Ann Hermes/Staff
In Los Alamitos, California, Bill Nottingham and Susan Denley recently replaced their lawn with drip-irrigated, drought-resistant plants, like the Black Rose succulent in the foreground.

Drought: Is there a way to have sustainability and a lawn?

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

In Phoenix neighborhoods, strolling families and dog walkers play a game: real or fake? Artificial lawns are so convincing it may take plucking and sniffing to discern if it is living flora or cunning plastic. 

In Los Angeles, the game is more like an office pool – guess how long it will take homeowners who’ve ripped out lawns in favor of native plants to reverse course and replant water-guzzling sod.

Why We Wrote This

Perhaps nothing challenges the homeowner’s aesthetic as much as the question of whether grass lawns are over – socially unacceptable. Striking a balance through innovation is a first step in figuring out the place of the lawn in American culture.

Lawns – the most expansive irrigated crop in America – have become crucibles of conscience, one more way individuals struggle to balance freedom and responsibility in the cultural tug of wars. The stakes in such matters aren’t trivial, as reflected in climate maps of the United States this season – even now in autumn they’re color-coded “abnormally dry” to “extreme” and “exceptional” drought. 

So is the lawn headed for extinction?

One researcher, Jim Baird at the University of California, Riverside, has developed grass strains requiring 50% less water and suggests lawns can be sustainable.  

But as temperatures rise and droughts drive water bills higher, homeowner commitment to lawns teeters. Motivated less by shame than a government subsidy, Los Alamitos, California, resident Bill Nottingham earlier this year resolved, “Let’s do the right thing and rip out the lawn.”    

In some Phoenix neighborhoods, strolling families and dog walkers can be seen playing a game: real or fake? 

Guessing at this used to be laughably easy. Now artificial lawns are so convincing that it may take plucking and sniffing a wispy blade to discern if the lush green carpet outside a home is living flora or cunning plastic. Even dogs get confused. The snootier ones turn up their noses. 

In Los Angeles, the neighborhood game is more like an office pool, the goal of which is to guess how many months it will take homeowners who have ripped out their lawns in favor of government-subsidized native shrubs or cactus to reverse course and replant water-guzzling sod when they decide to sell or get a new cornhole set.

Why We Wrote This

Perhaps nothing challenges the homeowner’s aesthetic as much as the question of whether grass lawns are over – socially unacceptable. Striking a balance through innovation is a first step in figuring out the place of the lawn in American culture.

The stakes in such matters are far from trivial, as reflected in the yellow, orange, and dark plum shades splashed across climate maps of the United States this season – hues meant not to suggest autumn leaves but color-coding for “abnormally dry” to “extreme” and “exceptional” drought. 

Lawns have become crucibles of conscience, one more way individuals struggle to maintain a balance between freedom and responsibility in the nation’s cultural tug of wars. Even in places such as Ohio or New Hampshire, where lawns already hibernate under inches or feet of snow, a glimpse of a mower in the garage can stir traumatic memories of springtime’s judgmental stares:  

Shame on you, one scowl says, for having a weedy splotch of yellowing turf in a freedom-loving neighborhood where the conscientious sacrifice their Saturdays to crawling on hands and grass-stained knees in search of renegade dandelions.  

Shame on you, says another, for having a lawn at all, you irresponsible, climate-disrupting monster. How dare you?

Rip out the lawn was their “right thing”

Susan Denley and Bill Nottingham were motivated less by shame than a local agency’s financial incentive when they decided to rip out the lawn adorning their front yard in Los Alamitos, a Southern California suburb on the border of Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Motivated less by shame than a government subsidy, Bill Nottingham and his wife, Susan Denley, resolved earlier this year: “Let’s do the right thing and rip out the lawn.” But even after learning that the incentive they’d hoped for had expired, their resolve held.

They had bought their home in the development almost 40 years ago.

“Every house had a front yard with a lawn and trees and rose bushes,” Mr. Nottingham says. “It was ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ‘Father Knows Best.’”

Everyone on the street seemed to tacitly accept the aesthetic.

Gradually, though, as temperatures crept up and the West’s recurring droughts drove water bills higher, their commitment to the lawn teetered. Even after learning that the incentive they’d hoped for had expired, their resolve held.

“Let’s do the right thing,” Mr. Nottingham said, “and rip out the lawn.”

Turfgrass historians – and yes, there are many scholarly tomes on the subject – trace the nation’s lust for lawns to the 18th century, when word trickled back about a landscaping trend taking root on the grounds of such enviable architectural icons as the Palace of Versailles. Soon Thomas Jefferson had a lawn planted at his Monticello estate and George Washington at Mount Vernon.

