March 16, 2007

the grass is always greener

we live in a 1955 development in the san fernando valley of los angeles. the average temperature here in the summer is 95F (35C). (though last summer we set a record going for 21 days straight with temps over 100 degrees fahrenheit and setting an all time record of 119F (48C) on July 22 and this winter has also been the warmest on record.) average annual precipitation sits at 18 inches. (the national average is about 39 inches.)

when i first moved to my neighborhood, i wondered: how does everyone keep their lawn looking so good? (and why are we so obsessed with keeping it this way?)


then i learned. it is estimated that the average southern california family uses 500 gallons of water a day. (500 gallons!! i think that is about 1900 litres. just think of all those milk jugs lined up...) 30% of that in the house. that leaves 70% going to watering the lawn and filling the swimming pool. i am told the figure for outdoor use is likely higher in the valley, where we receive less precipitation, and the mercury rises higher. i cannot fathom that amount of water being poured onto the ground. besides that, think of the run-off, and all the pesticides and fertilizers it is carrying out of the valley, under the santa monica mountains, and into the pacific ocean.

the history of the lawn in the u.s. relates to the housing boom that our home was part of. that ideal of suburban perfection. but it goes back further than that. back to english manor homes with grand entrances. where vegetable gardens were hidden and idyllic landscapes were constructed. lawn = success. (and it better be green!)

when we purchased our house almost six yrs ago, we talked about doing it differently. we do have a pool. (solar powered, and i dare say a must with days in the 100s.) but we don't have a lawn. well, actually we do. but it hasn't been watered. leaving it to look much more brown than green.

i like green.

so, our goal this summer is to tear it out. cap off our sprinkler system. and go native. (plus some raised veggie beds.) socal native plants are adapted to winter rains and summer drought. once established, they should need very little water other than that provided by mother nature. and we should see a considerable decrease in our water consumption.

so we are at the beginning of the journey. we have a basic plant list in hand. a rough plan drawn. and are planning a trip here to check out some specimens "in person". pointers are always welcome!

and i'll let you know how it goes...

inspiring me...
california native plant society
the american lawn
edible estates los angeles
heat wave
l.a. county dept. of public works : how to save water outside the home

update - links from the comments that i should have included! thank you thank you!
beyond pesticides
theodore payne nursery
las pilitas nursery (we developed our list from this one, i love it - you can put your zip in and get the plants for your area)


f. pea said...

lawns! it's amazing how much work, water, money and chemicals people pour into such a measly little green plant as grass. beyond pesticides has just put out a new fact sheet on eco-friendly lawns (for those who don't live in a desert): thanks tracy!

Anonymous said...

I read the whole book American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. It's so good! I became very interested in the green lawn obsession after reading Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn. Both books reminded me that when man drifts father away from nature, we tend to get ourselves in a real bind. Seeing the green lawns in a place like Arizona makes me scoff and wonder- whats the point?
I would recommend both books to you, they are amazing. I'll send the lawn book if you would like(I got lucky and got it at a used book store).

Allison said...

I read an article in the Chicago Tribune this past weekend that fits right in with your blog here. The story is about an urban family here that is doing their best to live an eco-conscious life. Their ideas are interesting...especially the sink on top of the toilet which recycles draining water!!! The article can be found on their website under the Home section, and the link is:,1,1349921.story?coll=chi-leisurehome-hed&ctrack=1&cset=true. They have great tips on composting, water conservation, eliminating paper waste, avoiding over-consumption, etc. What I really like is their idea that going green doesn't have to be expensive (like re-fitting your home with solar panels), but rather there are many small things you can change in your daily living to be more eco-responsible.

E.B. said...

If you have any trees, put mulch around the base of the trunk outwards to where the roots end. Mulch holds water really well. We're in the process of going native at our house here in Texas (summers with 50+ days of 100+ degree heat!) but want to maintain our trees. Hope that helps! Keep posting your progress and findings. We need all the help we can get! :)

Anonymous said...

Here in semi-arid Denver, Colorado we too struggle to keep our water use down. I've gone xeriscape and native as much as I can, and every year I replace a bit more lawn with looks better, I get so many compliments from neighbors, and I feel better about how I'm taking care of my bit of earth. I'm really not much of a "green" person in many other ways, but inthis way I'm trying...

Eunice said...

one thing that might help with your water conservation is to use a rain barrel -- you can leave it out year-round and use the collected rainwater for the gardens. The plants like rainwater anyway, because it's not filled with chemicals and it'll probably be at the optimum temperature.

another thing that might help is a greywater system, which uses runoff from your showers and baths (and probably washer and dishwashers) to water plants. there's a fun but informative zine that shows you how to set up a greywater system as well as providing other water conservation tips.

other practical water conservation tips:
-collect all the water you find lying in house, such as water glasses left overnight, or water from the dog/cat bowl
-collect water that you run in order to get warm water
-put collected water into buckets or pitchers and use them for plants or for soaking dishes or flushing toilets or anything that doesn't necessarily need sterile water (like for making compost tea)

the neat part of all this is that after a while it becomes a habit to conserve water and your water bills start shrinking...

oh, and you can use leftover cooled tea (without milk or sugar) as a fertilizer for plants. and if you have leftover boiled water, you can pour those on weeds to kill them.

front yard gardens (as opposed to lawns) are so much more pleasing aesthetically and makes a neighborhood walk enjoyable. most of my favorite photos are taken from other people's front yard gardens.

BunkleLife said...

Though to a lesser extent obviously, water-hogging lawns are also an issue in Vancouver. Look forward to seeing what you come up with! (I'm not a lawn lover - at all - too much work, and so very BORING!). Friend of mine in Toronto actually used "blanketing" herbs (thymes if I recall correctly) and low growing lavenders to cover her front garden - lower water consumption than a lawn, and oh my god it smelled good!

Anonymous said...

Good for you!

I live in an entirely different type of climate (frigid winters, humid and jungle-like summers), but find myself mulling over this topic a lot. I am trying to get rid of the lawn a bit at a time too. It freaks me about that so many of my neighbors have Tru-Green and Chem-Lawn come to their homes. Then, they leave little warning signs around the perimeter of their yard ... stating that animals and children should not be on the lawn for 24 hours. And, why do they need to kill all the bugs?!

Okay, I am off on a tangent, but ... I just wanted to say how awesome that I think it is that you are making this change. We all add up to a big change.

(By the way, hello, I'm Jodi. I recently subbed via bloglines. I am mostly a lurker.)

Dawn said...

xerscaping is the best thing anyone can do. i don't know why more people don't go that route when planning their yards. gardens can look just as beautiful and use a whole lot less water.

Alison Peters said...

People driving past our front lawn must think we drench it every day, it is so green. The Sydney water supply has been dropping scarily, and I am sure our neighbours must think we are secretly breaking the water restrictions.

Funny thing is, our lawn is never watered. Ever. We find it harder to maintain the plants in our mulched garden beds. The secret is that this particular breed of grass is drought resistant, and seems to require no watering. It soaks up any rain that falls, and that seems to be enough. It apparently was perfectly chosen for this particular area, and these particular conditions.

So I guess if you love green, and would like a little patch of it somewhere- it is possible- with a lot of reasearch- to choose something that will not require a lot of (or in our case any) watering.


Anonymous said...

As a former Texan, I can understand where you're coming from; our lawn was always a difficult one to keep green in the hottest of summer days. Although not quite old enough (or not quite exposed enough) to understand the danger of pesticides and runoff back then, I think that 500 gallons is astonishing...I can't even fathom that much! Now living in Connecticut and in an apartment complex, we are no longer in charge of keeping a green lawn, and it is not much of an issue anyways naturally. I wish you the best of luck with your very commendable endeavour!

Alison Peters said...

Hi again,

I've just had a request for the name of the grass I was talking about.

It is 'Sir Walter' Buffalo.

We have clay soil, and good sunlight. We live to Sydney's north. There are probably other types that work just as well in other areas and conditions.

Anonymous said...

I'm a SoCal native plant gardener myself. I highly recommend the Theodore Payne Nursery in Sunland. Best of all, their Native Garden Tour is April 28 & 29. The garden tour is a great way to see how others have reclaimed their true Southern California garden by going native, get ideas for your own design, and make contacts within the native gardening community.

Anonymous said...

i started turning up parts of our lawn today. and we've only had it a year! sometimes it pays to see what will work and won't. in our case it works *a little* and with the rest we're trying something different.

Anonymous said...

What you are doing is xeriscaping, water efficient landscaping. A Google search will net you a bunch of good reference sites but this one will get you started.
I'm looking forward to reading your entries as your work proceeds.

Anonymous said...


keep us posted...

Anonymous said...

this is so exciting! a great idea - lawns are so silly. i think this sounds wonderful.

maura (paperbluebird)

mimulus said...

I live in N Cal and swear by gravel gardens: natives with other mediterraneans heavily mulched with angular gravel. I have found this site to have the most comprehnsive info on natives...

your gravel can become a patio too...just make sure you use "native" rock...stuff that comes from within 150 miles or so...not something that is brought from halfway across the continent. YOu may also consider crushed recycled concrete as mulch, but not very barefeet friendly. And this first summer if you do manage to plant out, it will definitely need supplemental water to get established. You might want to kill your grass this summer (try solarizing, no need for herbicides) and then improve your soil and get it ready for planting. Late autumn and winter are great times to plant fact summer is the worst time to plant CA natives.

Cally said...

Great post Tracy, one where everyone's personal choice can make a massive impact.

As a kid from Scotland I never thought much on LA's green grass till we visited Mono Lake and realised where all the water was coming from. It was the most beautiful yet disturbing natural habit destruction I'd ever seen and I've never taken water for granted since then, even in rainy Scotland.

Re. gravel gardening (previous comment). Be aware if you are buying new gravel that it is being taken from a natural environment somewhere. Sometimes is a huge quarry, othertimes just a small truck scraping all the beautiful pebbles from a natural riverbed leaving no habitat for fish and insects.

This was another one that shocked me when I saw it in real life, in real nature and it made me realise these things should be used sparingly always choosing alternatives if possible. If you have to use it, check out the sourse of any gravel or aggregates you want to use before you buy to be sure you are not contributing to the destruction of a particularly diverse or important part of the country. Though I would value it all.

Cody said...

A family in my neighborhood has a little yellow sign in their front yard that at first glance looks like one of those "stay off" chemical warnings, but cleverly enough it has a picture of variously sized human figures as well as a dog and the statement, "Chemical Free -- I love my family more than my lawn."

Hooray for sensibility!

Anonymous said...

Hi there - I don't know if anyone mentioned this already (I'm too wiped out to read through all of the comments right now!), so I apologize for being redundant if someone did, but you may want to check out some books on permaculture, as well. It can be difficult to put into practice in smaller spaces, but might be a great source of ideas as you grapple with issues of water conservation and appropriate landscaping. A really good place to start is Toby Hemenway's excellent book, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture - it's very accessible and covers all of the basics thoroughly without being overwhelming.

Good luck to you!

Anonymous said...

1900 litres! that's such an incredible waist. I'm off to read through everyone's comments and thoughts on this topic. I'll also look forward seeing how your native garden progresses and how many local birds and critters you can attract.

jessica said...

the solar power for your it for the motor? i'm thinking you do not need to heat it since it is so hot there, so it must be for the motor.
we just built our house in bahia, brazil and we have solar power for the hot water. i wish we could have it for electricity, since it is astronomical.

Di said...

I live in Melbourne, Australia, and we're currently on water restrictions due to drought and dwindling supplies- this includes a ban on watering lawns, which has been in force since early summer.

We haven't really gotten our act together with collecting greywater from inside the house to use on the patch of lawn we used to have, so it's now a bit of a dirtbowl.

Most of the rest of the garden is fine though, due to the resilient plants we selected, heaps of mulch, and the once a week watering that they get (we have two days per week when we're allowed to water, and we're often too busy with other things to water at our allocated time-slot).

I think natives are the way to go! Good luck with your garden!

amisha said...

such a timely post for me... we are trying to figure out what to do with the expanse of dead brown space that is our 'lawn' right now... we've been resistant to planting new grass that will have to be watered (though i am intrigued by the drought-resistant grass alison mentioned...) and want something green and lovely, but not something that will require us to join our neighbors in their thrice-weekly waterings. a native plant garden would be ideal.

Anonymous said...

I am really pleased by your concern on water saving especially acurate in your area. I realized that during a trip some years ago in California : I was really striking seeing green lawn in Las Vegas for example ! I do live in europe in a place where water saving is not so much a concern, but I am very found of your "natvive plants" study for your lawn... Is is a bit like eating seasonal fruit and vegies... something from good sense that we have left behind us from so long... I am impatient to see your new lawn...

Anonymous said...

hello there

I couldn't agree more with you. I live in Australia and it just makes sense to plant local native plants in your yard. We are just over a year into our native garden and I can't believe how well it has thrived. We lost a few plants in the summer but quickly replaced them. Who wants to mow a lawn in their free time? Good luck with the garden.

Anonymous said...

just a suggestion... i worked at a permaculture farm in australia for a while and one of the things they did to help with watering was keep a bucket in each shower. if your shower takes a few minutes to heat up, collect all that water in a bucket and then bring it outside to dump... they also did things like use biodegradable soap for washing dishes and rinse them in a bucket of shower water, then dump it outside on something alive. they had a lot of buckets in their house

Al said...

I just found this blog, and I'm so glad I did! I'm getting my master's in conservation biology, so I love reading sites about environmentally responsible living, but so many of them are boring, dull, preachy or hyperscientfic (blah). I can't wait to see more of Sew Green, it's great so far! And bravo to your anti-lawn project - (most) lawns are evil!

Tracy said...

thanks for all the wonderful suggestions everyone! (i am moving a bucket into the shower todsay!)xt

Anonymous said...

Hi Tracy,
Here's something for those in the L.A. area:

What: Arcadia High School Sierra Club and Gold?n
West Surplus Inc. holding E-waste Drive to benefit
the Sierra Club at Arcadia High School and to help
our local environment.
Gold?n West Surplus Inc is a state approved
collector and recycler with 15 years experience in
properly recycling and disposing of California?s

When: March 24th, 2007
9:00 am ? 2:00 pm

Why: In order to protect people from toxic
electronic-waste and to better our environment. This
E-waste Drive is also beneficial to the Arcadia High
School Student Sierra Club who will receive all
proceeds from recycling electronic waste. With
California?s new regulations regarding what you can
throw away and what you cannot throw away, the
Arcadia High School Student Sierra Club is offering
the public a free opportunity to properly dispose
all the E-waste materials that are no longer viable
to the general public. This event is open to any
residents and businesses wishing to help the
environment as well as to support Arcadia High
School?s dedicated Student Sierra Club in their
efforts to enhance the environment.

Where: Arcadia High School student parking lot
right off of El Monte and Duarte Rd.

How: Anytime from 9 am to 2 pm, bring your
e-waste items and drop them off at the Arcadia High
School student parking lot for free. Gold?n West
Surplus inc and the Student Sierra Club will take
care of it from there on.

E-waste items include but are not limited to:
*Computer monitors *Tv?s *Computer
Systems *DVD Players *VHS Tapes
*VCR?s *Cell Phones *Printers
*Stereo Equipment
*Telephones/Communications Equipment *Cameras
*Home electronics
Excludes: fluorescent light bulbs

Tracy said...

thanks alyssa!

petite gourmand said...

great post Tracy,
we are doing something similar this spring, getting rid of the grass in the back yard and flag-stoning instead and planting evergreen shrubs that require minimal h2o & energy to maintain.
It's much easier in an urban environment with a tiny yard though, but hopefully more people will follow suit..

Louise said...

Yikes, I must have been tired when I typed my last comment... I typed "waist" when I meant "waste".

rachael said...

native gardening is so rewarding, not only are you conserving water, but native birds and animals are then more attracted to your yard...and there are some wonderful native plants available in every thing though, some townships require a certain percentage of your acreage remain grass covered...i experienced this in you might want to ask someone about that...good luck and please share some photos :)

Anonymous said...