Rewriting the Lawn Ethic

by Shahla Farzan / The Mindful Californian

  • UC Davis Arboretum lawn removal workshop; credit Shahla Farzan

AS I WALKED to the grocery store this evening, I found myself sidestepping puddles on the sidewalk and skirting ankle-high jets of water. Though another dusty California summer has come to a close, the water continues to flow. Through irrigation tubing, that is.

Before we jump into the subject of lawns, a short diversion. Last week, I spent far too long in the garden section of Home Depot. I picked up a dozen or more plants and carefully debated. How much light does this plant need? How long can I neglect it? Will it kill my parakeet when she nibbles on it? And then I saw it: the orchid that launched a thousand ships. A quick glance at the tag assured me that purchasing it would be the equivalent of buying an American Girl doll. In other words, this orchid needed an incredible amount of accessories to survive.

Like most orchids, the grass species that make up a typical lawn are not able to persist without intensive human intervention in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, gasoline, irrigation, water, and the seed itself. In a world where natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce and fossil fuel emissions are drastically changing the climate, lawns appear to be in direct conflict with the environment. As awareness of the gargantuan size of the human ecological footprint has grown, a small but growing number of disputes have involved the push to rewrite the American lawn ethic.

In 2008, Quan and Angelina Ha of Orange County made a radical decision. Rather than fighting to keep their lawn alive in arid Southern California, the Has decided to remove it. The couple cited environmental as well as economic concerns. “We’ve got a newborn, so we want to start worrying about her future,” said Quan Ha. Over the course of two years, their water usage dropped from 299,221 gallons to 58,348 gallons, a decline of nearly 80%. In response to a complaint that the yard was in violation of city ordinances, the Has built a fence and planted drought-resistant plants. Several months later, the Has were charged with a misdemeanor and ordered to appear in court. The issue remains unresolved.

In Lawndale, CA (yes, Lawndale), Amy and Brad Henderson encountered a similar situation when they planted a corner of their yard with native plants. Prior to planting, the two botanists researched the native flora of the area and worked to identify the plant community that would have been found in their yard prior to urbanization. After removing exotic invasives, the couple planted drought-resistant native species and installed a small pond to attract wildlife. Soon after, the Hendersons received a notice from Lawndale officials citing them for “excessive overgrown vegetation.” The couple eventually came to a compromise with the state, but only after a protracted legal battle. The National Wildlife Federation now recognizes the Henderson’s lawn as certified wildlife habitat.

Fortunately, individual homeowners as well as local governments are working to find ways to reconcile aesthetic preferences with ecological realities. In July, the UC Davis Arboretum in Davis, CA hosted a workshop for individuals interested in removing their lawns. As I neared the meeting site, I saw a large crowd of individuals talking excitedly, as if waiting for a concert to start. Excited to be there? On a Saturday morning? This couldn’t be the lawn removal workshop. I promptly biked past it.

As is generally the case when I trust my gut, I was mistaken. Over 80 individuals crowded around speaker Kend Linderholm as he described the process of removing his lawn (his wife Barbara gives a detailed account here). After the grass was gone, Linderholm happily relinquished the struggle for control that comes along with lawn maintenance. “Very honestly, my yard is a hodgepodge,” he said. “I plant things and either they grow or they don’t. I spend less time mowing and more time enjoying myself.” Attendees also cited other reasons for removing their lawns, including looming water-rate hikes in Davis and the desire to attract native insects.

Despite interest among homeowners, the city of Davis does not provide any compensation for those who choose to remove their lawns. In comparison, the Water Smart Landscapes Rebate program in Las Vegas, NV pays homeowners $1.50 per square foot to replace turfgrass with more water-efficient landscaping. The program has proven popular among Las Vegas homeowners, paying an estimated $232 million in rebates for the removal of 155 million square feet of grass. The Southern Nevada Water Agency reports savings of approximately 7 billion gallons of water each year, one tenth of Nevada’s water supply. Taking a cue from Las Vegas, cities in California have begun launching similar “Cash for Grass” programs designed to incentivize grass removal.

