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March 10, 2010

Are big suburban lawns becoming un-PC in California? Is that such a bad thing?

My main memory of a Palm Springs weekend was driving through a ritzy neighborhood, and seeing through homes' gates big stretches of green lawns—and thinking how unreal that green glowed—like a mold from outer space—against the desert landscape.

We don’t live in a desert. Our climate is described as Mediterranean, but do big green lawns around houses belong here, any more than they do in Palm Springs? They have become fixtures of our suburbs, but should they be? Is it time to rethink this popular landscaping strategy, especially for bigger homes on large lots, given our climate and California’s ongoing concerns about water supplies?

That’s the question asked by the KQED radio show Quest the other morning, which you can listen to here. The show begins by pointing out that the series of storms this past winter have alleviated our immediate concerns about drought. However, those storms haven’t relieved Californians of still worrying about how and where our growing population will get water to keep our yards green, our pools filled, our farms irrigated.

Our yards consume more than half of all household water use in the state, and lawns, especially those planted with the popular Kentucky Blue Grass, are especially water intensive, according to Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland.

To cut down on household water use, the state in January instituted new water restrictions on landscaping. Municipalities around the state are deciding whether to use these base state guidelines to impose water conversation measures on property owners—or to adopt their own, more stricter guidelines on water use.

These restrictions raise the question: “Wither the lawn?”

Gleick said changing social norms and heightened environmental concerns will likely make Californians more interested in asking why we started to plant lawns around our homes in the first place. He said East Coast immigrants to California in the 19th and 20th centuries were enamored of the big green lands surrounding country manors in Great Britain. They transplanted that idea of the big green lawn as status symbol to California, regardless of whether big green lawns were suitable to our drier climate.

Gleick wonders if that symbol is losing some of its status as the practice of "green" and eco-friendly life-style practices is becoming the new fashion, the new status symbol.

He compares the desire for big green lawns to smoking on airplanes, and suggests that one day “we’ll look back on lawns as anachronisms"-- as one of those things we'd be amazed that we ever did.

For more information about the state's new water restrictions, read Quest reporter Katharine Mieszkowski's blog on "Putting Landscaping on a (Water) Budget." She basically explains that a developer in California, who plans a new commercial or residential property that has at least 2500 square feet of yard and garden, must tailor the plantings to conform to the amount of water the state deems sufficient for that site.

Existing landscapes, she adds, won't be impacted by these new rules. "But homeowners might wonder how their own landscaping would stack up if their properties were being built today," she says. "In other words, is your yard a dated relic of California's water guzzling past, or, an exemplar of the drought-tolerant future that the state's trying to nudge us all towards?"

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

SM, you might want to proofread your title.

As for the article, I think a patch of lawn is nice for kids to play on but otherwise I prefer attractive, natural looking landscaping.

Anonymous said...

I don't think, by the way, this is a new issue. The watering-lawn controversy has been around for years, through several droughts, and numermous East Bay MUD attempts to reward low water users. Some might say EBMUD bungles. . .
But always worth a good discussion, as central CCC is one of the Bay Area's hugest water hogs.

Anonymous said...

my own quick scribbling just now could have used some editing --

AKA Soccer Mom said...

OK, hoped I fixed the headline. And some other little things. Thanks for pointing this out...

Anonymous said...

I've been in some brand new buildings recently and the don't have waterless urinals. The technology is their to reduce water usage.

He we go, let's get after the home owner, same tactic as no burn days.

I'll re-landscape, sure, send me a stimulus check!

Huston Meadows Neighbor said...

Our house has been lawn-free since it was built in 1986. About 60% native plants that require no water They are natives and they know how to live here.

Our water bill is negligible, a joke. The neighbors have been converting gradually as well. Then they don't have to worry about skunks and racoons going after tasty grubs under their turf.

Once we started putting in native plants, birds brought seeds from other natives and planted them. We have one oak tree about 20 feet tall now and several not far behind. Our bird list now includes about 50 species.

Anonymous said...

Huston Meadows, that sounds awesome. If people are interested, check out bringingbackthenatives.net for info about an upcoming East Bay tour of native gardens.

Anonymous said...

Currently we don't have a lawn, just wood chips. But we discovered a well in our yard and will have a lawn in by summer.

Anonymous said...

Unless you have young kids, I think a lawn is kind of a waste of time and money.

The drought-tolerant plants sound like the way to go. I love Huston Meadows' description of success with plants and how it's attracted the birds.

I've noted that some folks in really dry parts of the country tear out their lawn and put in gravel or some-such material instead but in reality that only makes things worse, because of the heat that generates, to the detriment of themselves and the environment.

Yay for the drought-tolerant plants!

Anonymous said...

For some time now, many people have been advocating converting lawns into edible landscapes. There is nothing like growing your own food. Obviously, productive gardens require water and this is where grey water systems and rain barrels come in. For me, the big advantage of living in the suburbs during hard times is having a little land to work. If I am not mistaken, the only part of WC that allows chickens too is Saranap. Is this correct?

Anonymous said...

I know it's smart to have native plants that don't soak up the water -- we've been considering it for the last couple of years -- but there just isn't anything like beautiful rolling green lawns.

We visited Washingon D.C. this past summer and drove around the surrounding areas in Virginia and Maryland....gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

8:16 am

Yes, it is beautiful all along the East Coast in the summer to visit the lovely housing districts with their great expanses of green lawns everywhere. As a former resident of that side of our country I can tell you that there are very few homes that have in-gound sprinkler systems as we do here. The lawns back there remain green as long as there isn't a drought situation and because of the frequent thunder storms and with it the high humidity.

We in California are spoiled when it comes to having a usually abundant supply of water that comes to us from our statewide water systems. The importance of cutting back on home and garden water use only comes back to us when the snow pack is light and the dams are nearly empty.

We need to remember that a good part of our economy in this state depends on the rich farmland in our valleys being able to get the water needed for crops that feed the nation and provide many jobs for our workers.

Anonymous said...

Edible landscapes! That's even better!!! -- per the 11:00 p.m. commenter above.

what a great idea!! Wouldn't that be fabulous, to have an edible landscape?

On a similar note: there are some cool "underground" dinners and local park walks featuring foraged items to use in recipes (snails, oxalis, nettles, etc. ... Damned oxalis! I used to pull that up by the ton when I had a garden apt in SF. Who knew the stuff was edible?? Nasturtiums, sure, and I think pansies, but oxalis? New to me. Guess it shouldnt' have been. Kind of like dandelion or chicory, when you think about it ...)

Gilbert Doubet said...

I wonder about the implications of this article regarding Rossmoor and its verdant 2200 acres.

That includes a golf course used by less than 15% of residents. Usage declines yearly since boomers and aging Rossmoorians golf less.

One resident complained to authorities that whatever Rossmoor sprays on the grass has been making her little dog ill.

The official replied: "Don't worry, lady. It's only Roundup."

I'm not much of an environmentalist, but isn't the prinicpal ingredient in Roundup a pretty deadly chemical called Malathion (spelling may be wrong here)?

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting debate. Lawns require a lot of maintenance and a lot of water, which makes them unattractive to me on a personal level.

On the other hand, residential use accounts for about 10% of California's water so I find it irritating to hear "lectures" about lawns when enormous amounts of water are effectively given away every year to corporate agricultural interests so that they can raise rice and cattle in what amounts to a desert.

Resources shouldn't be squandered, but the notion that residential users are going to fix California's water problems with low-flow toilets and the like is just craziness.