flower bed in a front yard

Front Yards Without Grass: Now What?

By: Steve Hembree
June 4, 2020  | 

Drought. Yep, it's a fact of life, and here in California, regardless of how much rain we get, droughts are inevitably coming back. So, you may be wondering, as you drive around neighborhoods, how to make front yards without grass, and still have them look good.

I don't want grass in the front yard anymore, now what?

I have had a few people ask me the question "I don't want grass in the front yard anymore, now what?" in various forms.

There are a lot of options in going grass-free. However, I guess my first question is...

...why do you want to change it?

Curb appeal means so much, and when considering the question of front yards without grass, you must also carefully consider your alternatives as well. Consideration of curb appeal is true whether discussing your primary residence, or your rental(s). What I mean is, consider the material you wish to replace the grass with, the initial cost (installation and product), the life of the product, as well as the replacement cost.

If you want to lose the grass in your front yard to be a good steward of the environment, that's fine. If it's simply knee-jerk because others are doing it, or regarding cost, for a rental, generally I'd advise against it, and here's why:

Your resident pays the water.
Grass one of the least expensive types of ground cover.
It adds warmth (green, though it is) to the yard.
landscaping

It's Not Your Bill

Just like electrical service, you'd be unwise to pay the water bill on any rental if you can avoid it. Back when I was a renter, I lived in two houses where the owner paid the water, and while I'm not saying that we abused it, but, well....okay, I am saying exactly that. My roomie would run the backwater all day long for no real reason. "I'm trying to drown out the gophers" he'd state when I said something about it. In the other instance, my son's buddy filled up the back of his pickup truck with water. I did too. Tarps seal pickup beds only so much, by the way.

Anyhow, watering the yard is part and parcel of any of our rental agreements. And, by the way, it only costs about $100 to establish an average-sized yard.

What is an average size yard?

The average yard nationally is 8750 square feet. The average home covers 2300 square feet. That leaves 6420 square feet. Take out the driveway and porches, patios, and you're left with about 5800 square feet of yard to care for, on average. More on that later.

Grass is almost Dirt Cheap!

Grass is one of the least expensive types of ground cover, in establishing anyway. Sure, there is water and mowing costs, so over time it is not that cost effective, but if the resident is watering it and mowing it, per their contract, what is your cost? Occasional fertilizing, sprinklers heads, and maybe a timer every five years or less. My timer is 13 years old and still works like a charm.

Warmth

As I mentioned above, though it is green, grass adds warmth, life, as opposed to dead earth. At the end of a long, hard day, it is a pleasure to pull into one's driveway with a green, lush lawn.

Ratting them out

The front yard is a fantastic indicator of other things happening at your rental property. From doing BPO's (bank-owned property inspections) to insurance inspections, in addition to rental property inspections, I can say, confidently, that the interior of a home will mimic that which you see happening at the front yard about 90% of the time. In other words, what you see at the front yard, abuse, lack of care, etc., will pretty accurately indicate interior conditions in most cases. There are exceptions, sure, however, front yards without grass do not give you any clues.

Changing to What?

You have a variety of choices when it comes to front yard landscaping. I had a neighbor in Claremont many years ago, way before the current droughts, who made her front yard a veritable desert garden. This elderly lady was out in the yard every morning, tending it, trimming this, planting that. Not a single blade of grass. She was very proud of it, and it showed. However, it looked like it was: a desert garden.

I also happen to know a property owner who opted to leave the front yard dirt. This owner had a high turnover rate until the current folks moved in. These folks put in grass, and red bark. At their own cost!

There are, like I said, many ways to make nice front yards without grass.  Let's look at a few...

Astro-turf

Astro-turf costs, installed, from $5.50 to $9 per square foot installed. That could run you as much as $22,500! That must be some great turf! You know, I have yet to see a turn yard that did not look like turf, especially as it ages.

Bark

Bark is an okay item, but it is not maintenance-free. You have to put it over weed block fabric, at the very least. Otherwise, you'll be fighting the "Battle O' The Weeds" forever. Also, bark does decompose, and you do have to add bark to make up for it occasionally. The cost is about $2785 for that 2500 average square foot front yard.

Ivy and vine plants

Ivy and Vine plants for front yards without grass is a short-term win, but a long-term loss. There will be maintenance, and, as I see constantly, the plants generally get to the age where they are not very attractive. I'm not even pricing this out.

Rock

Rock, plan on about $2.50 a square foot. We use Gold Rock, not pea gravel, and there is a big difference! Pea gravel will cost you less, but the yard will look sort of like a moonscape. Cold, barren. Cost, $6250. By the way, that is with a thick vinyl liner beneath, and border bumpers. A good combo is to put 65% of your yard in what I just mentioned with a drip system on plants that require very little water. The rest in the grass. With this combination you end up reducing your water bill, you still kept the warmth with 35% being grass and you have kept great curb appeal.

Decomposed Granite

Decomposed granite is usually not done very well in southern California. Arizona, now these folks know how to do it right. Depending on depth, can cost anywhere from $1 to $3.50 per square foot. If the front yard is 2500 square feet, that can cost as much as $8750, installed.

As a homeowner

I have considered all of the above materials for my front yard, although I currently have grass on most of my yard. My yard watering costs me about $15.00 a month, averaged over the year. I spend maybe $30 a year on sprinklers. Gas for mowing? About $1 a week. My mower set is back about $228.

However, knowing the drought is coming back, I do have a plan to change it over, at least to a degree. With my research and practical experience in this, I'd advise keeping at least part of your yard grass. Again, life and warmth.

If replacing any of it with rock, bark, or decomposed granite, DO PLANT SOMETHING in these areas to keep them from looking lifeless. You're right; succulents are a great idea!

Mixing and matching a yard with grass, and alternate covers can give you good curb appeal, and a cost-effective ground cover, all the while saving precious water!

Done smart, front yards without grass, (or with less grass) can look really good!

For more information on Landscaping Your Rental Property, check out this great article.

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