Monday, July 16, 2007

Murder Your Lawn - Now!

How many of you watered your lawn this week? Come on, raise your hands, don’t be shy. Good.

Next question. If the average annual rainfall in Santa Barbara is between 18 and 21 inches, and we only received 6 this year, and a chicken gets on a train in Miami heading north at 60 mph into a 6 mph headwind, how long will it take to water your lawn when the reservoirs go dry?

O.K. I’m ready to rant. That’s not usually my style. I try to gently convince people of my views without putting any guilt trips on them. I’d hate to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I’ve never been a hardcore activist about much of anything—more of a quiet “you have your opinion and I’ll have the right one” manifesto.

But last week’s LA Times article (Public Enemy No. 1, July 5) about the astounding impact of our obsession with lawns has got me cursing out loud about the gardens I see in this town and around the nation.

Would someone PLEASE tell me why there are lawns in front of houses? The kids are in their rooms playing computer games, chatting on AIM, or downloading pirated videos, so don’t tell me it’s about a place for them to play. Lawn in the backyard? Maybe. Into nude sunbathing? Get a chaise lounge. Something for the kids and dog to cavort on? O.K., there’s nothing to completely take the place of a patch of turf, but how many thousand square feet do you really need?

Let me go on record as stating that a lawn that is not used for recreational purposes is an act of environmental arrogance. (Geez, I can sense someone out there feeling uncomfortable—better pull back. NO! I’m going to overcome the “everyone has to like me” urge.) I’m talking about arrogance in the form of a blatant or ignorant disregard for the multiple environmental impacts of growing turf, at least the way the vast majority of people approach it.

Arrogance is the use of toxic pesticides to maintain that perfect suburban carpet. I screamed at my radio this spring when those lovely folks from Scott’s Lawn Care Products unleashed their campaign about protecting our kids from “nasty bugs.” They don’t really define “nasty.” I’m not sure if it’s a Donald Trump “you’re fired!” kinda nasty or “Mature Audience” nasty, but we’d better make sure we indiscriminately kill everything, just to make sure.

Arrogance is having an irrigation system that hasn’t been adjusted for the season, checked out for leaks or had the heads fine-tuned to keep them from soaking the sidewalks.

Arrogance is having your gardener run their inefficient mower that spews 10 times more emissions per minute than a car. Then, since no one is enforcing the local ban on gas-powered blowers, the clippings are blown into the gutter and then on to the creeks. Since most folks don’t really care if the gardener complies with the rules (the faster they mow, hoe and blow the less you have to pay), we have the insult of all that dust and exhaust going airborne with the grating noise as the sound track.

Ya get the idea? Do you really have to have it? Imagine life without a lawn. Imagine a diverse, low water-using palette of texture and color that attracts birds and other fun critters.

Consider taking the pledge. Join a support group for the forlawn (use a pun, go to jail). Be the pioneer on your block. Murder your lawn and set yourself free! Up next - murder without herbicides!

(photo credit - Yvonne Cunnington -


John said...

Agreed--less lawn! Problem is, there's an ingrained notion in this country (started, I hear, decades ago by lawn companies) that a broad, connected expanse of lawn in front of houses is a sign of friendliness and good citizenship. This seems to be slowly changing as more people plant front gardens.

The other problem is, for a homeowner that doesn't know much about gardening (or care to), lawn is the easiest thing for them to deal with: just spread some grass seed, then mow once a week (or hire a service to do it). Sure, there's the watering and fertilizer and all that stuff, but some people skip it.

I'd love to see people take a page from the Irish and the Brits, who are big on front gardens surrounded by hedges or walls. In the US, many a modest suburban house is ruined (in my opinion) by allowing a flat expanse of green lawn all the way down to a perpetually busy road. Useless, and a shame.

For those that want that flat open neat expanse in front of their homes, they'll need easy and practical solutions for low, tough ground cover that is easy to plant and maintain. However, I fear that a lot of people would rather spend an hour a week whacking down grass with a power mower than weeding among the ground cover.

Queen Whackamole said...

Food Not Lawns!

David Pritchett said...

Check out the murdered (but corpses still there) piles of dead turf lawn in the parkway space at the lot at northeast corner of Gillespie St. at Sola St.

Will a native plant xeriscape fill the parkway space again??

Curious for such graminicide when the turf lawn around the house is severely manicured from fence to house wall.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't the City ban lawns? They don't make sense, not in California anyway!

Diana said...

Preach on! Some of us are listening. ;)

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Amen!!! You forgot one particularly stupid piece of arrogance, but maybe that's because it's found more regularly here in the Midwest: When your grass is brown and dormant in the middle of the summer, do you really need to have the lawn service come and spray it anyway? SHEESH. You would not believe the number of little white flags that I have seen walking the dog this week--all on crispy brown lawns. (The crispy brown part I like at this point of a dry year. The chemicals on them make me want to spit nails.)

