Grass and Water

There's a park up the street that I drive by all the time, in fact my children played there a lot when they were little, and I still walk the dog there sometimes. It's a city park with a playground, tennis courts, ball fields, and walking paths. When it became clear that the drought was serious, the city stopped watering most of this park. The extensive green fields became brown and dusty. Lately I've noticed that there's been some work mulching some areas (giving up the idea of grass completely) and I was so excited about that. I mean, I know the ball fields need grass, and that's ok - loads of soccer and baseball teams rely on this park, and some green fields are necessary - they've continued watering these sporadically. But I was glad to see that the city seemed to be rethinking their stance on 'grass everywhere.' However they left one very large swath of land alone, it's not a ball field, and it serves no purpose as far as I can see. Dry and dusty it has remained.

Until now. In the last week or so, I've noticed that it's getting greener and greener. First the green creeped up in the edges, and now the center is turning green too. Since we've had absolutely zero precipitation, that means the city has turned those sprinklers back on, in anticipation of El Nino materializing.

This worries me.

We've been hearing hype, and I mean major hype, about El Nino, and how wet it's going to be this winter. And if it is, hooray. I couldn't be happier. But last week we were looking forward to a big forecasted storm that never came, and we had rain in the forecast for this coming Sunday and Monday and now that has changed as well. And I'm worried that all the rainstorms are going to do the same thing the whole winter - just quietly pass us by.

And if the city is loosening up their restrictions on how much they are watering public parks, doesn't it mean that homeowners are also loosening up and watering more frequently?

Meanwhile I have neighbors that never changed their habits at all - they've been watering their grass all summer long using well water. I don't know if any of them read this blog, but if they do, I'd like them to reconsider this practice. Just because you aren't using city water doesn't mean you're not using a huge amount of a precious resource.

And then there are those who have let their grass die (admirably) but seem to have no plan to actually change anything - they're just waiting for the rains to come back and then they'll have a lawn again. This is almost as unhelpful to the environment as the reckless use of well water.

So let's talk about grass for a minute, because I really think we need to change how we feel about grass, at least in the West where drought is pretty much going to be a permanent fixture, El Nino or no.

I want to make it clear that I totally understand the love for grass. As a kid on the East coast, I spent numerous hours lying on the grass in our yard, staring up at the trees, or reading a book. I loved running barefoot through it, looking for fireflies. My dad spent a great deal of time making sure it looked nice. I'm sure chemicals were involved. He had to mow and weed it each week and I'll bet that was a chore he could have done without, but it looked nice and we used that lawn constantly (there were no devices calling us to go indoors, so most of our free time was spent outdoors).

I also loved having some grass when my own kids were little. I liked being able to put a little kiddie pool out in the middle of the green expanse and lay out a few towels. They could run around barefoot and splash in the pool. Sprinklers, too - who doesn't love running through sprinklers? This is a rite of passage for a kid. Grass is a good place to play catch, croquet, frisbee. One of the best parts about it is that you don't need shoes.

Ecologically, grass is good for basically one thing, and that's covering bare ground. I'm sure it does the whole carbon-oxygen conversion thing, and it keeps a few creatures on the micro level happy. If it's kept up, it looks nice. I watch a show on PBS called "P. Allen Smith" and he gardens in the deep South, and his garden pathways are all turf, and I have to say it looks so lovely. Whenever I go to other states, or to to England, I'm always amazed and delighted about how green it is. A huge lawn is often a symbol of richness and wealth, it's expansive and welcoming.

The downside, even if you do get plenty of rain, is the upkeep - chemicals, fertilizers, regular mowing, de-thatching, aerating, re-seeding. That all takes a certain amount of money and time. Around here, hired gardeners are as common as housecleaners, and it seems pretty normal that no one can take care of their own garden or house by themselves (there's a rant in me about that, too - another time). And, if you don't get plenty of rain, or even adequate rain (because grass needs a lot of rain to stay looking good), you have to use another input in the form of city water.

So let's compare, say, a front yard of turf and a front yard of native plants. For simplicity's sake, let's call this a Western yard, because that's where I live and that's where the drought is at the moment (though other parts of the country do experience drought as well).


          Beautiful - in a 'one-note' sort of way
          Supports small amount of underground biology (although chemicals will reduce
                 this population)
          Prevents erosion
          Provides oxygen
          Provides play surface

          Requires regular maintenence in the form of mowing, weeding, aerating, de-thatching,
          Requires chemical inputs in the form of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer
          Requires a good deal of water, which can be expensive
          In drought, must let go brown, or spend even more money to water it; once grass
                dies, it'll need to be re-seeded or sodded at great expense
          A monoculture; no diversity


          Beautiful AND colorful
          Supports huge amount of wildlife, both under-and above-ground, as it provides
                   food and habitat for many insects and animals, plus a safe soil for the
                   development of a robust microbiome and network of mycelium
          Prevents erosion
          Provides oxygen
          Takes far less water to grow and maintain, and in many cases, no extra water at all
          Actually improves the soil
          Does not need chemical inputs, as plants are perfectly situated to their environment
          Native grasses can be used for a play surface
          Provides ecological diversity

          Needs a little extra water at planting time to establish
          Depending on plant, may go 'summer-dormant,' so more planning might be needed
                  to 'fill in the gaps'

I think the benefit of removing grass and putting in native plantings is more than clear.

Or, how about putting in an organic vegetable garden, which still takes less water than lawn and provides you with food the whole year, while also improving the soil and creating food and habitat for insects and birds? Sure, it's a bit of work on the front end, but the benefits are so much greater!

When you compare what you get out of it, and what the environment gets out of it, why WOULDN'T you remove your grass? If you were told you could put your money into some account that would benefit you greatly, while also benefitting everything around you, with near zero risk, you would RUN to invest.

It's just common sense.

So why isn't everyone seeing this the way I do? Am I missing something? This all makes me think we have a failure of imagination in this country, or a misplacement of values. Maybe lawn has a symbolism I'm not aware of. Maybe it's just the 'default.' Whatever it is, I think it's time to re-think it. Some of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen have been composed of native plants interspersed with Mediterranean drought-tolerant plants, with birds, butterflies, and bees swooping through, a song in the air constantly, and not a blade of grass in sight. If even one neighbor on every block changed from lawn to this new kind of garden, the world would be a much healthier place. If one neighbor on every block changed from lawn to a vegetable garden, none of us would ever have to buy our produce at a store again.