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After the Lawn: Rebate Programs and Costs

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As After the Lawn concludes with this installment, the rebate frenzy described in Part One has only intensified. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California warns of long wait times but also hints that new funds may be coming. Spoiler alert: They will. Buying back lawn irrigation from homeowners is a basic mechanism of western water management. However, unlike seasoned practitioners in long water-strapped states such as Nevada, Southern Californian water companies are relatively new to it. This series was launched expressly to help residents parse the opportunities of cash-for-grass programs while avoiding the pitfalls.

Part Two urged everyone considering taking up grass to study his or her lot closely. As a working sample, a site plan for a 1,200-square-foot Imaginary House on 5,000-square-foot Imaginary Lot was generated. Variations on this schematic became the ongoing prototype for the series. Part Three showed how to keep a lawn and conserve water at the same time. Part Four looked at the major protocols for removing lawn with a special section on removing it under trees. Sheet-mulching proved far and away the best (and most-recommended) of the turf removal methods. Part Five urged readers to go on tours and listed free mulch sources. Part Six rendered a design for a pretty and affordable first-stage lavender rebate garden. The five-year schedule and budget below build on that approach. Part Seven looked at the parkway, that strip between curb and sidewalk, and asked what will its function be going forward? Parts Eight and Nine fast-forwarded the first rebate lavender garden over what, realistically, might take five years to arrive at a fully-fledged rain and grey-water garden. Part Ten then looked at how much planting the combined conservation systems could support. Part Eleven went into the gritty of the latest techniques for bare-root planting. This week, recommendations from each of those installments are plugged into a five-year work sequence and budget.
The final tab: $21,655.

That's a lot of money. The most generous lawn rebates from the City of Los Angeles might cover slightly more than $9,000 of it. Yet, even without rebates, look into it more deeply and investing the twenty grand or so in a new, water-efficient landscape should still save money. Lawn doesn't just drain reservoirs, it also drains wallets. A ten-year update on the ongoing City of Santa Monica landscape study called "Garden/Garden" found that in side-by-side yards on Pearl Street yearly maintenance alone for a small lawn garden ran to a whopping $3,000 whereas the care of a native one next door came in at $800. The thirty grand paid to a mow and blow team over only a decade could send a kid to college. Consider another key saving: The conversion described in this series reduces outdoor water use to close to nothing during rainy season and to a fifth of the previous outdoor rate in dry months. A garden like the one around our Imaginary House should never exceed the cheapest Tier One price structure for water.

And so to numbers. Everything described in this series except greywater has been tested around real L.A. County homes by the writer. No freebies, incentives, or enticements were entertained or accepted. The quotes given reflect current 2015 rates from real world suppliers and a laborer rate that would make Elizabeth Warren purr.

Year One: Tree Care, Lawn-to-Lavender, Partial Rain Garden. Cost $1,695

Of all the budgets given here, only this one has been previously published in Part Six. Here, as a sensibly proportioned first departure from lawn, the Imaginary Homeowners removed 800 square-feet of turf. They sheet-mulched under the canopy line of the jacaranda and across the main southwestern lawn, which, because of the sunny aspect, they planted with a drift of lavender. They further reduced lawn by enlarging a path around the house. Finally, they removed an ugly downspout and replaced it with a rain chain and barrel that allow them to harvest and redirect all the rain from the front roof. Costs: barrel $100, chain $150, foundation hedge removal $200, lavenders $70, weed cloth $75, shaker gravel $50, decomposed granite $150, mulch $200, delivery fees $200, engineer and arborist consultations $500.

Year Two: Orchard, Partial Greywater, Partial Rain Garden. Cost $2,152

The shade map drawn in Part Two showed that the sunniest spot for fruit trees would be along the driveway. So combining the driveway work, laundry greywater, and orchard installation into one work year makes the most sense. This would remove turf along the southerly property line to make way for the trees. Infiltration pits would be cut into the concrete driveway. A greywater system woould be added to the washing machine in the garage. The fruit trees, which would still need irrigating periodically with a garden hose, could then receive run-off from the driveway as well greywater.

The driveway infiltration galleries are worth the time and trouble because they serve more than the orchard. They slow and retain a mass of water that runs fast and hard off paved parts of the property during rain. In all, the plan envisions seven four-inch-wide and eight feet long cross-sections cut from the driveway's concrete. The channels would then be filled with pea gravel. They are pits, yes, but spaced well and filled with good stone, they look good too. The grade should be slanted slightly south so water drains toward the fruit trees.

Estimated labor required to install the infiltration galleries anticipated two people working for one day at $40/hour or a total of $640. Home Depot rents concrete saws for $78 a day and the blade for $49, total $149. This budget presumes disposal of the concrete in municipal trash. Calculating how much pebble fill might be needed involved measuring the total area of the galleries (168 square-feet) and depth (four inches) then consulting a quarry. The landscape materials company Calblend Soils has a conversion chart that recommends for this job two cubic yards of pea gravel at $44 each. Total $88. According to leading greywater installers, parts for a DIY laundry-to-landscape greywater system should run $400. (A professional installer would add another six to eight hundred dollars to the price.)

