7 Takeaways from the So-Cal Lawn + Landscaping Dilemma

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Now it’s official; goodbye to the lawn. New rules aimed at limiting the amount of water used in outdoor landscaping say that starting December 1, 2015, only 25% of your yard can be lawn. Translation: the California suburban lawn is on its way out, and owners of new homes will have to get accustomed to a new style of California landscaping.

But debates rage on over how to have a virtuous (and beautiful) yard in a parched state, with some landscape designers arguing that there are consequences for the ecosystem to getting rid of lawn. So what can and should Angelenos do to cut back on lawns responsibly? The advice can be conflicting and overwhelming (and we won’t even get into the grey water issue here, that’s a future post). Here’s a summary of the opinions we have heard on recent DnA shows.

1. Make a Plan 

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to think through any decision you make about your outdoor landscaping. Whether it means keeping your grass, tearing it out and replacing it with fake turf or succulents, remember that your outdoor space is part of a larger ecosystem that affects its surroundings. “Think about it. Sit down with someone and think through how to solve the problem before you start removing the lawn, and think about all of the ramifications,” said landscape urbanist Mia Lehrer on this DnA.

It’s also important to seriously consider what function your outdoor space serves. If you have a lawn just for aesthetic reasons, Lehrer added “think about making it a little smaller and maybe watering it less.” Palm Springs-based designer Brad Dunning anticipates a future in which lawn comes in small discs, amidst xeriscape, purely for visual pleasure.

2. Traditional Turf is a Water Hog 

There are many different types of grass that use less water that are better options including seashore paspalum, native bent grasses, and low-water buffalo grasses.


3. Choose Fake Lawn Wisely 

One of the more contentious lawn replacements is artificial turf. Many people despise it in principle, and others point out that it is an impermeable barrier that prevents rainwater from reaching the groundwater table.

Landscape architect Charles Anderson argued on this DnA that there are some artificial turf products out there that do allow water to seep through.

He says that artificial turf is “not good habitat, but it’s good habitat for humans that want to play on it. I think it’s awful, because it’s fake, but I also think there’s a function, especially for athletic fields, where turf is very expensive to maintain.”

The materials used in a particular artificial turf product are key; it’s been reported that some fake turf might be carcinogenic. Anderson advises people to look for recycled and nontoxic materials.

4. Don’t Kill Your Trees 

Before removing turf and replacing it with pebbles, fake lawn or some other non-living material, consider your surroundings. Mia Lehrer says that pulling out your lawn could affect, even kill, the trees nearby whose widespread roots oftentimes draw from water sprinkled on lawns.

A better option might be to reduce the size of your lawn or to replace it with a less thirsty grass.

California Sycamore at Cal Poly Pomona; photo by Bri Weldon
California Sycamore at Cal Poly Pomona; photo by Bri Weldon (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

5. Maybe LA Should Reconsider Its Trees

While Mia Lehrer warned about the consequences to LA’s trees when people are ripping out their lawns en masse, Charles Anderson argued that many of the trees we have planted in Los Angeles have not been well considered. “When you get down to it, the number of trees and the kinds of landscapes that have been created over decades now are at a point where they are overgrown, they are sick, they need water all the time or they’ll die, and we can’t have landscapes like that.”

Anderson recommends replacing heavy water-using trees like Eucalyptus with native options like the California sycamore and oak trees.

6. Learn to Love Native Plants 

It says a lot about Los Angeles that our most iconic plant, the palm tree, is not native to Southern California.

Anderson is concerned about how native plants in Southern California have been pushed out for decades.

“Surely ecology is not a static system and it’s meant to change,” he said, but “we need to create an urban ecology that’s appropriate, that works with our climate and especially with climate change. So I’m not against certain plants from other places being part of our landscape at all, but I’m really against the others being excluded completely.”

There are other benefits to planting natives. They’ll bring back the butterflies. At a DnA-hosted discussion in Palm Springs Michaeleen Gallagher, Director of Education and Environmental Program at the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, urged locals to plant milkweed, low on water-guzzling (compared with English flowers) and very attractive to monarch butterflies.

Visitors study native planting at Sunnylands Center and Garden
Visitors study native planting at Sunnylands Center and Garden (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

7. Stay Positive and Creative! 

Let’s not make the drought a blame game, says Editor of Boom, Jon Christensen. On this DnA he said “I hope that it doesn’t become a long summer of denial, I hope that out of this there will also be voices for creative, beautiful solutions.”

Let us know about what you are doing to your yard or outdoor space. We’d love to hear about your concerns, dilemmas and goals. Write to us at dna@kcrw.org.