Brown, of course, is the normal shade of topography throughout the desert that is Southern California, but it's a hue that most people consider unthinkable for the yard. A garden means the green, green grass of home, for crying out loud. It's a feeling hard-wired into the Miracle-Gro souls of America.
"Brown is beautiful, especially during a drought," says Susan Tellem, who ripped out her lawn just a few blocks away from the Lodmers and left the rest to nature. Standing in an accidental landscape of fallen leaves, dirt and the odd cactus and succulent, she calls homes that install monster amounts of sod "a travesty."
"These lawns suck up tremendous amounts of water to keep them green," she says. "Even more moronic are the rich and not-so-rich homeowners here who allow their gardeners to fertilize and mulch those damn lawns while they water the streets and driveways, causing tremendous runoff of toxic chemicals."
Interest in drought-tolerant landscapes has "increased greatly, particularly in the last year," says Barbara Eisenstein, horticulture outreach coordinator for the Native Plant Garden Hotline, a collaboration between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. The hotline provides expertise on sustainable gardens and helps homeowners reduce the amount of water and maintenance their yards require -- often by removing lawns.
About a third of all residential water use in the nation -- about 7.8 billion gallons of water annually -- goes to outdoor landscaping, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In Southern California, the average family uses 500 gallons of water every day, one-third of which flows outside, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. That's about 60,000 gallons a year per household, just for lawn and other landscaping.
Some parts of parched San Bernardino County have started mandating less turf. In Victorville, lawns for new homes can't take up more than 10% of the property. The Victor Valley Water District has a "cash for grass" program, offering 40 cents per square foot of lawn converted to a desert landscape. Last month, Hesperia also began to restrict lawn size of new homes to a maximum of 20% of frontyard space.
But any reexamination of lawn digs up more than entrenched Bermuda. It reveals the extent to which this iconic garden feature has enamored a culture and permeated our suburban identity.
Walter Hrubesky tried to kick the turf habit. Concerned about water usage, he planted succulents and cactuses in his Van Nuys frontyard, but the desert vista left him cold. "I didn't like the looks of it, and I didn't like going out in it," the retiree says.
So he switched back to grass. Now his two grandkids run back and forth, fall on the lawn and love it. They wouldn't be able to do that with succulents, he points out. Although Hrubesky feels guilty about watering his lawn, he says adamantly, "I'm not giving it up."
LAWN, some researchers suggest, is more than a custom. They say humans are drawn to open, lush landscapes for safety and survival. Lawns represent an oasis, albeit a denaturalized one, according to Paul Faulstich, who teaches environmental studies at Pitzer College in Claremont. He has written that "lawns represent the metaphorical waterhole in the parched savanna."
Lawns also tap primal notions of natural beauty. "People want to rationalize the landscape," says Jim Folsom, director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino. "The hauntingly beautiful vista or the garden of paradise is always a place where you have this rich texture surrounding you, but in it is an opening of Shakespearean glade. There is something in our aesthetic that is pleased by these clearings. A lawn fits into that. It gives us this smooth, contemplative, quiet surface."
The color of turf is part of the attraction, beckoning us to the oasis on our doorsteps. Green is a symbol of life and park-like calm; in color psychology, green represents balance and stability.
"For men, especially, the color green provides a deep sense of comfort," says "The Organic Lawn Care Manual" author Paul Tukey. "The color green is serene. It lowers everybody's pulse."
The all-American lawn hails from waterlogged England and isn't a natural fit for the climate extremes of the U.S. It took the advent of grass hybrids and a concerted campaign by the Garden Club of America starting in the 1930s to sell the lawn as a badge of suburban affluence, a civic duty of sorts. By the '50s the social norm of the lawn was fully entrenched.
Lawns wouldn't have stuck around, though, if they didn't serve practical needs. Turf extends the living area outdoors. It stabilizes the soil and keeps down dust and mud. It's cooling in the summer. You want to walk on it, barbecue near it, cartwheel over it.
"There is nothing like the lawn for gathering, for play," Folsom says. "You can get playgrounds where they've got those rubber chips, where they've got sand, but none of those has the quality of a lawn.
"If you're living in Southern California and you're putting all that water into a lawn, what you're investing in is a wonderful open surface for activity, for enjoyment."