The lawn haul

It’s not quite cash-for-grass, but locals have some incentive to be water-wise

Randy Niederberger stands in his backyard, for which he won a 2008 Water-Efficient Landscape Award. Applications for 2009 are due in September.

Randy Niederberger stands in his backyard, for which he won a 2008 Water-Efficient Landscape Award. Applications for 2009 are due in September.

Deadline for entries to this year’s Water-Efficient Landscape Awards is Sept. 11. Entries are evaluated on aesthetics, efficient irrigation, plant selection and mulches. For more information or to apply, visit, or call 829-2810.

In an effort to encourage residents to reduce their water use, some cities offer them money to rip out their lawns. Typically these “cash for grass” programs, like those found in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, offer between $1 and $2 per square foot of disappeared sod.

The Truckee Meadows has no such program. A spokesperson for the Truckee Meadows Water Authority says that’s largely because a funding source is needed. “Some communities may have developers pay for programs, and others may increase customer rates to cover program costs,” states a TMWA topic paper. The water authority doesn’t want to do either.

What it does offer is the Water-Efficient Landscape Awards, which started in 2005. The awards will distribute $3,000 among first-, second- and third-place winners in two categories: design by homeowner, and design by professional. The deadline to apply for this year’s contest is Sept. 11.

Randy and Petra Niederberger were the 2008 winners for design by homeowner. When they moved into their Spanish Springs home 11 years ago, the third of an acre surrounding it held patches of grass and a field of barren dirt. When they first started shoveling out sod in their front yard, a neighbor asked incredulously, “You mean it’s just going to be dirt?”

Not quite. Now, it looks like a desert park, with paths covered with decomposed granite that curve around sagebrush, flowering cacti, yarrow, black-eyed susan, and soap root yucca dangling with white flowers. Nothing is planted in a straight line.

“We wanted it to look like what we walk in,” says Randy, referring to nearby desert trails. “We’re big hikers.”

He says it took between $3,000 to $5,000 over the course of five years—and many weekends of shoveling soil, creating berms, installing irrigation pipes, weeding and planting—to create their garden. It’s paid off, not only with the landscape award—$500 from a nursery and $500 from a landscape company—but also in the peaceful environment they’ve created.

“Growing up in Northern Nevada, I called this a garden,” he says, nodding toward a small vegetable patch budding with eggplants, green beans, tomatoes and squash. But while visiting Petra’s family in Germany, he saw how they viewed a “garden” as the whole landscape.

Their water bill, which is based on the yearly average system, is $44 a month. Berms and pipes help the yard retain water and divert it to where it’s most needed. “One of the big goals here was to keep that water base and keep rainwater in the yard,” says Randy.

The Niederbergers also say what is rarely uttered in xeriscape circles: “It’s much easier to take care of grass,” says Petra. “Water lines break, or the berms break down, or the DG erodes over time. It’s constant work. It’s very rewarding, but if you want an easy yard, you don’t want to do this.”

On the other hand, the Niederbergers are a good example of what can be done given enough time and effort. “We keep making changes every year,” says Petra. “Most people don’t have patience for that.” Many would rather hire a landscaper and have it looking pretty, fast. But she says it’s also like raising a family. “They start small,” she says of the plants. “Now they’re teenagers. I hope they never leave the house.”