Our Disappearing Lawns

Well, we can only hope.

Among the people who give it any thought at all there's two current schools of thought on the future of the front lawn in California and other western states. In one camp are the people who view American's penchant for acres of underutilized, sterile, groomed turf as a barrier to community. "Let's foster community using our front yards. We'll redesign and plant things that draw people together instead of using our lawns as barriers," they say. In another camp are those who see our acres of underutilized, sterile, groomed turf as the spawning ground of a return to Nature movement. "Plant natives and you won't consume as much water and chemicals plus you will help the return of wildlife that needs the native plants to survive."

I think there's merit to both of the lawn reformers' points of view, but I have to admit that I'm biased to the return to Nature crowd. Wouldn't you want a quintessentially Californian, low maintenance, chemical-free, low water garden that buzzes with sleepy bumblebees (they don't sting, mostly), attracts and feeds humming birds, gets visits from a wide variety of colorful butterflies, and harbors a few lizards?

Although I've had an interest in native plants for some time and occasionally used them in my landscaping, I only installed my native front yard in winter of 2005/06, so it's just getting through its first summer as I write. It took over about half of the lawn that used to be snugged up against the front of the house. There's still a few non-natives that I'll remove once the baby native plants grow a bit more.

Landscaping now accounts for at least half of our domestic water use according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Because sod is basically wall to wall carpeting for the outside (meaning that it's inexpensive and fast to install but requires constant upkeep) residential developers favor it in new construction. You've graded away all the topsoil? That's OK. Throw in some sod, water and fertilize heavily, and you too can sell the house as "fully landscaped". Large new developments are in hotter inland areas and therefore require proportionately more water. Our appetite for more affordable housing in the near term drives an unaffordable appetite for water in the long term.

The city of Las Vegas now pays people to remove their lawns and enforces a very strict (and wise) water waste policy. Given our periodic drought conditions, concern over runoff contributions to shoreline water quality, and our ever-growing population, I'd expect similar policy to be enacted here sooner or later.

How to replace your lawn.


  1. I'm all for a low-maintenance lawn. Perhaps when the time comes, you can help me select plants that favor hummingbirds and butterflies (cute) while keeping away bumblebees and lizards (ewwww).

  2. We just put down a deposit for converting our backyard groundcover with fake grass (easyturf). We tried (supposedly) low maintenance and low water groundcover at first. But despite our best efforts at weeding, we had a mess of weeds and bare dirt.

    We don't use chemical pesticides and herbicides so our butterfly population is flourishing. We put in a fountain which the hummingbirds use as a drinking fountain. They "surf" the fountain every morning.