WHILE WE MAY never completely replace our deeply ingrained love of lawns, awareness of their ecological impacts is on the rise. To some, a world without lawns would be a bleak place indeed, if only because it is difficult to imagine what we would replace them with. Challenging ourselves to revise traditional conceptions of beauty is a necessary first step. After that, human innovation can take the reins.

Listen:  UC Davis Arboretum lawn removal workshop (July 2012)

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27 Comments
  1. Sharanjit Singh

    After reading this article, I agree and disagree with the idea of using turf lawns. I partially agree with the idea because it is going to help us protect water and help in preventing drought. But at the same time it is going to disturb the habitat and food chain of insects and organisms living in the natural grass. This will eventually decrease our biodiversity of insects and organisms in the long term. I believe that putting a limit on the size of natural lawns can help us save water instead of completely getting rid of natural lawns.

  2. Angilina Lor

    I think this is a great idea! A lot of people might not realize all the options they have about their grass. I think if there was a compensation for removal of grass, just like what they’re doing in Las Vegas, many people would do it. Imagine saving that much water! I agree that this should be the new “beauty”. We would be saving more water and use less fertilizers and other chemicals. By reducing the usage of chemicals, that can better benefit animals, including ourselves that are affected by it.

  3. Aaron Howse

    I love the plan that is implemented in Las Vegas! No wonder they have had success since they are creating monetary benefits that even non-nature lovers can appreciate. Also it is encouraging that such a small government change can result in such a large percentage of their water being saved. I think this shows the potential a good government project can have on the issues it is trying to resolve.

  4. Shawn Alisea

    What this article is telling me is that environmentally-conscious and well-informed homeowners’ efforts to repair some of the damage of urbanisation are being actively contested and hindered by local laws in some areas. Only in the areas of most dire water scarcity (such as Las Vegas) are the laws actually helping to promote this form of remediation. In most cases, it’s not the cities themselves that enforce lawn care, but homeowners’ associations. These are the bodies that take people to court if they don’t keep their lawns green or if they try to replace them with alternative landscaping. In the past, they were also preventing people from putting solar panels on their roofs. I think that sort of interference is likely to continue until it actually lowers property values for a home to have a mandatory green lawn of non-native grass, or absence of “excessive vegetation”, or absence of solar panels. For that to happen, more people need to care about those things, so that they wouldn’t want to live in a neighbourhood like that.

  5. Katlin Parker

    It is interesting that people are actually getting fined for not having lawns, especially when they are replacing them with native species. Since this article was written in 2012, I would imagine that the laws would be different since we’re in a drought now. In Sacramento, homeowners are getting reimbursed for replacing their lawns with “fake grass”. I think it is an excellent idea to replace our lawns with native species – specifically species that would be growing on your parcel of land, had it not been built on. We should all turn our lawns into natural sanctuaries. We would increase biodiversity and reduce resource consumption. Not to mention, as the article states, reduce the need for upkeep. For people who enjoy horticulture and gardening as a hobby, planting native species would likely be more fulfilling to maintain than a lawn, considering that a lawn is basically just a mono-culture.

  6. carl Nuza

    Another great article on this website. However it is hard to comprehend why city officials would cite someone for taking away their lawn. Well, they are just doing their job, so I think it is time we changed their jobs and taxpayers. With all the droughts and water shortages, California should be the first state to embrace any idea that does not only try to reconcile nature but also conserve the precious water. A home owner cut their water usage by 80% after removing their lawn. That volume per person would represent a tremendous amount of water if the state would allow and encourage people to remove their lawns. Moreover removing the lawn does not leave behind dirt and thorn bushes. We can replace the water thirsty species with a wide variety of turf grass. Why is the state not funding this? Why are environmental organizations not lobbying for bills that rewrite the current ethic?