A couple of centuries later, William Levitt saw the “charm and beauty” of lawns as such a strong selling point that he wrote covenants into the deeds of his affordable and notoriously conformist Levittowns, imposing fines on homeowners who didn’t mow theirs at least once a week in season.

And that, Case Western Reserve University history professor Ted Steinberg reports in his 2006 book, “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn,” was one more step in the “colonizing” of the nation by grass. It has become, researchers say, the most expansive irrigated crop in America, one that sprawls over more land than cotton or corn, covering tens of millions of acres of turf farms and the golf course fairways, cemeteries, parks. and, yes, front and back yards nationwide to which they cater.

Lawn supporters, including those who write the webpages for the $2 billion Scotts lawn company, will tell you that those green acres suck carbon dioxide out of the air and release oxygen, trap dust, dampen the clamor of urban life, mitigate storm runoff, prevent erosion, and cool our homes and neighborhoods. To which environmental skeptics respond, well, maybe so, but natural landscapes do a much better job of all that without squandering water and poisoning rivers, lakes, wetlands, and the ocean with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.

A growing body of work, with titles such as “Requiem for a Lawnmower,” pleads for, though never quite predicts, a future without lawns. 

Americans, after all, are so loyal to those comforting expanses of green that agronomists, botanists, horticulturalists, and other scientists nationwide spend entire careers, funded in part by the multibillion-dollar golf and lawn care industries, studying, breeding, and testing turf to fine-tune regionally preferred cultivars for color, durability, bug and weed resistance, and the textures so many of our bare feet or cleated shoes crave.

In search of the sustainable lawns 

On a warm autumn morning at the University of California, Riverside’s sprawling agriculture research center, researcher Jim Baird holds aloft a dirt-packed root-and-grass stolon, a horizontal runner from one of the new cultivars of grass he has been cultivating.

Ann Hermes/Staff
On the left, an artificial turf strip in Bill Nottingham and Susan Denley’s yard in suburban Los Angeles contrasts with their neighbor's drought-battered real grass on the right.

Dr. Baird, who declares his favorite color to be “green,” says he fell under the spell of well-tended turf, redolent of the outdoors and sports, in high school while working at a Colorado golf course. He picked the colleges he attended for their programs in turfgrass research and has spent the past decades teaching and researching the genetics, breeding, propagation, and care of grass.

While his peers at universities in water-rich Florida may focus on the ever-popular Kentucky bluegrass and those in Michigan or Colorado on the fescues that thrive in the midwest, Dr. Baird focuses mainly on Bermuda grass, a warm-weather cultivar that landscapers and groundskeepers have been nudging westward as the Earth heats.

Water agencies and environmental organizations “scapegoat” lawns for water shortages, Dr. Baird says. It is in the spirit of compromise that he and colleagues have crossbred recent strains, he says, to be at least a third less thirsty than the previous types of Bermuda and use more than 50% less water than cool-season grasses like the fescues, ryegrasses, bluegrasses.

“As long as there’s genetic variation,” he says, “there’s a way to make something better.”

Foolishly mention the type of turf that doesn’t need water at all and he growls, “I’m not a fan.” The fake stuff, he says, can heat up to 190 degrees on hot days – and environmentalists trot out even harsher critiques, citing microplastics leaching from the petroleum-based synthetic turf and mountains of the fabric piling up at landfills among the side effects.

Dr. Baird’s pride in his work and passion for the form and function of living lawns is so irresistible that a reporter can’t help but kick off his shoes and stroll over a patch of dewy turf, letting bare soles connect with memories of backyard tackles broken by spongy loam and the sting of wet green blades that stroke a body careering headlong off a slip and slide.

Similar memories, from the days when their children played soccer and baseball on the family’s front and back lawns, keep Mr. Nottingham from swearing under oath that he and Ms. Denley will never roll out turfgrass again.

But so far they seem proud of their role as sod-busting pioneers of a more sustainable suburbia. And so far, Mr. Nottingham says, neighbors have expressed only admiration for their new front yard of decomposed granite, river rock, olive trees, and xeriscaping – with just a fringe of artificial lawn for the sake of continuity with the neighborhood’s “Leave It to Beaver” past.  

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Drought: Is there a way to have sustainability and a lawn?
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/2022/1122/Drought-Is-there-a-way-to-have-sustainability-and-a-lawn
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe