Ditching Grass

“The rejection of grass is also an ideological shift, towards an acceptance that ‘nature is its own decision-maker’ and that ‘we had better learn to live a little differently with finite resources of water’.”

~ William Francis Deverell, environmental historian

A friend sent photos today of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River with historically (and depressingly) low water levels. It’s obvious the American west is in a drought, and there’s no better time than now to look into water use.

As a graduate student, part of my work focused on water conservation — including domestic use like toilet flushing and showering. At some point, I learned that agricultural use is responsible for a significant part of our nation’s total water consumption. But we all depend on water availability, not just for growing food, industrial and manufacturing uses, but domestic use as well. Just like food and power, we need water to survive.

In the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s there was a lot of focus on water use, and much attention was paid to dam building. One of my favorite books at the time was The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey. It’s the story of a motley group of activists who plot to blow up the recently-constructed Glen Canyon Dam. But short of that, we’re going to have to look for simpler solutions to water shortage.

Over time we have replaced the old fashioned 5-gallon toilet flush with more efficient units that do the same job with three or fewer gallons. That’s still a lot of water, but I personally am not prepared to collect night soil and then distribute it every morning in my garden.

We’ve improved our use of water through other ways as well, included recycling. But the image of a bright-green lawn in the middle of the desert still rankles most of us. Reporter Lois Beckett notes, “Outdoor watering makes up the bulk of residential water use in California, which means that getting rid of grass turf is one of the biggest individual water conservation measures individuals can take – far more impactful than trying to limit showers or toilet flushes … A lush green lawn has long been a symbol of the perfect American home. But as a prolonged drought reshapes life in California, many residents are rethinking what a beautiful yard should look like.”

Beckett quotes W. F. Deverell, “Lush, rectangular lawns played an important role in the marketing of southern California real estate to potential homeowners in the midwest, serving as a symbol of a ‘prosperous, rational, highly-ordered landscape’ … a way to harness the faith that the Anglo-American period had conquered nature”

Some of us have rebelled against that version of the American dream to find the means to avoid water intensive yards. Beckett continues, “In Los Angeles, which imposed sweeping restrictions on outdoor water use this year, thirsty lawns are out — and California native plants are in … Starting this June, more than a thousand southern California residents a month made plans to replace their lawns with more drought-friendly landscapes.”

Xeriscape yards are cropping up all over the place. Beckett goes on, “There are upsides to learning to live with a drier, browner landscape: residents who have made the switch say getting rid of their grass lawns has helped them save money on water bills, and also opened up new design possibilities, including making yards that serve as natural refuges for local birds, butterflies, and insects.”

One approach is to design and create your yard with native low water demanding plants and avoid the traditional square lawn surrounding every home. Years ago I took a slightly different approach more suited to my temperament. I now avoid all herbicide use and seldom remove the so-called weeds that grow here. Our squirrels happily plant various seeds in the yard, and our dandelions give us bright yellow flowers to admire, not to mention the fun-filled “poofs” when the flowers are gone. Clover dots the space in nice green clusters with small white flowers only visible up close. We have luckily avoided the bane of my childhood, goathead stickers, that carpeted some areas of my childhood lawn in Texas and caused enormous pain if you ran barefooted through a patch of them. (Those, I would pull!) Between avoiding the stickers and the dog poop, childhood helped prepare me for life.

These days, I enjoy the feeling of my bare feet on a cool lawn made up of various grasses, weeds, clover and dandelions. Regarding a neighbor’s reaction to her yard, Beckett observes, “It’s not the traditional English garden … but people like it.”

 Sounds to me like a reasonable alternative to blowing up a massive federal dam.

Additional information:

Lois Beckett, ‘The American Lawn Feels Irresponsible’: The LA Homes Ditching Grass for Drought-Friendly Gardens, 24 Sep 2022, Open Society Foundations

Edward Abbey, The Monkeywrench Gang, 1975, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

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