YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Public enemy No. 1?

Lush lawns are a Southern California obsession. But with rainfall at historic lows, a turf war is heating up. Critics wonder if grass is always greener.

July 05, 2007|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

IT'S just grass, but don't tell Sheldon Lodmer, for whom the sight of a well-kept lawn borders on the transcendental. "It's very peaceful. It reminds me of openness and cleanness," says Lodmer, whose home in the hills above Malibu's Zuma Beach is fronted by an expanse of fescue roomy enough to field an NFL scrimmage. "There's just something about the look. It's very calming," says his wife Emily, gazing out from a second-floor window framing patches of brown rolling hills that lie beyond.

Brown, of course, is the normal shade of topography throughout the desert that is Southern California, but it's a hue that most people consider unthinkable for the yard. A garden means the green, green grass of home, for crying out loud. It's a feeling hard-wired into the Miracle-Gro souls of America.

The year's record low rainfall, however, may change all that. As the debate builds over the future of the lawn in Southern California, landscaping and horticulture experts say more homeowners are breaking away from water-gobbling turf and replacing the requisite emerald carpet with cactus, native plant collections, synthetic turf or rock gardens. The frontyard of one home in Woodland Hills is filled with decorative wood chips.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Lawn trends: A July 5 Home story on lawns and other ground covers said Scotts Miracle-Gro is a $7-billion company. The correct figure is $2.7 billion.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 12, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Lawn trends: A July 5 story on lawns and other ground covers said Scotts Miracle-Gro is a $7-billion company. The correct figure is $2.7 billion.

"Brown is beautiful, especially during a drought," says Susan Tellem, who ripped out her lawn just a few blocks away from the Lodmers and left the rest to nature. Standing in an accidental landscape of fallen leaves, dirt and the odd cactus and succulent, she calls homes that install monster amounts of sod "a travesty."

"These lawns suck up tremendous amounts of water to keep them green," she says. "Even more moronic are the rich and not-so-rich homeowners here who allow their gardeners to fertilize and mulch those damn lawns while they water the streets and driveways, causing tremendous runoff of toxic chemicals."

Interest in drought-tolerant landscapes has "increased greatly, particularly in the last year," says Barbara Eisenstein, horticulture outreach coordinator for the Native Plant Garden Hotline, a collaboration between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. The hotline provides expertise on sustainable gardens and helps homeowners reduce the amount of water and maintenance their yards require -- often by removing lawns.

About a third of all residential water use in the nation -- about 7.8 billion gallons of water annually -- goes to outdoor landscaping, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In Southern California, the average family uses 500 gallons of water every day, one-third of which flows outside, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. That's about 60,000 gallons a year per household, just for lawn and other landscaping.

Some parts of parched San Bernardino County have started mandating less turf. In Victorville, lawns for new homes can't take up more than 10% of the property. The Victor Valley Water District has a "cash for grass" program, offering 40 cents per square foot of lawn converted to a desert landscape. Last month, Hesperia also began to restrict lawn size of new homes to a maximum of 20% of frontyard space.

But any reexamination of lawn digs up more than entrenched Bermuda. It reveals the extent to which this iconic garden feature has enamored a culture and permeated our suburban identity.

Walter Hrubesky tried to kick the turf habit. Concerned about water usage, he planted succulents and cactuses in his Van Nuys frontyard, but the desert vista left him cold. "I didn't like the looks of it, and I didn't like going out in it," the retiree says.

So he switched back to grass. Now his two grandkids run back and forth, fall on the lawn and love it. They wouldn't be able to do that with succulents, he points out. Although Hrubesky feels guilty about watering his lawn, he says adamantly, "I'm not giving it up."

LAWN, some researchers suggest, is more than a custom. They say humans are drawn to open, lush landscapes for safety and survival. Lawns represent an oasis, albeit a denaturalized one, according to Paul Faulstich, who teaches environmental studies at Pitzer College in Claremont. He has written that "lawns represent the metaphorical waterhole in the parched savanna."

Lawns also tap primal notions of natural beauty. "People want to rationalize the landscape," says Jim Folsom, director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino. "The hauntingly beautiful vista or the garden of paradise is always a place where you have this rich texture surrounding you, but in it is an opening of Shakespearean glade. There is something in our aesthetic that is pleased by these clearings. A lawn fits into that. It gives us this smooth, contemplative, quiet surface."

The color of turf is part of the attraction, beckoning us to the oasis on our doorsteps. Green is a symbol of life and park-like calm; in color psychology, green represents balance and stability.

Los Angeles Times Articles