  7. Margaret Kashuba

    I enjoyed this article because it went more in depth into the topic by offering examples of how people are trying to increase habitat for native species that benefit the natural environment. It got me interested in how to plant native vegetation and in tune with the climate and environment of where I live. It is more economic and less stress to plant a native yard. When you are struggling to upkeep your lawn, you spend much more money on fertilizers, pesticides, and water. Planting native vegetation is interesting and educating. Instead of a neighborhood of uniform, plain green grass, homeowners can plant what they desire and the neighborhood becomes more visually interesting. There is plenty of logic behind the move to remove traditional lawns and I appreciated how the article brought up the lawsuits and uproar over people’s lawns. It seems so ridiculous once you understand the pros of removing lawns. There are other things to worry about and spend energy, time and resources on than fighting over someone’s lawn because it doesn’t align with tradition.

  8. Sarah Green

    Having a lawn makes a home feel complete. Possibly because a healthy lawn symbolizes life and growth. I enjoy the perspective this article gives that people can replace their lawns with more sustainable plants that thrive better than a traditional lawn. Replacing traditional lawns with an alternative form also provides those who enjoy gardening an outlet for creativity. By having a nontraditional “lawn,” many different plants will grow. Although this will not appear as aesthetically pleasing to those who enjoy traditional lawns, a new appreciation for creativity and environmentalism will be fostered. Many people have their sprinklers on a set program and do not think about the impact they have on the environment. Non-traditional yards will get people to start asking questions and hopefully they will follow suit.

  9. Aman Percival

    I think more Californians should switch to drought-tolerant plants and move away from lawns. I myself have wanted to remove my lawn and have not watered it since last summer. I think the rebate program in Nevada is a great incentive program through the state promoting water conservation. California has been in a severe drought, it would be wise for us to have a similar program.

  10. Heather McDonough

    Growing up as a child I always heard of the American Dream, beautiful house, white picked fence, and well maintained lawn. But that was before the population reached 7 billion plus. As the population continues to rise, the carrying capacity of the natural resources which we are dependent on are reaching their limits. The American lawn requires more time, energy, care, and resources than native soils or vegetation. I find it fascinating that some places are offering cash for grass initiatives and holding seminars to raise awareness about the ecological impact of the modern lawn. I don’t think that anyone should ever be fined or cited for trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Climate change is a global issue that needs to be taken seriously. Individuals that are deciding to take a global issue and making a change at the local level should be praised. Maybe instead of saying “go green” we should be saying “go native.”

  11. Anthony Lo Giudice

    I had no idea local governments took such as stand. I would understand if maybe the lawn in question was covered in trash or an eyesore in that manner. However, I think a home owner is entitled to plant whatever plants they choose especially if it is beneficial to the environment. If the “Cash for Grass” idea takes off and spreads, i think it will help a great deal with our current water issues. Less lawns= less water usage and less harmful runoff from insecticides and fertilizers.

  12. Kelly Heal

    I believe the “cash for grass” is a great incentive to get people to remove there lawns. California is going through a major drought right now, and removing lawns would be a step in the right direction to conserving water. It takes approximately 20,000 gallons of water per year to water an average lawn. That’s astronomical!! We can’t afford to waste water this way. Having a well-watered lawn is not as important as getting water to farmers for agricultural processes, and drinking water to our communities. All lawns in California should be removed and re-landscaped with drought resistant vegetation. During this time of drought in California every measure should be taken to reduce overall water use in California, and removing lawns is a good way to start!

  13. Stephanie Blumm

    It seems ironic that homeowners who removed their yards and decreased their water usage by up to 80%, received punishments from government officials for violating homeowners’ policies. Government officials should overlook superficial appearances and focus on the bigger picture and find other ways to help the environment. If new policies were implemented and a majority of homeowners removed their yards or planted native species to the area, then water and other natural resources would be greatly conserved. The public’s priorities need to be re-evaluated because maintaining a front lawn should not come before preserving Earth’s limited resources. Even a simple project like removing a lawn can make a huge impact in the long run.

