Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Twilight of the lawns

This article in The New York Times yesterday caught my eye. It's all about the decline of the great American lawn in the arid West. Most likely, it is a harbinger of the decline to come right across the country in coming years.

As the Earth heats up and drought becomes a permanent part of our lives, water will inevitably become more scarce and much more expensive. Gardeners will be forced to change their habits as water available for plants becomes less available. As the article points out, in some cities in the West, officials are already paying homeowners to rip out their thirsty lawns and plant landscaping that does not require as much water. In Los Angeles alone, since 2009, $1.4  million has been paid out to homeowners under such a program.

In other cities, lawns are now illegal! In Las Vegas, for example, lawns are banned for new housing developments. And the grass medians on the famous Strip are now synthetic turf.

In Texas, as far as I know, no city has actually banned lawns yet, but most of us live under water restrictions that dictate when we can water our plants. Typically, we are allowed to water only on certain days of the week and at certain hours of the day, usually after sunset. These restrictions are enforced more or less strictly depending on where you live. In Austin, if the police find you sprinkling your lawn (or other parts of your garden) during daylight hours, you can be fined as much as $475.

Gardeners are adapting. More and more of us are planting waterwise plants that can stand up to the drought. This is part of the basis for the boom in native plant nurseries. Gardeners are becoming educated to the fact that plants that have lived here for hundreds or thousands of years and have adapted to the dry climate can be used successfully and beautifully in the garden. Moreover, plants such as cacti and succulents are becoming common in landscapes and are sometimes taking over where lush, green grass was once the norm.

This use of native plants and a variety of plants instead of the monoculture of a grass lawn is also a boon to native wildlife, particularly pollinators. In the long term, it may very well be the salvation of some of these species.

The Times article, in their typically even-handed, tell-both-sides way, points out that "some people" think the  campaign against lawns has already gone too far. They point to worries that children will not have appropriate outdoor play spaces. Personally, I think that is a phony issue.

When I was a child, I spent my days outdoors. I was always outside. I can't ever remember actually spending time in the house before twilight. I didn't have a green lawn to play on, but I also didn't have a television or modern technological gadgets to entertain me inside. I made my own entertainment and that was outside. Today's children certainly need to get outside more, but I don't think it's the lack of a green lawn that keeping them inside. It is instead a cultural issue and a parental issue, one that won't be solved by planting a water-guzzling lawn.

This nation was once an ultra lawn-loving place. The American dream was the house with a wide expanse of dark green grass out front. This was true in every part of the country, regardless of climate, and the lawn industry devoted itself to developing grass that would grow in every climate. We've been slow to change, but now that change is picking up speed, and the knowledge that extensive grass lawns are wasteful and not necessarily good for the environment is becoming more widespread and accepted, especially among those who are environmentally conscious. Public policies that encourage this kind of thinking are, in my view, a very good step in the right direction. The twilight of the lawns is no cause for sadness.


  1. I don't know one person for whom mowing the lawn is a cherished pastime. It's astounding that they've remained popular for so long. Like you, I played outside all day when I was young and we didn't have a proper green lawn, either. I think that you're right. Demanding lawns won't be missed very much and we'll all be better for their minimization.

    1. I think we are definitely on to something here. I hope the enthusiasm for the non-lawn yard grows.