Home & Garden

Public Enemy No. 1? The great grass debate

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It's just grass, but don't tell Sheldon Lodmer, for whom the sight of a well-kept lawn borders on the transcendental. "It's very peaceful. It reminds me of openness and cleanness," says Lodmer, whose home in the hills above Malibu's Zuma Beach is fronted by an expanse of fescue roomy enough to field an NFL scrimmage. "There's just something about the look. It's very calming," says his wife Emily, gazing out from a second-floor window framing patches of brown rolling hills that lie beyond.

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.

The year's record low rainfall, however, may change all that. As the debate builds over the future of the lawn in Southern California, landscaping and horticulture experts say more homeowners are breaking away from water-gobbling turf and replacing the requisite emerald carpet with cactus, native plant collections, synthetic turf or rock gardens. The frontyard of one home in Woodland Hills is filled with decorative wood chips.

"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."

For skeptical environmentalists who happen to be sports fans, he offers another comparison: the stadium outfitted with synthetic turf.

"Now tell me," he says, "which is a better carbon footprint: a lawn we're watering or a $250-million space that we're air conditioning?"

For many of us, grass was our first stage on the world outside, the surface of our youth, and the associations run deep. Emily Lodmer remembers her son squirting down the Slip 'n Slide and the party in the frontyard for her daughter when she went away to graduate school. Unlike the travails that play out in our indoor lives, turf is a reminder of unburdened days in the sun.

"Those are the wings right there," Fran Arrowsmith says, pointing to the see-through propellers of a blue darner in a photo from her garden album. The dragonfly is one of many visitors she and husband Bill have welcomed to their Torrance backyard since they dug up half the lawn and turned it into an 1,100-square-foot native plant gallery. Flame skimmer dragonflies, western tiger swallowtail butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and an aviary of winged drop-ins are regulars now but weren't when the yard was all grass.

With a wending dirt trail and artfully arranged blooms wrapping around it, the garden looks like a scenic nature trail. In fact, it does get tours, conducted by the California Native Plant Society.

A bright sun beats down as Bill and Fran detail the local color -- pinkish-red buckwheat, purple salvia and yellow-clustered mallow, among 100-plus plants in the collection. The salvia gets watered once a month; the lupine and mallow haven't needed a drink since April.

"It just killed us to be watering all the time," says Bill, a retired TRW engineer like Fran. "Our primary reason for the garden was environmental."

Adds Fran: "The water situation is only going to get worse. You look at the lowering of the reservoirs -- Mead, Powell -- we're going to be in real trouble."

Active in the campaign to preserve Madrona Marsh in Torrance, the Arrowsmiths decided to take their environmental work to their own backyard. They immersed themselves in native plant courses and, with the direction of natural landscape designer Tony Baker, had most of their garden planted in two days.

The resulting profusion of greens and wildflower hues enhanced -- not sacrificed -- the garden's color. They're so happy with the results, they're going to replace the turf in the frontyard.

"It's not a choice between a green lawn and ugly cactus," Bill says.

The rich palette of native plants makes for the most competitive alternative yet to the classic lawn, and some communities are paying attention. The city of Palm Desert is encouraging a mix of natives with gravel and rocks to combat "nuisance" runoff.

It has a pilot program to replace grass with desert plants, remove sod within 24 inches of the sidewalk or street, and install subterranean irrigation.

"Overhead sprinklers cover more ground than they're designed for," says Spencer Knight, landscape manager for the city. "So we have water running down gutters that should be bone dry this time of year. It's 112 out there."

Lawn care executive John Marshall blames faulty irrigation and broken sprinklers -- "lawn geysers" -- as the culprit in runoff. "Turf areas are very good at collecting water, filtering water and holding it in place," says Marshall, who's in charge of training at Scotts Miracle-Gro, a $2.7-billion lawn-care company in Marysville, Ohio.

His keys to cutting landscape water consumption: better-informed sprinkler users and systems working properly.

Another factor that could cut water usage is, oddly enough, the backlash against lawn chemicals, which is driving demand for organic fertilizers, soil nutrients and other products. Scotts' own organic line, launched in 2003, is booming.

Andy Lopez, a landscaping entrepreneur in Malibu, converted the Lodmers' lawn to organic care and cut its water needs by half, he says.

"There are lots of benefits from an organic lawn," he says, "but there are no advantages to a chemical lawn."

For its part, the conventional lawn-care business counters that organic fertilizers aren't free of risks. If washed onto pavement, these nutrients flow into storm drains and may find their way into rivers and lakes, according to the industry group Planet, the Professional Landcare Network. The group also says organic pesticide techniques are ineffective.

But Tukey, a "self-confessed lawn junkie," became a leader in organic lawn care after he got seriously ill working with lawn chemicals. He formed the organization SafeLawns.org to promote organically managed lawns, and today he and other advocates say organic lawns use one-third to one-half less water by feeding the soil, not the grass, as chemical products do.

"Soccer moms don't want their kids rolling around on toxic lawns," Tukey says. "These pesticides and weed killers are toxic to children. No one argues that."

THE Great American Lawn has come under scrutiny during other droughts, only to assume its place at the head of the porch when rainfall picks up again. But with reservoirs falling and green consciousness rising, the public debate might finally be shifting for good.

"Maybe we ought to be going for a new aesthetic," says the Huntington's Folsom. "Maybe you go to something that's more layered."

Lance Walheim, a California horticulturist and author of "Lawn Care for Dummies," sees change ahead too.

"For a long time we've known we have too much lawn," he says. He envisions a future with smaller lawns, more buffalo grasses and other varieties that suck up less water, as well as better use of sprinkler timers.

Finding a more sustainable landscape may also take the realization that the lawns where we played whiffle ball and dove into plastic pools are empty these days, that kids are lost in video games and MySpace, that parents are locked in workweeks without end. We're not in lawn Kansas anymore.

As turf fan Tukey puts it, "If the only time you see your lawn is on top of a mower, isn't there something better to be done with a lawn?"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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