  14. Sophia Jinata

    The change does not need to occur in our lawn ethic, but in our ecological ethic. So much of California’s natural habitat has been eradicated that I feel any small step Californians can take towards restoring that may help in the long run. We have allocated water resources from habitats to better fit our needs. But while doing that we have caused drastic changes in the biotic and abiotic conditions in those habitats. If we change how we think and feel about and use our water and the natural California habitats that have been lost, the natural active response would be to change the things that are within our reach (such as removing lawns and reducing water usage). The collective results could make huge impacts on the preservation and restoration of California for us and future generations.

  15. Maegan

    You mentioned that local governments are trying to find a balance between the aesthetics and maintaining a healthy environment. Do you think this will also reach the business/corporate level? There’s a lot of businesses that pride themselves in their landscapes and think that it maintains their reputations. I don’t know if I would ever dig up my lawn unless there actually was a cash offer and also maybe some architects that have landscape designs to choose from. I think that if environmental agencies would like to move forward with this, they should be willing to spend some money to make it easier for busy homeowners to redo their landscape.

  16. Melissa Montano

    Wow! I never knew this kind of program existed. I believe the article was very informative towards persuading Californians in breaking out of the norm of the traditional house lawn and finding a new and unique kind of beauty in home landscaping that will not only save money, save time from tedious yard work, but also save and preserve water. Just might consider this in my own home someday in the future.

  17. Andre B

    It is truly great to see increasingly more people actively involved in looking past such artificial things such as lawns. As of recently, my uncle decided to remove his very own lawn all together. I believe that he did so in spite of what his neighbors thought and to better help the environment and our current drought situation here in California. However, I could be wrong in that; he may have just been too lazy to tend to it. In any case, I can’t help but feel more inclined to insist that the rest of my family do the same. Maybe not to the same extent, but to cut back in greenery that requires large quantities of water. Unfortunately, I believe it will take many more individuals having to stand strong in their decisions to remove their ever-so-thirsty lawns and fight the status-quo in order for any real mass changes to take effect.

  18. Gustav Muehlenhaupt

    Many areas even here in Sac have started “drought buster” programs as well. It works kind of like authorized burn days where you can only water on certain days and at certain times. I never realized the amount or frequency you could be fined for not maintaining your lawn. I do hope to replace my lawn with more drought resistant plants not intentionally so much as naturally selectively as I don’t water it this summer. Their are also cash for grass programs here in Sacramento if anyone was wondering.

  19. Leticia Padilla

    “Challenging ourselves to revise traditional conceptions of beauty is a necessary first step” is exactly what needs to happen as a society. When my significant other and I bought a house in an old suburban neighborhood that was filled with green, well maintained lawns, we immediately removed a monstrous mulberry tree and the turf grass that made up our front lawn. Although we replaced it with wood chips and drought tolerant plants, we received many glares and questioning from our neighbors throughout the process. I believe that it was this old notion of what a typical front lawn is “supposed” to be like that fueled the hostility behind the frequent questioning. It was frustrating and upsetting. However, I have noticed a shift in the concept of “beauty” as the drought progresses. More and more lawns are being partially or fully converted to water efficient lawns – just like ours – and not just in our neighborhood but everywhere! Although it’s taking a drought to change this age old perception, I believe we are starting to take this first step.

  20. Jaspreet Bains

    This article brings up a great point that while Americans are used to seeing lush green lawns as the ideal yard, that’s not what is best. California is in a drought and it is important to conserve as much water as possible. People tend to over water their grass, have leaks or broken sprinklers that waste even more water than is needed. While it will take a long time to change the American view on what the perfect yard should look like, everyone should look into finding plants that require less water and maintenance. It would conserve the state’s water supply and also save money for the homeowners. This article is great because it makes readers aware that there are other options for the lawn instead of the grass we are used to. Programs like cash for grass are a great incentive to get people interested in having more environmentally friendly lawns.

