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California's drought is changing the landscaping

An entire block of homes has lush green grass lawns in El Dorado Hills, Calif., as seen March 27, 2014. Photo: Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's capital, with its bone-dry summers and mild winters, gets little annual rainfall. Yet, its lush lawns are modeled on those of rain-soaked England and require frequent watering.

Sacramento's turf tradition is deeply rooted and is even required by the laws of various homeowners associations. That may be starting to change, however.

Nudged by local governments worried about water shortages, home builders and homeowners associations are showing an increased willingness to embrace the drought-tolerant landscapes that more naturally suit California.

A growing number of cities are paying homeowners to tear out their lawns. California is in a drought and in January, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency because of it.

Homes Without Lawns?

A few home builders are starting to plan development in a way that they say makes more sense for the region’s Mediterranean climate and regular droughts.

“We’re on the cusp of change. It’s definitely here,” said Kevin Carson, Northern California president for The New Home Co.

The developer is building the first major subdivision in decades in the town of Davis, Calif.

City officials in Davis insisted on the plan. The project will feature drought-tolerant landscaping along its bike paths, and most of the front yards will be landscaped with low-water plants in place of grass. They’re planning gardens of lavender, California wild roses and bottle brush instead of flat swaths of green, Carson said.

A big unknown is whether buyers will want homes without lawns. Carson and others said it’s a matter of showing homeowners the beauty and benefits of drought-tolerant landscaping. They’re counting on preferences to change as the public becomes aware of the need for water conservation.

“We have to give them some different opportunities,” Carson said.

Today, there’s basically one way most people think of to landscape a house: a lawn surrounded by shrubs and flowers with a shade tree or two. It’s known as the English garden, and it’s nearly universal now. But that wasn’t always the case, experts said.

The model took hold in the second half of the 19th century, when seed companies sold the idea from Maine to California, said Thomas J. Mickey, author of “America’s Romance with the English Garden.”

“Nurseries and seed companies had a huge influence on California landscapes,” Mickey said.

Lawns Like English Gardens

Advances in printing allowed for colorful seed catalogs, brought to California by railroad. Salesmen went west promoting the new yard plans, Mickey said.

Transplants from the East Coast also brought their notions of landscaping with them to the West. The emerging middle class wanted lawns like the American aristocracy back East and the English gentry before them.

Well-groomed lawns in the front yards of homes became symbols of wealth.

“In America, the lawn was linked to social class,” Mickey said. “It really took off when people had the money to move to the suburbs. Real estate agents would say, ‘Now you can have a lawn.’”

The federal government, too, promoted lawns to homeowners. In its yearbook from 1897, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) described the ideal turf.

“A perfect lawn consists of the growth of a single variety of grass with a smooth, even surface, uniform color, and an elastic turf,” wrote Frank Lamson-Scribner of the USDA. Weeds "should be at once removed."

Suburban homeowners after World War II took the advice to heart, competing to have the perfect lawn. Homeowners today spend tens of billions of dollars planting and keeping up their lawns.

In the last decade’s housing boom, home builders rolled out sod by the truckload in front of tens of thousands of new homes. Most homeowners associations continue to insist that those lawns be maintained, even as the drought became a crisis this year and cities across the region required homeowners to cut water consumption by 20 percent or more.

State law forbids homeowner-association rules that prohibit the use of low-water plants. But some associations have found ways to prevent homeowners from re-landscaping too much, for instance by requiring homeowners to maintain a certain portion of their yards as lawns, said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez from San Diego. State laws are in the works to fight those rules.

Cash-For-Grass Program

Cities are exploring alternatives that could transform front yards in years to come and reduce the amount of water used.

For instance, Sacramento started a program that pays people to switch from grass to plants that use less water. Roseville, Calif., launched its own cash-for-grass program in 2008.

“We had a line outside the door the morning we started,” said Lisa Brown, the city’s water-conservation administrator.

The program pays homeowners to replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants, up to $1,000 per household.

A 1,500-square-foot lawn surrounded by plants on average requires 45,653 gallons of water per year, Brown estimated. The same size area planted in drought-tolerant landscaping needs only 12,338 gallons of water a year, she said.

Since the program’s start, at least 500 homeowners have removed about 350,000 square feet of turf. The change saves an estimated 14 million gallons of water annually, Brown said.

Britta Kalinowski was one of the program’s early participants, and re-landscaped her home in 2009. Her front yard, once flat turf, is now a mix of rosemary and lavender, periwinkle and crape myrtle, with a variety of height and color.

Instead of mowing once a week she prunes a couple of times a year and sometimes replaces a plant or two, Kalinowski said.

“It’s really low maintenance. I’m really happy with it,” she said. “It looks more interesting. Some of our neighbors are ripping their hair out because they can’t keep their lawns green. They water and they fertilize. I don’t have that trouble.”

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