Replacing Your Lawn: Planning + Design

Natalie Whearley

Natalie Whearley

If you have taken a stroll around almost any Redwood City neighborhood this summer, no doubt you’ve seen brown or even completely dead lawns. There are plenty of ways to save water and keep your lawn going in hopes that we see more rain in the coming year.

However, with the ongoing drought and the city’s restrictions to cut water consumption, many people have or may be considering how to replace their lawn with drought-tolerant plants. (And if you’re on the fence, Redwood City is offering residents $1 rebate per square foot of lawn replaced.) If you’re ready to take the leap, keep reading for our guide to redesigning your front yard.


Hire a Professional Landscape Designer

Landscape designers have in-depth knowledge with a range of hardscapes, plants, and irrigation systems. Many also specialize in native gardens and have experience replacing lawns. Typical rates for landscape designers run $75-125/hour and an average front yard design could cost between $1000-$2500. If you’re on a tight budget, you may consider hiring a student in a horticulture or landscape design program. Foothill College has an excellent program and advertises jobs to students.


Do It Yourself

If you’re ready to dig into a DIY project, designing your front yard can be both fun and rewarding.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Measuring tape
  • Ruler or architect’s scale
  • Large sheets of paper (Gridded is helpful)
  • Trace paper
  • Compass (there’s one on your iPhone :)

1. Gather Inspiration

A good place to start is with photos of gardens that you like. Walk around your neighborhood and snap some shots if you see a design or plant that you love. Browse around Pinterest and Houzz to gather more inspiration. Notice what you like about different gardens. Is it the curving pathways? The billowing grass? A flowering tree? Print everything out so you can pull from different images when you start designing.  

Judith Carlson via Pacific Horticulture Society . This yard features a dry creek bed, Purple garden penstemons (penstemon hybrids) and Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos 'Big Red')

Judith Carlson via Pacific Horticulture Society. This yard features a dry creek bed, Purple garden penstemons (penstemon hybrids) and Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos 'Big Red')

2. Create a Base Map

Next you’ll want to create a base map that you can use to start designing your new yard. Start by measuring out the entire area. Measure out the footprint of your house and be sure to include windows and doors (you don’t want to plant a something large right in front your door!)  If you have a survey of your house, that can be helpful to see where the property lines are. If you’re using graph paper or an architect’s scale, drawing at ¼” or ⅛” per foot usually works pretty well.

On your base map you’ll also want to include a north arrow, any hardscapes including paths and fences, hoses, downspouts, and utility lines. Next draw in the plants that you are planning on keeping in your new design. When you draw them, you’ll want to draw them at the size of their canopy, so if you have a tree in your yard that has a 12” trunk and a 6’ canopy, draw a circle that represents the entire canopy. Leave out anything that you’re planning on getting rid of including hardscape and plants.


3. Site Analysis and Concept

Here is where your trace paper comes in. Lay it over your base map and start sketching out some conceptual designs and jot down notes of what you’d like to see in different areas. For example, you may want a trellis over the garage or colorful plants near your windows. Consider sun/shade patterns throughout the day, important views, and logical paths to get to plants and gates. Don’t worry about how anything looks. At this point, you want to get your ideas down on paper. Get a feel for what you want your yard to look like, as well as the design constraints you’re working with.


Christina Fluegge via Greige Design . This garden features native grasses and Russian Sage.

Christina Fluegge via Greige Design. This garden features native grasses and Russian Sage.

4. Pick a Palette and Start Designing

Now that you have a clearer vision for your new yard, it’s time to pick out what plants will fill your design. (You can do this after you create a design, it can help to have images of what you want before designing.) Use the climate zone to help guide your selection. (Redwood CIty is in Sunset Climate Zone 16.) If you’re participating in the rebate program, you’ll need to choose plants from the BAWSCA Approved Plant List.

Think about creating year round interest in your yard -- which plants will stay green all year, which ones will drop their leaves, and when different plants will bloom.

The structure of your design is going to come from a combination of hardscape and other permanent fixtures in your hard. Think about hardscape that is attractive and functional including pathways, fencing, mounds. Or it could be structural permanent trees, shrubs, privacy screens, boulders, or even a dry creek bed.

Next, fill in your yard with beautiful perennials. It’s easy to get overwhelmed here, but start with just one area at a time. Keep plants low near walkways, avoid planting in straight lines for a more natural look, and mass groupings of the same plant together for visual impact.

Next, if you have space between your plantings consider filling them in with a low groundcover. Finally, add in some accent points whether that’s a row of beautiful flowers along a pathway or a garden statue that you love.

Referring back to your inspiration photos and conceptual sketches, sketch out a few different ideas and see what resonates with you. If you’re having trouble visualizing what things might look like, it can help to get hands on and use a garden hose or some rope to outline pathways and different areas of interest. Once you land on something that you love, it’s time to start with installation!

Have you replaced your lawn or are designing a new garden? We’d love to see photos! Tag us on Instagram or Twitter @thefrontporchrwc.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on installing a water-wise garden to replace your lawn.