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Whither the Lawn

Preston Lerner last wrote for the magazine about how film and television are setting design trends.

appening upon Amy and Brad Henderson’s resplendently untamed front yard amid the working-class conformity of Lawndale is as startling as stumbling across a McDonald’s in the middle of a jungle. Or maybe that should be a jungle in the middle of a McDonald’s.

There’s no meticulously maintained rectangle of lawn in this dale, no border of fastidiously trimmed shrubs, no planters full of cheerful flowers and precious ornaments. Instead, there’s a chaotic, writhing, tangled hodgepodge of purple sage, dune buckwheat, coyote bush, needlegrass and dozens of other drought-tolerant native plants, all growing in nature’s version of a rugby scrum. To those accustomed to an orderly, standard-issue grass carpet, the place looks like an overgrown mess. To Brad Henderson, it’s the wilderness reconstituted in the ruthlessly developed heart of the South Bay. “We’re an island in the middle of a totally urbanized environment,” he says.

We’re sitting at a picnic table nestled between a miniature wetlands fashioned from a pond liner and a treehouse straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The Hendersons don’t look like Lawndale Public Enemy Nos. 1 and 2, but that’s what they became after their outlaw yard ran afoul of city code-enforcement officials. Brad is a 34-year-old botanist who works for the state as an environmental specialist. Amy is a 31-year-old environmental biologist. They make an attractive couple, earnestly discussing their devotion to native plants while their cute-as-all-get-out 3-year-old daughter scampers around the yard with three dogs that are bigger than she is. Alongside the sprawling house, originally owned by Brad’s grandfather, is a gigantic, 100% organic vegetable garden. “We don’t use any chemicals,” Amy says.

She pauses when she notices some activity in the wetlands, then jumps up and cries, “A toad! Our first toad of the year!” She rushes over for a closer look. “Ooh, Brad, there are two of them!” While Amy rushes inside to grab a camera, Brad confides, “We had 10,000 toads the first year we put this in.”

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What with all the butterflies, songbirds and, yes, two mating toads , the scene is a National Wildlife Federation fantasy sprung to life. (There’s a Backyard Wildlife Habitat plaque to prove it.) But the Henderson’s yard in Lawndale is more than that. It’s a protest flag flying defiantly over a nation swathed coast to coast in lawns.

for more than a century, american homeowners have been indoctrinated to grow turfgrass, as it’s known in the trade, in one of three regulation colors--green, greener and greenest. Yet the Hendersons and a small group of native-plant advocates are leading what they hope will be an anti-lawn revolution.

Southern California is on the cusp of an epic struggle over the future of the residential lawn. Arrayed on one side are the foot soldiers of the turfgrass industry, from chain nurseries to mow-blow-and-go outfits--130,000 people in California alone. On the other is a tiny coalition of anti-lawn types, most of them environmental activists who say we can’t afford to squander our limited natural resources on endless acres of turfgrass. Caught between these two opposing camps are homeowners who, for the most part, are blissfully unaware that a war is being waged for their hearts and minds.

I know because I’m one of them. A few years back, I put in a lawn of my own. Not because I had a nostalgic longing for the smell of freshly clipped grass or derived any satisfaction from imposing my will on Mother Nature. I lived in apartments until I was 36. No, the reason I installed a lawn was that I wasn’t aware of any reasonable alternatives. That and because, well, installing lawns is what homeowners do.

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Sue me if I sound like an idiot. But there are plenty of homeowners just like me, and I suspect that most of them think this whole anti-lawn thing is willfully perverse, like being against freckles or opposed to digital clocks. Lawns are as American as Mom, baseball and Big Gulps. They look good. They feel good. They have aesthetic, visceral and even medicinal appeal. What’s not to like?

