidence that you can have a beautiful garden without using a lot of water.

Portrait of Sarah Lariviere in her backyard

“I have learned that I like a little chaos,” says Lariviere. “I would rather just throw in something that I love and not worry about the planning so much. The garden reflects that.”

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m amazed by how little we water,” she says. When it rained in December, the rain provided sufficient water for the wildflowers to grow. “I keep an eye on all the new plants to make sure they are okay. Now that it is warming up, I’ve tried to do each section once every 10 days. That means we have three watering days. I try to keep it to 20 minutes if it’s a tree or one of the newer natives.”

Of course, not everyone is about to give up their beloved lawns. Still, Lariviere hopes her native oasis will inspire others to consider low-water alternatives.

“It’s not lost on me that having a garden is a luxury,” she says as she pulls a few stray weeds from her frontyard. “Overall, I have learned that I like a little chaos. I would rather just throw in something that I love and not worry about the planning so much. The garden reflects that. It’s so beautiful, and we can all enjoy the bees, butterflies and birds. It sounds like ‘Snow White’ out here.”

Did you tear out your lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants? We want to hear from you.


Bush Monkey Flower.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Native plants used in this garden

  • Canyon sunflowers, Venegasia carpesioides (fast to establish, rangy, cheerful)
  • Desert Globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua (growing nonstop since October)
  • Fragrant pitcher sage, Lepechinia fragrans (smells heavenly, grows fast, velvety leaves)
  • Apache plume, Fallugia paradoxa (a shrub with stunning feathery seeds and elegant white flowers)
  • Allen Chickering sage, Salvia ‘Allen Chickering’ (fast-growing, gorgeous purple flower ringlets)
  • White sage, Salvia apiana
  • Chaparral Clarkia, Clarkia affinis (tall hot pink, orange-pink, reddish and white wildflowers)
  • Penstemon (margarita, black, firecracker and many more)
  • Monkey flower, Diplacus aurantiacus
    (yellow, orange, red and variegated)
  • Torrey Pine tree, Pinus torreyana ssp. torreyana
  • California fuchsias, Epilobium canum (red and salmon)
  • Sages (Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii;
    Amethyst Bluff Sage, Salvia leucophylla ‘Amethyst Bluff’ ; and Shirley’s Creeper sage, Salvia ‘Shirley’s Creeper’)
  • Trees (Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia and Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia)
Portrait of Sarah Lariviere at her home in Burbank

Author Sarah Lariviere created a wild low-water oasis in a neighborhood of manicured lawns.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Helpful resources for waterwise gardening