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The wrong garden in Garden Grove

Bless her, Jean Orban was only trying to be a good neighbor and a good citizen.

The vivid green grass in front of her pretty ranch house in Garden Grove? It was fake. Big deal.

Fake meant that her husband didn’t have to mow it. Fake meant they didn’t have to pay for the water to keep it as green as Oz.

So how was she to know that artificial grass was banned in Garden Grove?

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This story starts out like one of those plucky little guy versus city hall tales we news folk love. Orban is a child of the Depression, and to that generation, waste is tantamount to sin. “Our governor says we need to save water,” she told The Times fervently.

After she installed her artificial lawn, she duly filed for a $300 rebate from the Orange County Municipal Water District, which offers the dough to the civic-minded because artificial lawns save cascades of water.

That’s how she found that, water district be damned, Garden Grove had banned fake grass since 1991. So do four other O.C. cities. Orban not only wouldn’t be getting her rebate, she might have to pay a fine for her fake greensward.

Now, this is the point in the dramatic arc of heartwarming news stories where the city is supposed to apologize to Orban. Garden Grove and those other cities are rethinking their bans, given the drought. And the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 17 million people in Southern California (a lot of them in L.A.) is offering a bounty of 30 cents a square foot for putting in fake grass for apartment complexes and street medians. So surely, the story would go, the city fathers and mothers would be planning a photo op with Orban on her green plastic lawn, everybody grinning and gripping a great big cardboard check for that $300 rebate.

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That may yet happen. But it shouldn’t. The cities shouldn’t rethink their fake-turf bans, and the MWD should rethink its bounty. Artificial grass solves one problem -- wasting water -- but it creates a different one.

Cities are already miserable hot spots. Every inch that we pave over, even with plastic grass, creates a patch of unnatural heat. The virtue of a grass lawn -- however thirsty -- is that it is a living system that helps the land keep its cool. It also allows what rain we do get to make its way into the soil, and the water table, not into the storm drains.

Stuart Gaffin makes a study of “urban heat islands” at the best place in the country to do it -- New York City. He’s an associate research scientist at Columbia University. He’s studied the fake turf on playing fields, and when the air temperature hits 80 degrees, it can be 160 or 170 degrees on the turf. Even when it’s only 50 degrees out, direct sun can heat fake grass to 150 degrees. Sounds like you might as well tell your kids to go outside and play on a griddle.

“I don’t see why a suburban homeowner would like [it] around their house,” he told me. “You’re essentially putting a parking lot around your house.” And some of what you save in water costs, you may wind up paying in the air-conditioning bill to cool your place down from the heat generated by the fake grass.

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At best, plastic lawns add up to a little something gained here, a little bit lost there. Why not make a real trade-off, a big one? Why not go native? Declare that brown is the new green.

This is California. Brown is one of our seasons. The sere, fallow contrast of high summer and fall, against the lavish recompense of early rain and spring.

In the autumn of 1907, a New York reporter journeyed west to visit the renowned California poet Joaquin Miller. Together, they gazed out over the bare hills surrounding San Francisco Bay. “I am very fond of this brown period,” Miller remarked, “and the brown hills, my ‘tawny lions,’ as I call them.”

Let’s embrace the brown.

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As Garden Grove rethinks its artificial-grass ban, I suggest that it set an example by taking another look at its ban on what the city’s Planning Services manager, Karl Hill, kindly detailed for me: the “use of rocks, pebbles, redwood chips, and stones ... in lieu of live plant material.”

There are handsome gardens made of rocks, pebbles, redwood chips and stones, and of year-round drought-tolerant plants (some of which are sturdily, durably green). Orban’s house could turn into the model home for the rest of us.

But she’ll need some company. After I checked out her place on Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, I took a gander at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home in Brentwood: Lotta green grass there -- and I don’t think it’s fake -- too much for a governor who is reminding all of us to save water.

Governor, convince us all that going green really means going brown. Lead by example, posing with the first lady as “California Gothic” -- smiling, not stern, holding a California native plant seedling, in front of your grass-free, beautifully xeriscaped Haus Schwarzenegger.

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patt.morrison@latimes.com


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