For starters, Brad Henderson tells me, lawns consume vast amounts of water, which is scarce to begin with in perennially parched Southern California, and getting scarcer as newcomers move here by the millions. They require vast amounts of chemicals in the form of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer, which turn them into environmental minefields. They don’t support our native fauna, which leads to a breakdown of the local ecosystem. “A lawn,” Brad says, “is almost completely useless.”

Them’s fighting words around here. We are, after all, in Lawndale. Named by shrewd real-estate developers, Lawndale evokes an image of a suburban utopia where the grass is always greener. The truth, alas, is more prosaic. Overshadowed by sexy beach communities to the west and industrial powerhouses to the east, the city goes unnoticed by the countless commuters who crawl through it every day on the 405. For many years, its claim to fame was the Astroturf that city leaders glued down along Hawthorne Boulevard in 1970 in an inspired, if fabulously misguided, attempt at civic beautification. Monsanto generously contributed a plaque to mark the spot: “World’s First Astro Grass Traffic Median Installation.”

The last of the limp Astroturf--touched up with green paint for L.A.'s Olympic Games in 1984--was yanked out last year, and city officials got lawn religion with the fervor of the newly converted. Two years ago, the Hendersons were cited for an overgrown yard. Brad dutifully buzzed the property with his mower, and the code enforcement people went away. But this past October, the Hendersons were cited again, and his fast-and-dirty clip job led to a second notice threatening legal action. According to city officials, the family was contributing to “blight” and “slum” conditions.

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The Hendersons were dismayed, outraged and, most of all, mystified. Here they were, doing their best to save the planet, and their reward was civic disgrace. That’s what you get for daring to challenge one of the most potent icons of American life. Over the years, plenty of critics have scorned the lawn as wasteful, pointless, boring and just plain dumb, and they’ve suggested replacing it with native plants, meadows, gravel, painted concrete and, yes, Astroturf. With few exceptions, they fought the lawn, and the lawn won.

For better or worse, the lawn continues to resonate with millions of Southern Californians who are happily oblivious to its flaws. Yet with water shortages looming over the region like the villain in a silent movie melodrama, maybe it’s time we posed the question: Whither the lawn? Or better still: Wither the lawn?

American homeowners love to watch grass grow. Lawns blanket roughly 50,000 square miles of the United States--an area the size of Alabama--making turfgrass the nation’s most commonplace crop. And why not? Lawns serve as a moat around our castles, a framework for our shrubs and flower beds, a horizontal plane contrasted against the verticality of our trees. It’s good for playing on--and not playing on, if you just want to chill. It reduces heat, absorbs noise and filters out pollen. (Walt Whitman called it “the handkerchief of the Lord.”) In purely mercenary terms, it enhances curb appeal, which translates into higher property values.

Our attachment to lawns is so enduring that some claim it’s hard-wired into our genetic code. According to this theory, we’re born with a so-called savanna gene, the idea being that homo sapiens are more comfortable amid grassy plains where there are no places for predators to lurk. In one form or another, lawns have been part of the landscape ever since man started congregating in cities. By the Middle Ages, kings and nobles were keeping meadows and tending greens. This wasn’t so much an aesthetic choice as a visual sneer at the hoi polloi. Centuries of lording it over the masses naturally led to lawn envy and, inevitably, a trickle-down effect. By the late 18th century, lawns were a staple of upper-crust French and English estates, and it didn’t take long for an embryonic grass-is-good ethos to make its way to the United States.

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The year 1868 is a landmark in lawn history. Not only were the first American lawnmower patents issued, but Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park, also laid out the first genuine suburban landscape in Riverside, Ill. Two years later came the publication of landscape architect Frank J. Scott’s influential moralistic manifesto, “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent.” “A smooth, closely shaven surface of green is by far the most essential element of beauty” in a front yard, Scott wrote. The lawn, he declared, would henceforth be a tool of unification, enveloping the nation in a great democratizing greensward.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead of democracy, we got a totalitarian monoculture that abhors dissent and diversity. A shoddily maintained lawn is considered not only an eyesore but also a sign of civic irresponsibility that reflects poorly on the entire neighborhood. The appropriate punishment for this crime? Public opprobrium. And if these social pariahs can’t be shamed into cleaning up their act, they can be prosecuted under anti-weed ordinances that have been promulgated in hundreds of cities.

Long before the arrival of European settlers, most of the New World was covered in grassland. But not the right kind of grassland. Our indigenous grasses grew in unruly meadows that clashed with Scott’s vision of rigorously cultivated lawns. Seed for more malleable turfgrass was imported from Europe, Africa and the Middle East, initially to support the nascent golf industry and later for the growing residential market. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the modern lawn really took root, as postwar prosperity coalesced with the rise of suburbia.

The problem with turfgrass, unfortunately, is that it doesn’t belong here. To keep it alive, we subject it to more heroic measures than a guest star on “ER.” Americans spend $1 billion a year on synthetic fertilizers and half again as much on pesticides and herbicides. Nobody knows for sure what effects these chemicals have on the environment. That said, a thorough reading of the myriad warnings contained in the instructions for applying Turflon--commonly used to kill unfashionable Bermuda grass--is enough to make you consider buying a chemical warfare suit. Lawns also contribute indirectly to air pollution. There are more than 1 million lawnmowers in Southern California, and each of them, on average, spews as much pollution in a year as a new car driven 86,000 miles.

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But the biggest knock on lawns, especially in these parts, is that they suck up water at an alarming rate. It’s not uncommon for homeowners in L.A. to dump 65,000 gallons annually on their yards. That’s more than 1 million glasses a year. In coastal areas, families typically devote one-third of their water to irrigating their landscapes. Inland, more water goes to lawns than all other household uses combined.

On a statewide basis, agriculture is by far the biggest water hog, consuming 80% of the water used for non-environmental purposes. Nobody has a hard number for how much water goes to lawn care--certainly no more than 5% statewide. But the percentage may be four or five times higher in urban areas, especially if you include golf courses, parks and other large turfgrass areas.

The numbers game gets more complicated when population growth is factored into the equation. State officials project a scary 50% increase, from 35 million to 53 million residents, during the next 25 years. The Metropolitan Water District already may lose a sizable portion of the water that now comes from the Colorado River. “Southern California is facing the big crunch,” says Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Network. “And I don’t know if there’s going be a place for lawns in this environment.”

Officials at DWP and the state Department of Water Resources insist they’ve got things covered. They say conservation measures will significantly reduce consumption over the next few decades, and there are plenty of sources of untapped supply. Many conservationists disagree. But I sometimes get the impression that this is wishful thinking, that anti-lawn activists are actually hoping for a water shortage because skyrocketing water prices and water rationing may do what all their proselytizing has failed to accomplish--drive a stake through the heart of the lawn. And maybe they’re right. But if the lawn is laid to rest, what on earth will replace it?

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“Who says grass has to be one shade of green? Why can’t it be olive? Or blue? Or purple? Why do we have to have green lawns when we could have pink lawns? Or how about this grass over here? Most people see it as dead, but to me, it’s parchment-colored. Martha Stewart might even call it ‘biscuit.’ You know, brown is a color too. So what’s wrong with brown grass?”

Tossing off sound bites like a riffing rapper, John Greenlee roams through his Greenlee Nursery in Pomona--ground zero for the anti-lawn movement in Southern California. Here and at a second nursery in Malibu, Greenlee grows more than 300 varieties of so-called ornamental grasses. These little-known drought-tolerant alternatives to turfgrasses come in a mind-boggling array of sizes, shapes, textures and, yes, colors. Some of them can be used as a rough substitute for turf, with the accent on rough. But Greenlee’s big thing is creating meadows that celebrate the wild diversity of nature.

