Landscaping can flourish without grass
Photo courtesy of Nan Sterman – This Olivenhain yard now contains orange-flowered California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), pink-flowering Arctotis and several kinds of succulent aloes.
by Nan Sterman
I'm delighted to announce the demise of grass. Lawn grasses are the most resource intensive, non-sustainable plants in our gardens. What else needs to be fertilized monthly, watered several times a week year-round and pruned weekly with power tools?
Clippings are hauled away in big, fossil-fuel-drinking trucks to the green waste facility where big, fossil-fuel-drinking machines process them into mulch, which big, fossil-fuel-drinking trucks bring back to our yards.
Speaking of pollution, most people care for their grass with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Those materials make their way into our waterways and oceans where they wreak havoc with water quality and disrupt aquatic ecosystems.
The water consumption issue is just as important. In arid environments like ours, grass, especially grass mowed short, loses water into the atmosphere at an astounding rate — 50 inches or more per year in the Sierra Foothills and in most of coastal California. Inland, the loss can be 60 to nearly 80 inches per year.
To compensate for such a water loss, you need irrigation to keep grass alive. If you live in Placerville, Modesto or San Luis Obispo, imagine your lawn covered in a column of water 50 inches tall.
In Victorville, Palmdale or El Centro, imagine your lawn covered in a column of water nearly 70 inches tall. That's how much water your grass needs each year simply to replace everyday evaporation. Even a sprinkler system would be inefficient because roughly half the water sprayed is lost to the atmosphere.
The problem stems from California's two main sources of potable water, the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains, which are suffering from prolonged drought. We simply don't have that much water and what we do have needs to be spent more wisely.
People often say "I need grass for my children" or "the dog needs a place to go," which are great ways to convince yourself you need a lawn. In actuality, the dog may like to do his duty on the lawn, but he doesn't need to do it there. Children certainly need places to play outside, but for most urban dwellers the space available for a lawn is minimal. Go ahead and get rid of your grass. Your child — and your dog — will be happier playing around in a park.
In fact, parks are the most suitable places for grass. It's time to think of grass much like we do the neighborhood pool, as a centralized resource to serve an entire community, not to serve our personal homes.
Nan Sterman is a garden journalist, horticulturist and gardening designer who lives in Encinitas, Calif. She contributes to regional and national publications such as Sunset Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union Tribune and Organic Gardening. When Nan isn't at her computer, she's talking to audiences about gardening, either in person, on the radio, or, on "A Growing Passion," her TV show. In her own garden, Nan loves to prune!