Would Nature Be Better If You Removed Your Front Lawn? Yes, Say the Doebkes.

no thumb


A year ago, Judy and Roger Doebke had 8,000 square feet of lush, green lawn at their home in Carlsbad, California.

That was amid what remains the worst drought in decades, when California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated all households reduce water consumption by 25 percent and offered sizable rebates to tear out turf lawns, a notorious water sink.

The Doebkes said they consumed about 10 times the water of the average California household at the time. Thousands of gallons were devoted to irrigation alone.

But, after monarch enthusiasts Jack and Diane Voelker spoke about the plight of the monarch butterfly at Chautauqua in 2015, the Doebkes realized their lawn had a higher calling.

“We became highly motivated by what we needed to do ourselves to conserve water and what we could do rather than just put in another ornamental garden,” Roger Doebke said.

The Doebkes will explain why they tore out their lawn and how nature is better for it at 4:15 p.m. Monday in Smith Wilkes Hall as part of the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s “Monarch Moment” series.

Judy, an English teacher, and Roger, a real estate developer, had no real gardening knowledge — they just knew they wanted to help the declining monarch population and save some water.

When they decided to up their game with an 8,000-square-foot garden replacement, the Doebkes consulted an expert, and Judy received her California Naturalist Certification to educate herself. Gardens, they learned, can serve as important stops for monarchs, bees and birds as they move up and down the coast to breed.

Chautauqua’s monarch population embarks on a multi-thousand-mile migration to the mountains of central Mexico where they spend the winter. Monarchs on the opposite side of the Rocky Mountains, however, follow a different migration route that spans from roughly Baja California to British Columbia, with monarchs travelling to any number of wintering stations along the West Coast.

For the Doebkes, what was once green turf is now structured as three distinct growing zones comprising more than 1,600 native plants. It was difficult finding native plants in large quantities, let alone mature ones — at first, no plant was larger than a pencil, Roger said. Some species were even planted from seed.

“We depleted some plants entirely from all of the San Diego nurseries,” Roger said. “Just our project.”

That project is separated into coastal, riparian and desert zones to simulate the natural California landscape, with winding paths separating them. Milkweed and nectar plants occupy the central riparian zone, and that’s where butterflies flock. The grasses of other outer zones shelter the riparian from harsh winds, protecting the butterflies as they feed. Judy said she discovered new insects in the garden, and that the bird population is “tremendous.”

“It’s not landscape, it’s habitat,” Roger said.

The best part about the new garden: almost no maintenance required. California native species have deep roots accustomed to searching for water in dry soil, and careful planning means that as one plant dies, another grows up to take its place on a perennial basis. The garden also provides habitat for wildlife that regulates harmful pests and weeds on their own — no chemicals.

“One of the things about this is that you use no herbicides, no pesticides, no fertilizer of any kind,” Judy said. “You just scrape the soil, dig a hole and plant it.”

In fact, if you do choose to fertilize or aggressively pick back the garden, Roger said the plants will suffer. In the case of fertilizer, he said that prioritizes rapid growth over root development, which sacrifices drought resistance, among other qualities.

Now, the Doebkes water roughly once every 10 days, and, as the plants establish themselves, Roger said that could climb to once every 30 days. Those savings mean they now use less water than the average California household, whereas they once consumed 10 times the average.

On top of those savings, their garden was recently recognized by Monarch Watch as a certified monarch waystation site, confirming its proper mix of of milkweed, nectar and shelter to support the monarch’s ongoing lifecycle.

“They found us, and we hope that they’re going to give us a good Yelp rating,” Roger said.

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.