Even without threats from city governments, some gardeners have already said their farewells to front lawns, the least used of lawns. "I got sick and tired of pushing a lawn mower for almost 80 years," says Robert A. Mitchell of Los Angeles, who tore out an aging Bermuda-grass lawn and replaced it with various succulents and ground covers, including gazanias and red-apple ice plant, and shrubs. "All that mowing, edging, fertilizing and weeding got to me. But I finally did it because I think it's important to save water. I think lawns are passe now." His new ground covers are irrigated (with the old lawn sprinklers) only once every two weeks; the lawn was watered two or three times a week.
A few blocks away, Michael Dula and Alison Sowden deep-sixed their lawn because "no matter how much we watered our lawn, it was never enough--it never looked good," Dula says. Rather than redo the lawn and its rusty sprinkler system, they planted an attractive collection of drought-resistant ground covers, perennials and shrubs. "It started out as an ecological thing but turned into a hobby," says Dula, who, with his wife, is now tackling the back yard. Now they water every three to four weeks and are convinced that the new plantings are "definitely a lot less work and more fun."
A lot of gardeners can sympathize with the Dulas--very few Southern California lawns look all that good. Cooperative Extension researchers found that there is about three times as much lawn in the Southern California as there should be, considering the amount of water used. In other words, most people already are underwatering their lawns.
If this doesn't sound right, it could be because lawns in Southern California range from lush green expanses (watered every day with automatic systems) in Beverly Hills to the half-dead patches in most neighborhoods. The vast difference among climates in California also affects how much water it takes to keep a lawn healthy--obviously lawns in Pacific Palisades require less than lawns in Pomona.
Even with all the bad publicity lawns have gotten in the past few years, lawnless yards are still the exception to the rule, which seems to be "lots of lawn and birch trees," according to Thousand Oaks landscape architect Ken Smith. The person who literally wrote the book on water conservation for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power ("40 Ways to Save Water in Your Yard and Garden"), Smith designs dozens of gardens every year. Still he has found precious few customers for his water-conscious ideas. "Someone finally asked me to do a garden with no lawn. They wanted unusual, drought-resistant plants instead. It was real exciting," Smith says. "But most clients still want a more traditional garden."
It's true that a broad sweep of lawn defines a "traditional" garden. Developers know this, which is why some of the most expansive lawn installations can be found in or around new subdivisions and commercial developments. In the rapidly growing "new" communities from Lancaster to Temecula, bright green sod is as prominent as banners and flags on opening day. "People want a landscape now, and sod is an instant solution," explains Smith. "And it does have a lot going for it--you can walk on it almost immediately, it stops erosion, holds down dust, prevents weeds, and it is easy and inexpensive to install and maintain." Unfortunately, most of the new sod around developments is the tall fescue, not the warm-season grasses; sprinklers run endlessly and water pours down the streets.
But even among developers, there are signs of change. Bob Reed convinced his partners to try a lawnless garden in front of one new house in their Riverside County tract. "It wasn't easy. All they could think of was cactus and gravel," says Reed. Landscape designer John DeForest did use cactus, and gravel, but also all kinds of other plants that make the front a fascinating tapestry. "It sure looks better than a lawn to my eyes," says Reed.
It isn't just new condo complexes and trendy tracts that commit lawn abuse. Lisa Iwata, a San Clemente landscape architect and one of the organizers of the annual Southern California Xeriscape Conference, points to lawns that serve no purpose as water-wasters--those around industrial buildings with "Keep Off the Grass" signs and lawns in median strips of boulevards. These she calls "silly lawns" that should definitely be gotten rid of.
Many homeowners have their own strips of "silly lawn"--the parkway planting between street and sidewalk. Little, narrow strips of lawn like this have been outlawed in North Marin County because they are impossible to water efficiently. Most city ordinances, however, require that these parkways be grass because any other plant would get in the way of an opening car door.