Removal of the turf should take a half a day at $30/hour and cost $90. The two cubic yards at $20 each for three inches of mulch to surround the fruit trees should cost roughly $40 wholesale (never buy by the bag). The four trees, priced from the mail order supplier Bay Laurel Nursery should cost $25-$30 each, in this case a total $105 for a Red Baron peach on Nemaguard rootstock, a Santa Rosa Plum on Citation rootstock, a Snow Queen nectarine on Nemaguard rootstock, and an Anna apple on M-111 rootstock. Orchardist Kazi Pitelka recommended the rootstocks given for stone fruit here. The apple's M-111 recommendation came from a Bay Laurel supplier, the Dave Wilson Nursery, which is an excellent source on rootstock types and their importance.

Because catching rain is a lot like catching a habit, this budget includes acquisition of two more rain barrels at $70 each, or $140. Then there is a contingency of $500 that covers everything sales tax, material delivery charges, extra labor, tools, hoses and beer.

Year Three: Goodbye Backyard Turf, Hello Patio and Outdoor Shower. Cost $3,516.

By year three, it's time to get rid of the turf in the backyard. The kids don't use it and the dog only wants to go to the park. Of the 810 square feet of grass out there, 270 square feet of it needs to be sheet-mulched and hand dug according to the under-tree protocols set out in Part Four. The rest of the area will be replaced with two inches of gravel topped with three of decomposed granite. To prepare the ground outside the canopy line, hand-chopping the grass, watering, then weeding for a couple of weeks to nab recurring turf should be fine. Then bring the laborers back to level, grade and spread the gravel and decomposed granite. The decomposed granite should be compacted (a handy tool for this is a water-filled lawn roller). Forget the weed cloth barrier this time.

There will be weeds but, if the grass is removed properly, most new weeds will be easily controlled by the occasional pass with with a hoe. As the granite goes down, this budget anticipates a landscape architect visiting to consult on drainage near the house and garage (it should go away from structures and toward the tree or driveway.) Cost $300. It also sets funds aside for an arborist to supervise the start of the work around the root zone ($200). As for the people taking up the grass and putting down mulch and decomposed granite, for the Imaginary Home's small back yard, it should take a team of two no more than two days at $40 an hour each, or cost $1,280.

Material costs include three and a half cubic yards of shaker gravel for $88 and five and a half cubic yards of decomposed granite for $253. The order of five cubic yards of mulch, cost $95, is twice as much as needed for the backyard tree. It's time to replenish the mulch out front too. The edge of the decomposed granite and mulch will benefit from a barrier of some sort. Length: roughly 60 feet around the canopy line to five inches high. Craigslist tends to have paletts of brick for roughly $300.

An outdoor shower is tied into the kitchen supply for $500. If it doesn't cover the cost of the branch drain to the tree, there's a contingency of $500 to cover that, delivery fees, sales tax and beer.

Year Four: A Western Model Rain Garden for the Front. Cost $6,322.

All the Imaginary Couple ever really wanted was a "rain garden." It kills them to see LA's winter rain disappear into storm drains then be flushed out to sea. Because a rain garden involves moving volumes of water over a yard, and volumes of water need to behave or they can become floods, the budget for finally installing a rain garden starts with consultation fees. There's $300 for a site visit from a landscape architect or engineer checking inflow and discharge. There's $200 for a good tree person to consult on work around the roots of the Imaginary House's street-side jacaranda. Because the amateur way to get front roof water to the proposed swale is by draping a hose from a rain barrel across the front door path and potentially tripping someone, another $600 has been reserved for the afore-mentioned engineer or landscape architect to write specifications for the under-path water feed.


Conventional gardens have regimented concrete front paths with all the charm of an army barrack. Breaking up the path allows a rain garden to be designed across the full frontage of the home. A more charming, meandering path can then be run through it. Squiggled drawings for this series showed salvaged concrete from the broken-up concrete used as new pavers. On reflection, that may not be the highest use of the broken concrete slabs fashionably known as "urbanite." This budget envisions the path laid in decomposed granite and the urbanite used to shore up the retaining walls of a rainwater swale.

The digging of a meandering ditch, or swale, creates some interesting topography but the function is to catch and infiltrate rain as it runs off a roof. Because moving water has a habit of picking up dirt, the sides of swales can collapse over time. So reinforcement is needed. The most commonly used material in Southern California is river rock. An artful treatment would also incorporate the urbanite. This budget imagines burying some of the rock and using the urbanite as drystack low walls to give the edges of a shallow ditch the quality of an old foundation emerging from the earth rather than a collection of rocks that have simply been lined up somewhere.

