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When it comes to our lawns, brown is golden

Beautiful native plants are a water-wise antidote to Southern Californians' obsession with green grass.

August 17, 2009|Emily Green | Emily Green blogs at chanceofrain.com and writes the weekly Dry Garden column for The Times. She is completing a book on water in the Great Basin Desert.

You know it's the silly season when a member of the Los Angeles City Council weighs in on the importance of green lawns during a drought, as the 12th District's Greig Smith did several weeks ago. Yet the council member's motion, which sought to reduce watering times but increase days of the week when watering could be done, exemplifies the frustration of homeowners across Southern California. "For more than a decade, we have had a policy of greening, not browning Los Angeles," Smith said.

It's poignant, this bid to find a water-savvy way to keep Los Angeles green. It cuts straight to the heart of the problem with the way we garden. It's color. We, in common with Smith, have been taught that green is good and brown is bad.

In fact, the opposite is true. In the high heat of summer, brown is good, and green, at least unlikely shows of it, is bad.

Add to that: Tan is good; yellow is good; orange, maroon, gray, aquamarine are all good too, for those are the colors of the buckwheats, sages, manzanitas and deer and canyon grasses of our native chaparral. Those are the colors of our native flora as its spring greens give way to the infinitely more subtle plant palette of California in summertime.

As we in Southern California grapple with the twin threats of global warming and a shrinking water supply, we have perhaps one last chance to understand the message of the tawny colors rising in the hills just beyond our sprinkler zones and drip lines. They tell us two things: First, that native plants have the good sense to become dormant from August through October, when heat is high and water is scarce. Second, we'd be well advised to plant gardens that follow suit.

Those smarter, more beautiful gardens could contain lawn, provided that we selected the right grass cultivars, watered less and allowed the plants to complete their natural cycles. That would include allowing lawns to become brown in summer.

Left to their own devices, the green lawns that we prize year-round would only be fleeting expressions of spring. As new-season grass grows, and spring becomes summer, that grass marshals its energy to push up seed-heads. This is true whether the plant is wheat, prairie grass or our own utterly beautiful California muhly grass.

That golden progress toward renewal is so synonymous with this country that it gave rise to "America the Beautiful" -- amber waves of grain and all that. Even in England, a land with the kind of rainfall that produced lawn culture in the first place, the rolling fields of Thomas Hardy's Dorset are blond, not green, in August. Anyone who strolls the Royal Parks of London in midsummer will be struck by how right the bathers lolling around the Serpentine look in that field of sunburned grass.

But asserting a preference for watery greens in the high heat of summer illustrates a distinctly American break from the ideal. Historically, what has been good enough for our anthem-writers and the queen of England has not been good enough for Southern Californians. We water ever more frantically to suspend our gardens in a forced approximation of perpetual spring.

And yet beyond green there are plants that made California the horticultural envy of the world, as explorers began sending our poppy seeds, coral bells and yarrows back to the Old World for domestication.

Yet while English and Dutch horticulturists tamed our state flower and our lilacs, many of the best of our native plants, specimens profoundly hooked into our dry climate, could not be moved. So pity those who can't grow white sage, Salvia apiana, whose silver foliage is elegant year-round, but which in summer tosses up 3-, 4-, 5-foot-long flowered spires. As the flowers fade, the stalks become shot with mauve, purple and maroon, drying on the those wildly expressive limbs. Not once in the year is white sage green, and not once in the year is it anything short of spectacular.

Much has been written about why we've jumped on the treadmill of green and lawns, my personal favorite being Virginia Scott Jenkins' "The Lawn: a History of an American Obsession." But the fact is, we didn't appreciate the environmental cost of that look when we first became addicted. Now we do, and our water agencies are moving from cajolery to bribes, with cash-for-grass programs in an effort to sell us on a new, more water-efficient ideal.

In that effort, they and we couldn't be luckier. California has one of the most diverse and resilient floras in the world. Just outside of our pruned and planted property lines, the wild hills tell us what's not only sustainable, but beautiful. And it's brown.

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