Twenty-five years ago, Greenlee graduated from Cal Poly Pomona and started practicing “better gardening through chemistry.” A visit to an alternative nursery in Baltimore cured him of his chemical dependency. “I was a young punk, a plant snob,” he recalls. “I walked into the nursery, and it was full of grass--not turfgrass but grass I had never seen or heard of before. And I was like, ‘How come I didn’t learn about this stuff?’ I felt cheated, like something had been hidden from me. And I thought to myself, ‘This is it! This is the look!’ ”

Greenlee co-designed his first meadow garden in Pasadena in 1984. “We made it look like Pasadena did 300 years ago, which was essentially prairie dotted with oak,” he says. In 1992, he wrote the first authoritative book on ornamental grasses. In 1996, identified as “the Grassman,” he was profiled in The New Yorker. Glib, combative and endlessly entertaining, Greenlee is the Patrick Henry of the natural landscaping movement. Some excerpts from the quotations of Grassman John:

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“Our lawns are like terminally ill patients: As soon as we pull out the IVs, they’ll die.”

“There’s no two ways about it. A good lawn means a bad ecosystem. Period.”

“Lawns are so satisfying because they make you feel like you’re in control of nature. But what you’re really doing is throttling nature.”

“The right plant in the right place makes its own food. It’s called photosynthesis. So why do we feed our lawns?”

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The catch-phrase for holistic, ecologically sensitive approaches to gardening--"natural landscaping"--describes a way to work with nature rather than against it. The philosophy is most clearly seen in organic gardening. Another hallmark of natural landscaping is the use of native plants, which by definition are well-adapted to the local environment and therefore don’t have to be pumped up with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. In rain-challenged regions, natural landscaping manifests itself as xeriscaping, or drought-tolerant landscaping.

Considering the city’s appetite for organic food, you’d think L.A. would be a hotbed of natural landscaping. Think again. The problem is climate rather than culture. Southern California does get rain, but not enough to sustain lawns without aggressive irrigation. On the flip side, the weather is so mild in the winter that there’s no off-season for gardening. “You don’t go to other parts of the country and see green grass 12 months a year the way you do here,” says Carol Bornstein, director of horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

If you want all green all the time, turfgrass is the only way to go. But if you can put up with lawns of a different color, Greenlee has got a deal for you. His Bluelight Special is something called sedge, which isn’t actually grass at all but a species called Carex. Sedge comes in a slew of varieties--clumping, mounding, creeping, you name it. And while none of them are uniform enough to serve as, say, a fairway at Riviera Country Club, they might work in a front yard.

“Ornamental grasses have come a long, long way. We’re where recycling was 10 years ago,” Greenlee says. “I never set out to be ‘the Grassman.’ But I’m going to ride that wave ‘til it breaks.” He laughs suddenly. “And if you hear about me dying in a single-car accident like Karen Silkwood, look to see if there’s a piece of sod lying around nearby.”

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The drive south along Las Posas road through Camarillo cuts through acre upon fertile acre planted in vegetables, fruits and flowers. Then, suddenly, the crops give way to a colossal green swath that looks like a football gridiron fashioned for giants. The apparent yard markers, it turns out, are spindly irrigation pipes that divide the field into plots 35 feet wide by 2,000 feet long. Each plot is blanketed by turfgrass, forming a green canvas stretching as far as the eye can see.

Farms such as Pacific Sod’s 500-acre spread are the factories of the turfgrass industry. The principal raw materials are water and seed, which comes almost exclusively from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But turfgrass is “manufactured” on farms where it’s cultivated to grow from seed to market in as little as 3 1/2 months. Sod is harvested by tractors whose blades slice it into 2-inch-deep slabs measuring 15 inches by 48 inches. These slabs are ferried by conveyor belts to workers who stack them like boxes of pizza. A three-man crew can collect 30 pallets, or 15,000 square feet, of sod, in an hour. In eight hours, the crew could collect enough to cover an entire Major League Baseball field.