Want a little bit of grass left to play on? Check out High Country Gardens' turf lawn alternatives. I think I'm going to replace what will be left of my backyard with some low growing grama grass like 'Hachita'... because I do still need a place for the dog to hang out, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I murdered my lawn over seven years ago!!! Ahead of the curve and proud of it!!! To have a lawn pit here in CA is just STUPID!!

Blackswamp_Girl said...

I think I should explain a bit more... here in the Midwest, most of our lawn seed mixes are some kind of Kentucky bluegrass and fescue. Both are cool season grasses and go dormant anyway during the heat of the summer here--drought or intense heat helps that along. Sometimes they just stop growing as fast, but other times they turn brown and go completely dormant.

So at this time of the year, I am relatively happy to see a naturally brown lawn (as opposed to its flooded-with-water-so-it-stays-green alternative.) However, even if you go in for fertilizing and weed-killing your grass (which I emphatically do not) NOTHING is accomplished by dumping these things on your lawn when it's brown and dormant. Ack.

Your rant is inspiring one in me, Garden Wise Guy... I can feel it brewing. :) And I'm not a ranter by nature, either!

Anonymous said...

There is an alternative, for inspiration check out: or

Linda L said...

I murdered my front lawn in the early 90's. I planted rosemary, lavender, agapanthus & pyracantha. I left the existing junipers in place. It is beautiful! I will give water it every few weeks in the summer. the only real problem with a drought tolerant yard is when we do receive substantial rain it really grows and it needs quite a bit of pruning. This was a great investment of my time and money (actually much more time than money).

Garden Wise Guy said...

Looks like I found a topic with a lot of passion. Thanks to all for leaving your comments, and especially the link to the Edible Estates site...yummy reuse for a useless patch of grass. Keep em comin' and let me know about other blogs with a similar sentiment and philosphy.


Anonymous said...

call me a dork but I have the city code banning gas powered blowers printed out & don't hesitate to give them out as flyers to gardeners (even to my neighbor's gardener!) - works well, have only gotten lip back once when a gardener claimed that the City workers themselves use gas powered blowers - my response was pretty much, oh well, if i hear or see them, i'll "tell on them, too" na na na na na na (thank u, Ashliegh Brilliant~!)
what burns me up more than seeing lawns is seeing water/sprinklers running b/w 10am-2pm (hottest part of day) ridiculous!

~no lawn in my front yard :)

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your rant! I wonder what you think about the water-wise grasses out there -- from CA native bunchgrasses to UC Verde Buffalo to High Country Gardens' low work and water dwarf fescue mix?

AND -- what kind do you recommend we plant between flagstones that a) won't attract bees; and b) won't require much maintenance???

Thanks -- keep up the good work!

George said...

So do you hire yourself out as a lawn Dr. Kevorkian? We want to do this, but don't want to kill the magnificent Norfolk pine in our front yard.

lisa said...

Great post! I absolutely agree! My lawn is not dead, but it's never mowed, either. And despite our unusually dry summer in northeast WI, my grass is full of wildflowers and frogs. I can hardly take a step without a frog jumping from my path! Not to mention all the insect-eating birds, like thrushes and whip-or-wills....they're in heaven! Eventually, I'd like any grass in my yard to be some sort of nice sedge-one's already trying to take over. It only gets about 6" tall, gracefully leans over, and the seedheads are adorable! Advice for George-you can use black plastic to kill the grass, it will cause it to "fry" in the sun. Just be careful to stay away from the tree's roots. Honestly, even Roundup may be okay for a small area, but I'm not sure how deep it will leach toward the tree's root system.

Anonymous said...

Screw that! Lawns look great, smell great, feel great and contribute to the beauty of any building. My grass is nice and green and I water it less often than you would water and for a shorter time than I water my flower beds. Don't like grass? Move to the desert. We live in a nice climate where lawns can thrive. Water reserves are always cyclical. A few years of low rainfall does not mean catastrophe. Anyone who draws conclusions in this way is ignorant, period. Go ahead and flame away.

John said...

I just moved to a home in an upscale area that sits on just over 1 acre. I'm in the same square mile as Southern Hills in Tulsa, where they are currently playing the PGA Championship. Problem is, the front lawn is about 2/3 an acre, and at about a 40 degree slope. It's impossible for me to mow, and my yard guy says it's the toughest lawn he's ever mowed.
Though most neighbors have manicured lawns that cost them from $500-$1,000 per month just for mowing and edging, I'm lucky in having several neighbors who have no lawns at all.
They built their houses in the woods decades ago, and just left "the woods".
This is really a violation of city code, but when it's the norm in your neighborhood, and the average home there costs 4x the average for the city, you and your neighbors aren't likely to be bothered by city officials.
It's going to take me years, but I plan to kill off every blade of bermuda grass in that front yard, replacing it with blue rug juniper and vinca, and planting about 30 more shade trees.

Pam said...

Pam D. From Orlando FL.

