In drought-stricken California, grass is greener on painted lawns
Some people look at a real estate crash and think: doom. Some look at a drought and think: more doom.
But two of the worst calamities to befall California in the last decade have turned out to be very, very good news for Jim Power, a 45-year-old mortgage broker whose business imploded in 2007.
“I was up real late one night watching ‘Nightline,’” he told me, “and there was a story about a guy in New York that was painting lawns, and I said, ‘What a great idea!’”
Soon after, he launched “LawnLift” (Tag line: “It’s like a facelift for your lawn!”). Now he is a leading purveyor of lawn paint for homeowners, hoteliers, wedding planners and others who won’t give up their natural lawns, but can’t bear the look of drought-stricken grass.
When Power started, though, he had no thought for the drought, which was years away. His business was squarely aimed at real estate agents trying to unload foreclosed homes. After foreclosure, banks shut off utilities. Yards wither.
“Curb appeal,” that oft-mocked quality so essential to hooking buyers and maximizing prices, takes a hit.
But now, with California’s dry spell in its fourth year, a business once limited to athletic fields and golf courses is sprouting competitors like dandelions after a hard spring rain.
Swimming pool contractor Kerri McCoy, 51, of Lawn Paint Pros in Thousand Oaks told me she invested $3,000 four years ago in a truck-mounted spraying unit. She says she’s able to paint a 1,000-square-foot lawn in 20 minutes.
Former casino floor manager Dave Bartlett, 36, of Xtreme Green Grass in Sacramento said he is selling partnerships for his 3-year-old lawn-painting business.
Drew McLellan, 30, a barber who started A Lucky Lawn in Long Beach last summer, has been approached by a TV production company about starring with his wife in, yes, a reality show about lawn painters. McLellan said he has offered his services to Gov. Jerry Brown, who recently imposed California’s first mandatory water restrictions, and to Beverly Hills Mayor Julian Gold, whose city has been mocked for its water-wasting ways. (Neither has responded.)
Compared with artificial turf, paint is cheap. It costs about 25 cents per square foot to spray a lawn — $250 for 1,000 square feet. Or you can buy a half gallon of concentrated paint for $80 and apply it yourself.
The competition is trying to do what Power has already done — develop and market their own lawn paint. It is a quest for the perfect shade of green: not too yellow, not too blue.
James Baird, a UC Riverside scientist, is the leading turf expert in the University of California system. He has taken a keen interest in the effect the drought is having on the tamed landscapes that define so much of our state.
He has experimented with lawn paint at his own home, and thinks it’s a pretty good alternative to ripping out grass.
Lawns have become unfairly demonized, he thinks, because people are shockingly ignorant about how to care for them. They plant the wrong kind of grass for their climate, and don’t properly care for it. Automatic sprinkler timers confound them.
“Most homeowners have no clue how to water their lawns,” Baird said.
He is none too happy that people are being offered money by their water companies to rip out lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant plants or artificial turf. The right kind of grass, he said, is “as good or better than the quote unquote California water-friendly plants being touted as water-saving.”
Artificial turf gets up to 180 degrees on the surface on a hot summer day, Baird said, and has to be cooled with water for athletic use.
And here’s something you don’t hear about much these days: Lawns do some good things for the environment. They help reduce the “urban heat load,” sequester carbon dioxide in their roots and help reduce dust.
“The more we take out turf,” Baird said, “the warmer things are going to get.”
On Wednesday, I visited Power in a light industrial park in San Diego’s North County, where he mixes concentrated batches of what he believes (naturally) is the best lawn paint in the business. He uses nontoxic pigment that is similar, he said, to the pigments used in women’s cosmetics. He mixes it with a binder that looks like white Elmer’s glue. The paint, diluted with water before use, does not fade or rub off on clothes. Each application lasts up to three months.
And, I am here to tell you, it looks freakily good.
In fact, when Power sent me to visit one of his customers, Sean McDaniel, in an Escondido subdivision called Hidden Meadows, I thought they were playing a joke on me. McDaniel’s lawn was spectacular.
“I painted the lawn two days ago,” McDaniel said as he stood on his emerald Bermuda grass holding two small poodles.
I kneeled down to get a closer look. From 12 inches away, I could not tell that the blades were painted, but I could see where the paint had adhered to a few small dirt patches. The next-door neighbor’s untreated lawn had a few sparse green blades poking through yellow patches of dead grass. “That’s what mine looked like,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said he considered putting in artificial turf, but was worried about dealing with his homeowners association, as some have opposed it. (But not lawn paint. They seem to love lawn paint.) Since he began painting his lawn in the warm season two years ago, McDaniel said, his monthly water bill has fallen from $100 to $45.
Suburban Californians will alter their lives in a drought. They will take shorter showers, flush less frequently and learn to embrace gray water.
But there are certain things they just won’t tolerate. A yellow lawn is surely one.
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