The modern lawn paradigm rests on a foundation of sod, which is laid on prepared soil like tiles on a countertop. The postwar development of high-quality sod and affordable power mowers inspired a we-want-it-now garden ethic that resonated perfectly with the rise of fast food. (Coincidentally, critics call cookie-cutter yards McLawns.) To anybody who has agonized while waiting for seed to grow--or not grow, as the case may be--sod is every bit as miraculous as an immaculate conception. “You go from bare dirt to green grass in one day,” says Earl Slack, Pacific Sod’s senior vice president of farming operations. “It’s instant gratification.”

Slack is no less earnest than Brad and Amy Henderson. A past president of Turfgrass Producers International, the industry’s leading trade group, Slack insists that lawns are actually good for the environment, and he’s got some hard research to back him up. At UC Riverside, environmental horticulturist Vic Gibeault has studied the charge that chemical additives used on lawns seep through the soil into the aquifer. “The turfgrass root system is so fibrous and dense and the organisms in the plant system are so rich that nothing gets through,” he says. “Everything is gobbled up.”

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Gibeault--whom Greenlee calls “the Bermuda man"--says work is being done to produce new strains of heartier Bermuda grass that will stay green year-round with less water than the thirstier tall fescue that predominates in Southern California. He’s also high on new weather-sensitive sprinkler systems that water automatically based on sensors in the soil or radio signals from a central location. Anecdotal evidence suggests that efficient irrigation could cut water usage in half. “The problem is the person at the end of the sprinkler valve,” Gibeault says. In other words, lawns don’t waste water; people waste water.

To Gibeault and Slack, turfgrass is both business and pleasure. “I tell people I’ve got the best job in the world,” Slack says, running his hands over a lush piece of freshly cut sod. “I produce something that people really enjoy. They enjoy looking at it. They enjoy walking on it. They enjoy playing on it. They enjoy the sense of having grown it. I’m just like everybody else. Even though I [oversee] 500 acres a week, I like to take care of my own yard on the weekend.”

So how did Amy and Brad Henderson’s run-in with the lawn police play out? As it happens, natural landscapers have been successfully defying anti-weed ordinances ever since a Wisconsin case decided the matter in 1976. Shortly after the Hendersons hooked up with an attorney, Lawndale officials backed off. What’s more, they were able to use their notoriety to spread the native-plant gospel. At the moment, in fact, Amy is giving neighbors a tour of the property.

Meanwhile, Brad and I kneel down to examine clumps of ground cover. Weeds, most people would call them. But some, he points out, can be eaten, and others can be used for medicinal purposes. They all have their place in the ecosystem. I can appreciate that now, just as I can appreciate the unorthodox appeal of the yard around me. But I’m also keenly aware of a startling number of bugs. I know they’re the reason why there are so many songbirds and butterflies nearby--see “Food Chain 101"--but I can’t help thinking that you can go too far with all this nature stuff. Bubonic plague is natural. Getting munched by mountain lions is natural. A San Fernando Valley summer without air conditioning is natural. Right? Call me an effete, unevolved weenie, but just because it’s natural doesn’t make it good.

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Granted, traditional lawns guzzle water and chemicals like sponges. But there’s still something curiously satisfying about that cool, plush organic carpet, greener than it has any right to be no matter how hot or cold or dry the weather. “It’s just habit,” Brad Henderson insists, shaking his head. “It’s nothing more than what we’re accustomed to. I honestly think we’re going to replace the turfgrass lawn with a new paradigm of beauty.”

He may be onto something, but I’m not holding my breath. For most people, planting or not planting a lawn isn’t about what’s good for the environment. It’s about fashion--what we think looks good, like the sport-utility vehicles that Americans have been buying in record numbers even though SUVs are overpriced, wasteful, dangerous and poorly designed for the tasks they perform. But sport-utes make people feel good. And why do they make people feel good? Mostly because they’re fashionable.

Look for lawns to shrink in the coming decades, but don’t expect them to disappear. They may not make much sense, but then, neither does most fashion.


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