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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