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Know the West

The Lure of the Lawn

Can Westerners get over their romance with turf?


PHOENIX, Arizona — On the eastern fringe of the Phoenix suburbs, where strip malls interweave with subdivisions and cotton fields, Arizona State University horticulture professor Chris Martin is thinking about water. During the latter days of the longest dry spell in city history, under a desert sky that’s dull with dust, Martin is studying the fraught relationship between yards and the people who plant, cultivate and irrigate them.

Arizona State’s Polytechnic campus used to be Williams Air Force Base, and the place has a hastily remodeled feeling, its 600 acres of real estate hanging loosely around its small student body. On the northern end of campus lies a development of about 150 homes, former military housing now occupied mostly by students and their families. The one-story houses are unassuming in the extreme, distinguished only by the color of their stucco and the number of their bedrooms. Martin and his colleagues — sociologists, biologists, chemists and others associated with an urban ecology research program at Arizona State — recently introduced some variety into the neighborhood, and not everyone is happy about it.

"These people were ecstatic, of course," Martin says, gesturing at a half-dozen homes arranged around a neat horseshoe of deep green turf. "But the people who lived in the native treatment — now, they were bummed out. They said, ‘We’re going to have native plants in our yard? You mean cactus? Oh, no.’ "

Though this neighborhood is an unlikely laboratory, it’s the perfect place to study the lure of the suburban lawn. Before Martin and his fellow researchers arrived, these yards were little more than bare soil and dormant Bermuda grass. The investigators chose four groups of six houses each, then overhauled each group’s backyard landscaping. The first got the lush spread of turf; the second an "oasis" landscape, with desert and subtropical plants interspersed with patches of turf; the third a variety of desert plants, each drip-irrigated and surrounded by granite gravel; and the fourth the unpopular "native" treatment, a sparse selection of Sonoran Desert plants with no supplemental water.

Martin and his colleagues are now comparing these yards with the rest of the neighborhood, looking at who uses them and when, what kind of wildlife habitat and climate they create, and whether or not the residents are pleased with the changes visited upon them.

That last question may not need a lot of analysis. "We talk about how we like desert landscaping, but when we close our doors, most of us just want our turfgrass," says Martin. "Green is still really important."

Many people see landscaping as a long to-do list, a tedious cycle of pruning and mowing and mulching. But seen through Martin’s eyes, yards are a tapestry of human needs, illusions and habits, of practical and unconscious desires, unrolled outside for all the neighbors to see. And while the desire for cushiony, generously irrigated turf persists in the desert, change is afoot in Western yards.

The lure of the lawn is such a powerful and peculiar force in our national culture that otherwise mild-mannered historians describe it in extravagant terms. Ted Steinberg, in his entertaining study American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, calls the rise of cultivated suburban lawns "one of the most profound transformations of the landscape in American history."

Lawns have their roots in the manicured gardens of England, and European grasses made their stateside beginnings as livestock pastures. American yards as we know them developed after the Civil War, reaching their full, chemically enhanced flower during the post-World War II suburban boom. In The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, Virginia Scott Jenkins explains that the golf industry, eager to develop drought- and heat-tolerant strains of turfgrass for its courses, supported federal turf research that helped residential lawns spread throughout the Sun Belt and the rest of the Interior West.

Turf was no passing fad. Last year, researcher Cristina Milesi at the University of Montana reported that turfgrass — on lawns, parks, ballfields, and elsewhere — is the largest irrigated "crop" in the United States, occupying three times more land than irrigated cornfields. Suburbs are one of the fastest-growing land-use types in the entire world, so turf’s reach and influence are on the rise.

The lawn is indebted to decades of savvy turf-industry advertising, but what else explains its persistent appeal? Theories abound. Lawns might recall the African savannahs where the earliest humans lived and hunted; they might spark memories, especially for those of Northern European descent, of ancestral forests and moist meadows; or they might represent the "pastoral ideal," the pervasive American dream of escape from the dirty city to the quiet, healthful country.