And so again to cost. Removal of the remaining turf and the by-now senescent lavender, busting up of the front walk, sorting of the useable concrete, disposal of the rubble, digging of the swale, shaping of the earth and laying a new decomposed granite path should take two workers three days. This is hard labor budgeted at $60 an hour, a rate that expects them to bring their own jackhammer.

Materials. A meandering path roughly 55-feet-long and four-feet-wide underlaid with two inches of shaker gravel and topped with three inches of decomposed granite will take the following: one and a quarter cubic yards of gravel ($40) and two and a half cubic yards of decomposed granite ($115). As for the swale, two cubic yards, or 6,000 pounds of river rocks combined with the urbanite should do it. Cost? Think $270 for the rock and a Franklin for delivery, or $370. For construction of the swale, if I were the Imaginary Homeowner, I'd be out there building my own great wall of Los Angeles. And I'd have visited these two good drystack web resources first, 1, 2. But let's budget more help: two of the most talented landscape workers you know, one day at $60 per hour each, or $960.

Most gardens are overplanted. The Imaginary Homeowner's place isn't. It's designed to safeguard the health of the two prized jacarandas already there and a few new additions. The new plants include native rush used as a soil stabilizing element in the swale (six Juncus patens 'Elk Blue' at $8 each from the Theodore Payne Foundation, total $48). It adds one coffeeberry or Rhamnus 'Ed Holm' ($10, also from TPF) to overhang the swale and adds a Meyer Lemon ($40 from the San Gabriel Nursery) in a sunny spot near the driveway. A Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman' $9, TPF) will go in nearby to keep bees happy. A big year needs a big contingency to cover delivery fees, tax, tools, incidentals and much beer. Let's call it $750.

Year Five: Curb Cut and Greywater $7,970.

Both of these elements are put at the distant end of the timeline because of a decent likelihood that code and rebates will have been altered by 2020 to A) standardize and B) subsidize them. Next to roof water, street and bath water are the two best low-impact ways to augment standard irrigation. The Delta Reform Act of 2009 expects that Southland water companies will be investing in exactly this kind of work. Here are some estimates to do the work imagined for this series without subsidy: $4,000 for a professionally installed branched drain greywater system from the indoor tub to the front and back yards; $500 for permits; $300 for arborist visits for trenching around trees for the branch drains; $750 for digging the street-side swale, landscape materials to reinforce it and concrete saw rental; $1,000 for protective fencing or grille over the parkway swale; and $420 for decomposed granite, gravel and a half day's labor to install a new street-side access pad next to swale. Because plumbers are involved and surprises could occur once they get under a house, this category calls for a contingency of $1,000.

Before signing off, a couple of observations about the state of watering ordinances and rebate programs at the time of writing in mid May 2015. These kind of initiatives are never perfect, so the need for ongoing tweaks is natural. Since this series began, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power has revised its watering ordinance to limit sprinkler use to two days a week. This ignores a staggering oversight in the writing of the rules in gearing yard irrigation toward turf instead of trees, 60 per cent of which are located in private gardens across Los Angeles, and which require require infrequent, deep watering. Trees represent decades of investment and cool the city. Their care should be the first priority of any watering rules. The current ordinance is deadly for them.

Areas that need attention include a Metropolitan Water District of Southern California policy that only allows customers to apply for rebates once under each product category. This single shot at a turf rebate can rush applicants into terrible choices. The City of Los Angeles has a more sensible "case-by-case" basis approach, which theoretically means that homeowners could tackle their lots gradually and get the swing of lawn-less maintenance before going whole hog. The Metropolitan policy should change.
Digging down into the finer print, LADWP's insistence on weed cloth in rebate gardens is misguided. The barrier always fails and becomes a pervasive soil pollutant. Over at Metropolitan, artificial turf should not qualify for a garden rebate any more than Donald Trump's wig. A no-brainer would be to require rebate gardens to comply with the City of L.A.'s and Santa Monica's Low Impact Development Ordinance specification that the landscape capture the first three quarter inch of any rain event. Given the incredible savings potential, conversion to greywater should also be included by rebates. The present proposal that cities such as Los Angeles waive permit fees is not nearly enough. This is ratepayer money being spent. It should help ratepayers get the most results for their buck.

None of these quibbles argue with the spirit or enormity of the drought relief efforts being made by Metropolitan, the LADWP, the California Department of Water Resources, and the many city agencies whose personnel kindly gave hours of time to informing this series. To all of them, and to the readers, deep thanks.

Follow the entire After the Lawn series:
After the Lawn: Part I
Designing Your New Garden
Caring For Your Turf
How to Remove Your Lawn
Planning Your New Garden
How to Design Your New Garden
Managing the Parkway
Transitioning to an Integrated Rain Garden
Assessing Your Garden's Water Needs
Planting Your New Garden

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