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Whither the Lawn

What Southern California's Booming Population and Looming Wat er Crisis Mean for the Great Green Carpet of Suburbia

May 04, 2003|Preston Lerner | Preston Lerner last wrote for the magazine about how film and television are setting design trends.

appening upon Amy and Brad Henderson's resplendently untamed front yard amid the working-class conformity of Lawndale is as startling as stumbling across a McDonald's in the middle of a jungle. Or maybe that should be a jungle in the middle of a McDonald's.

There's no meticulously maintained rectangle of lawn in this dale, no border of fastidiously trimmed shrubs, no planters full of cheerful flowers and precious ornaments. Instead, there's a chaotic, writhing, tangled hodgepodge of purple sage, dune buckwheat, coyote bush, needlegrass and dozens of other drought-tolerant native plants, all growing in nature's version of a rugby scrum. To those accustomed to an orderly, standard-issue grass carpet, the place looks like an overgrown mess. To Brad Henderson, it's the wilderness reconstituted in the ruthlessly developed heart of the South Bay. "We're an island in the middle of a totally urbanized environment," he says.

We're sitting at a picnic table nestled between a miniature wetlands fashioned from a pond liner and a treehouse straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The Hendersons don't look like Lawndale Public Enemy Nos. 1 and 2, but that's what they became after their outlaw yard ran afoul of city code-enforcement officials. Brad is a 34-year-old botanist who works for the state as an environmental specialist. Amy is a 31-year-old environmental biologist. They make an attractive couple, earnestly discussing their devotion to native plants while their cute-as-all-get-out 3-year-old daughter scampers around the yard with three dogs that are bigger than she is. Alongside the sprawling house, originally owned by Brad's grandfather, is a gigantic, 100% organic vegetable garden. "We don't use any chemicals," Amy says.

She pauses when she notices some activity in the wetlands, then jumps up and cries, "A toad! Our first toad of the year!" She rushes over for a closer look. "Ooh, Brad, there are two of them!" While Amy rushes inside to grab a camera, Brad confides, "We had 10,000 toads the first year we put this in."

What with all the butterflies, songbirds and, yes, two mating toads , the scene is a National Wildlife Federation fantasy sprung to life. (There's a Backyard Wildlife Habitat plaque to prove it.) But the Henderson's yard in Lawndale is more than that. It's a protest flag flying defiantly over a nation swathed coast to coast in lawns.

for more than a century, american homeowners have been indoctrinated to grow turfgrass, as it's known in the trade, in one of three regulation colors--green, greener and greenest. Yet the Hendersons and a small group of native-plant advocates are leading what they hope will be an anti-lawn revolution.

Southern California is on the cusp of an epic struggle over the future of the residential lawn. Arrayed on one side are the foot soldiers of the turfgrass industry, from chain nurseries to mow-blow-and-go outfits--130,000 people in California alone. On the other is a tiny coalition of anti-lawn types, most of them environmental activists who say we can't afford to squander our limited natural resources on endless acres of turfgrass. Caught between these two opposing camps are homeowners who, for the most part, are blissfully unaware that a war is being waged for their hearts and minds.

I know because I'm one of them. A few years back, I put in a lawn of my own. Not because I had a nostalgic longing for the smell of freshly clipped grass or derived any satisfaction from imposing my will on Mother Nature. I lived in apartments until I was 36. No, the reason I installed a lawn was that I wasn't aware of any reasonable alternatives. That and because, well, installing lawns is what homeowners do.

Sue me if I sound like an idiot. But there are plenty of homeowners just like me, and I suspect that most of them think this whole anti-lawn thing is willfully perverse, like being against freckles or opposed to digital clocks. Lawns are as American as Mom, baseball and Big Gulps. They look good. They feel good. They have aesthetic, visceral and even medicinal appeal. What's not to like?

For starters, Brad Henderson tells me, lawns consume vast amounts of water, which is scarce to begin with in perennially parched Southern California, and getting scarcer as newcomers move here by the millions. They require vast amounts of chemicals in the form of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer, which turn them into environmental minefields. They don't support our native fauna, which leads to a breakdown of the local ecosystem. "A lawn," Brad says, "is almost completely useless."

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