After reading this blog I finally no longer feel like a weirdo! (at least not gardening-wise). I have quite a large front yard and I have been taking my front lawn out by hand for the last month and a half.

I finally finished yesterday and felt such a sense of accomplishment as I planted drought tolerant plants, citrus trees and a butterfly/hummingbird garden.

All my neighboors are looking at me like I am out of my mind (I can almost hear them wispering "Must be a foreigner thing") but I try to blow off their comments. Instead of reacting to their criticism I give them plant cuttings and softly ask "Would you not love to never have to mow again?" I figure if I appeal to their laziness I may get more results than trying to sound like a burn your lawn crusader...YAY to all of us loving nature instead of destroying it!

Burn grass burn!!!!

Garden Wise Guy said...

Pam: Thanks for the comments...nice to see that people on the other side of the country have the same passion for lawnless landscapes. Ironically, I've been watching the demolition of a very tired and ugly apartment landscape just down the street from me. I drove by this morning and to my chagrin, the entire area, with the exception of a useless 3' border, was covered with bright green new sod. This in a community where last year, our usual scant 18" of rain turned out to be an even stingier 6" (while fires ravage the back country since July 4).

Makes ya wanna scream!

Anonymous said...

I live in Sherman Oaks, in Southern California. I know I must kill my lawn and have been looking at substitute drought tolerant landscaping but nothing is as beautiful and soothing to me as an expanse of green turf. There are native shrubs I could use to substitute for the Azaleas and Camellias but nothing for that expanse of green Marathon.
Sincerely, Lawn Lover

Garden Wise Guy said...

Lawn Lover: I can't instantly make you fall out of love with your lawn, but it might help if you find some good examples of non-lawn compositions. As long as you're going to put so much effort into your soothing patch of green, how about diverting some of that energy into growing something you can eat or put in a vase? Next time you're cruising the valley (I'm a Van Nuys High grad, so I know "the turf" - funny, huh?) keep your eyes peeled for landscapes that excite you but don't include a lot of turf.

Also, as water becomes more precious, you might be forced by your water purveyor to make some tough choices about how you use your increasingly expensive and rationed water. So why not make the move sooner than later.

Maybe slowly weaning yourself by gradually reducing the grass would be an approach that helps avoid the shakes! As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing more monotinous than the same patch of green. I need contrast, highlights, variations - but we're all wired differently.

For some interesting turf substitutes check out One step at a time, you'll get there.

A few stats: 1) The U.S. spends more on lawn fertilizer than the rest of the world spend to fertilize food crops. 2) There are over 50,000 square miles of lawn in the U.S. 3) Lawn care is a $30 billion dollar a year industry. 4) Caring for a typical 1000 square foot lawn for 20 years costs approximately $50,000.

One more straw to throw on the camel's back - When you add up the energy it takes to transport the water, run a gas mower, produce and transport chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides (produced from petrochemicals, so let's add in some Middle East angst) the environmental cost of owning and caring for a lawn is sobering.

Non-food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I am in the desert and the midwestern lawn nuts here drive me crazy! They take it out in Winter put in a Summer grass lawn; it's almost like a religion!
Been through Yuma lately? Their idea of class is putting palm trees all over and the strong desert wind snaps them into pieces and they don't learn that the Sonoran desert has one natural palm tree and the rest end up looking pitiful! Why can't someone promote landscaping that is native to the area?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, American lawns are a 40 billion dollar industry.

Lawns contribute to:

1) Huge amounts of water being wasted.

2) More air pollution from mowers, weed-wackers, and leaf-blowers and every other gadget that lawn fanatics can get their hands on.

3) Terrible, obnoxious noise pollution. Many use these machines ANYTIME they get feel like it without consequence.

4) Then there are the nasty chemicals being used.

Thsi is really really despicable since a LAWN is not a neccessity. There are many ways to landscape a home with little or no grass. I live in a very nice area, and I see many other options being used by those who don't want to be a slave to yard work. Unfortunately, it only takes a few nitwits to destroy a beautiful, peaceful day with their obnoxious noise & smelly fumes. Also, since everyone does their precious yard work at different times, the noise is never-ending.

If you’ve seen one blade of grass, you’ve seen them all. Grass is boring! Replace lawns with native plants, trees and ground covers that do not require incessant use of fume-producing, noisy machines, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, all of which enter our underground water supply.

It's amazing that there are people in this world without CLEAN water to drink and yet there are millions in America watering freakin' grass seeds!

If you use NO chemicals, a mower you actually *push* yourself, a rake & clippers, and let rain be your water, then I truly commend you.

Anonymous said...


glennjacob said...

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Anonymous said...

I have a lawn because I live in a formulaic, upper middle class neighborhood and I rent. I'm not interested in solving anything; I'm interested in not standing out.

Lawns are institutionalized. I don't have to wonder if I'm meeting expectations when I have a lawn parked out front. Conformity is my goal.

Guilt is minor; my front lawn is perhaps 20 feet by 10.