  21. Jennifer Saephanh

    Due to our ongoing drought problem I initially thought that converting over to turf lawns was a good idea. Although it may reduce tremendous amounts of water usage, I think that the conversion can do harm as well. Getting rid of a normal grass lawn will take away from insect habitats and such that use lawns as part of their reproductive and growth cycles. Other organisms may use it for nutrients, etc. Allowing for turf lawns takes away these kinds if environments for those organisms that are food sources for consumers. An alternative could be changing lawns to a well-designed rock-garden with plants that need little or no additional water in the climate. This still reduces water usage and at the same time provides an environment for insects to live in. Another alternative could be reduce the size of the lawn by replacing it with beds of perennial shrubs and add flowers that don’t require daily watering. This still provides food for wild life species and reduces landscaping work that was once needed with grass. Overall, with the increase in lawn conversions, homeowners should take into consideration other little critters in the environment when deciding to change their lawn.

  22. Carolyn

    Loved this article. Many people view a nice green, clean cut, and well manicured lawn as a sign of success. The lawn-owners successfully grew the lawn by succeeding in feeding and watering it just right and also succeeding in being able to afford to care for the lawn. Lawn maintenance is not cheap – it requires much time, effort, and money to maintain a beautiful lawn. And that way of thinking is what needs to change. I cannot argue the fact that a well-maintained lawn is aesthetically pleasing; but what else is it? I loved the idea of researching native flora and using those plants in a yard along with a little pond to attract wildlife. I also really like the idea of using front yards to plant gardens. Yes, gardens take water, time, and energy as well. But they provide sustenance for you and your family.

  23. Nadia Elias

    I have heard of this not too long ago, and I think it is a brilliant idea. We need to do this more in CA. It breaks my heart when I run late at night, and see so many sprinklers on, even after it has rained. The temporary beauty of a lawn is not worth permanent damage to our home, the Earth. Real beauty is our Earth living and thriving, not just a green lawn. In order for our home to be thriving, we need to take the necessary steps to conserve our blessings and the place we call home. I hope that this alternative will be widely available for us in CA. Great article!

  24. Sydney Hagen

    I think Nevada’s Water Smart Landscapes Rebate program is great and suspect similar programs will be seen in California in the near future. Of course it would be a costly and time consuming process, but I believe the initial cost would soon be overcome by the amount of resources saved in the long run by less demanding landscaping. Personally, I don’t know why given the choice anyone would choose a boring monoculture lawn over a certified wildlife habitat like the Henderson’s lawn!

  25. Manjot Lada

    Compared to the article Perspectives on the American Lawn, this article helped me gain more insight on how removal of lawns can help the ecology in more ways than were previously listed. Not only will it save a ton of money that citizens spend on water usage, but it will also help prevent the puddles of water we see on the sidewalks due to over-watering. I agree with the speaker from the UC Davis Arboretum, when he says that the main problem is the availability of water and that things are only going to get harder with time rather than better. For those who buy houses with a lot of lawn, it is hard to maintain (just like the orchids) and is costly. It’s better to start making laws where people can remove their lawns and put water-resistant plans without getting cited as mentioned in the article. More awareness needs to be put on this issue because I don’t think people realize how beneficial it could be for not only the ecology, but for them when it comes to saving money.

  26. Alexandria Rummerfield

    This was a great article! I agree with the message here, we must change what we accept as “beauty” in order to better the world. Having a nice, manicured lawn sure looks great, but wasting all of that water to keep it looking pretty all summer long puts a huge dent in the supply that needs to be saved for droughts like now. Natural, pre-urbanization vegetation is environmentally friendly and can look nice too, if we learn to love it. HOAs should be promoting water saving, instead of punishing homeowners for doing their part in water conservation. More rewards would further incentivize homeowners into taking the next step in replacing their lawns.

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