Plants supplant grass on Calif. lawns due drought
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's capital gets little rainfall, with its hot, dry summers and mild winters. Yet, its lush lawns are modeled on those of rain-soaked England, and require regular watering.
Sacramento's turf tradition is deeply rooted. Various homeowners associations that manage housing developments require people to keep their front lawns green and well-watered. 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 accept 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.
Bottle Brush The New Green
A few home builders are planning development projects with less grass. What they'll plant instead makes more sense for the region’s 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 housing development 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. Most 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.
“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. 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.
Deep-Rooted Status Symbol
Salesmen went west promoting the new yard plans and selling grass seeds.
People moving from the East Coast also brought their notions of landscaping with them to the West. America was booming and the emerging middle class wanted lawns just like the upper class.
Well-groomed lawns in the front yards of homes became symbols of the wealth of the residents who lived there.
“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," wrote Frank Lamson-Scribner of the USDA.
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 planted lawns in front of tens of thousands of new homes. Most homeowners associations continue to insist that those lawns be maintained, even amid the drought. Cities across the region now require homeowners to cut water consumption by 20 percent or more.
State law forbids homeowners associations from prohibiting the use of low-water plants. But some associations still require homeowners to maintain a certain portion of their yards as lawns, said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez from San Diego.
No More Mowing
Cities are trying to fight those homeowner-association rules and offer alternatives to encourage fewer lawns.
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, who runs Roseville's water-conservation program.
The program pays homeowners to replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants, up to $1,000 per household.
A typical lawn featuring grass and plants on average needs 45,653 gallons 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 signed on. The change saves an estimated 14 million gallons of water annually, Brown said.
Britta Kalinowski was one of the program’s early participants. She re-landscaped her home in 2009. Her front yard was once flat turf. Now, it's 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. Sometimes she replaces a plant or two, Kalinowski said.
“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.”