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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

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

"For men, especially, the color green provides a deep sense of comfort," says "The Organic Lawn Care Manual" author Paul Tukey. "The color green is serene. It lowers everybody's pulse."

The all-American lawn hails from waterlogged England and isn't a natural fit for the climate extremes of the U.S. It took the advent of grass hybrids and a concerted campaign by the Garden Club of America starting in the 1930s to sell the lawn as a badge of suburban affluence, a civic duty of sorts. By the '50s the social norm of the lawn was fully entrenched.

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.

Lawns wouldn't have stuck around, though, if they didn't serve practical needs. Turf extends the living area outdoors. It stabilizes the soil and keeps down dust and mud. It's cooling in the summer. You want to walk on it, barbecue near it, cartwheel over it.

"There is nothing like the lawn for gathering, for play," Folsom says. "You can get playgrounds where they've got those rubber chips, where they've got sand, but none of those has the quality of a lawn.

"If you're living in Southern California and you're putting all that water into a lawn, what you're investing in is a wonderful open surface for activity, for enjoyment."

For skeptical environmentalists who happen to be sports fans, he offers another comparison: the stadium outfitted with synthetic turf.

"Now tell me," he says, "which is a better carbon footprint: a lawn we're watering or a $250-million space that we're air conditioning?"

For many of us, grass was our first stage on the world outside, the surface of our youth, and the associations run deep. Emily Lodmer remembers her son squirting down the Slip 'n Slide and the party in the frontyard for her daughter when she went away to graduate school. Unlike the travails that play out in our indoor lives, turf is a reminder of unburdened days in the sun.

"Those are the wings right there," Fran Arrowsmith says, pointing to the see-through propellers of a blue darner in a photo from her garden album. The dragonfly is one of many visitors she and husband Bill have welcomed to their Torrance backyard since they dug up half the lawn and turned it into an 1,100-square-foot native plant gallery. Flame skimmer dragonflies, western tiger swallowtail butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and an aviary of winged drop-ins are regulars now but weren't when the yard was all grass.

With a wending dirt trail and artfully arranged blooms wrapping around it, the garden looks like a scenic nature trail. In fact, it does get tours, conducted by the California Native Plant Society.

A bright sun beats down as Bill and Fran detail the local color -- pinkish-red buckwheat, purple salvia and yellow-clustered mallow, among 100-plus plants in the collection. The salvia gets watered once a month; the lupine and mallow haven't needed a drink since April.

"It just killed us to be watering all the time," says Bill, a retired TRW engineer like Fran. "Our primary reason for the garden was environmental."

Adds Fran: "The water situation is only going to get worse. You look at the lowering of the reservoirs -- Mead, Powell -- we're going to be in real trouble."

Active in the campaign to preserve Madrona Marsh in Torrance, the Arrowsmiths decided to take their environmental work to their own backyard. They immersed themselves in native plant courses and, with the direction of natural landscape designer Tony Baker, had most of their garden planted in two days.

The resulting profusion of greens and wildflower hues enhanced -- not sacrificed -- the garden's color. They're so happy with the results, they're going to replace the turf in the frontyard.

"It's not a choice between a green lawn and ugly cactus," Bill says.

The rich palette of native plants makes for the most competitive alternative yet to the classic lawn, and some communities are paying attention. The city of Palm Desert is encouraging a mix of natives with gravel and rocks to combat "nuisance" runoff.

It has a pilot program to replace grass with desert plants, remove sod within 24 inches of the sidewalk or street, and install subterranean irrigation.

"Overhead sprinklers cover more ground than they're designed for," says Spencer Knight, landscape manager for the city. "So we have water running down gutters that should be bone dry this time of year. It's 112 out there."

Lawn care executive John Marshall blames faulty irrigation and broken sprinklers -- "lawn geysers" -- as the culprit in runoff. "Turf areas are very good at collecting water, filtering water and holding it in place," says Marshall, who's in charge of training at Scotts Miracle-Gro, a $7-billion lawn-care company in Marysville, Ohio.

His keys to cutting landscape water consumption: better-informed sprinkler users and systems working properly.

Another factor that could cut water usage is, oddly enough, the backlash against lawn chemicals, which is driving demand for organic fertilizers, soil nutrients and other products. Scotts' own organic line, launched in 2003, is booming.

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