Layered atop these unconscious motivations are more practical reasons to love the lawn. In the Arizona State experimental neighborhood, the tricycles and pop guns scattered on the lawns attest to their family friendliness. Turf (at least the chemical-free kind) provides a safe, soft place for toddlers to play, and a comfortable spot for adults to gather and relax outdoors; a well-mowed lawn is acceptable to the crankiest of neighbors; lawn upkeep, though often expensive and time-consuming, requires few decisions and little risk, thanks to decades of R&D by the lawn-care industry.

Some landscape architects suggest that lawns also encourage community cohesion: Open, flat front lawns allow more socializing among homeowners and passersby than shrubbery and stands of trees, and may even reduce crime by ensuring a clear view from the front porch, thus putting more "eyes on the street." "In theory, at least," writes food and gardening journalist Michael Pollan, "the front lawn is an admirable institution, a noble expression of our sense of community and equality."

But this admirable institution comes at a steep price: $40 billion. That’s how much homeowners spend each year on the care and feeding of turf, an exotic crop imperfectly adapted to most American climates. To be sure, this massive outlay buys plenty of pleasant croquet games and backyard parties. But it also buys nitrogen-rich fertilizers, which can end up in streams and oceans, causing algae blooms, degrading water quality, and killing fish. It buys toxic lawn chemicals, which can be tracked inside houses; dubiously designed lawnmowers, which burn and mangle tens of thousands of people every year; and gas for mower engines, even the newest of which, proportional to their size, emit 93 times more smog-forming pollution than late-model cars.

And in the West, the highest price is paid in water.

During the postwar building boom in Phoenix, shady, grassy, flood-irrigated yards were the norm, and their necessity was all but unquestioned. "People would go to their porches and roofs at night to escape the heat inside the building," says Martin. But in the early 1960s, air conditioning arrived, making landscaping less something to be used and more something to look at. "Now," says Martin, "we experience our landscaping most often from inside our houses or our cars." Since it’s easier to enjoy the silhouette of a saguaro or the flame-colored blooms of an ocotillo from the window of an air-conditioned kitchen, a tentative appreciation for desert views developed.

That aesthetic shift, combined with a continued desire for turf, helped create what Martin calls the "classic Phoenix landscape," and what his experimental neighborhood terms the "oasis treatment." Subdivisions less than a generation old are particular fans of the oasis, which usually features a mix of desert-adapted and showy subtropical plants in front, and a swath of turf in back. This split-screen approach, encouraged by city zoning officials, is becoming more and more common in Phoenix. While oasis yards need less water than all-turf landscapes — in the experimental neighborhood, they use about half the water of the nearby lawns — water savings depend not only on the plants, but also on the owners.

"If you withhold water, desert plants do use less water, but your yard looks like a desert," says Martin. "So there’s this big paradox. People say, ‘Well, I’ll plant desert vegetation, but I want it to look green and healthy, so I’ll irrigate it so it grows like crazy.’ "

For the moment, Phoenix can accommodate its residents’ landscaping whims. Thanks to the canals that bring water from the Colorado and Salt rivers, the city has more cheap water than it can use. But in the coming decades — exactly when depends on whom you ask — Phoenix’s demands are projected to hit the limits of its water supply, requiring fantastically expensive stopgap measures, intensive conservation, or both (HCN, 6/12/06: The Perpetual Growth Machine). Even nearer-term worries plague Nevada and Utah, which rank first and second in the nation in per capita water use — and also happen to be the country’s first and fourth fastest-growing states. California expects to add 11 million new residents in the next 25 years, with more than half of those in dry, hot inland counties; a report released in July by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California estimates that outdoor water requirements in these areas are two to three times higher than along the coast. Rising global temperatures, and the sparser Southwestern rainfall predicted by some climate-change researchers, only darken the dry West’s horizons.

When water managers search for the slack in their systems, they often find it on the lawn. In Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and other cities, outdoor use accounts for a whopping two-thirds or more of residents’ total water consumption. And though agriculture still uses the largest chunk of the West’s water, urban appetites are growing much more quickly than their rural counterparts. "For almost all the dam and diversion proposals we see, the justification is municipal demand," says Merritt Frey, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council. So these are fateful times for the lawn. "In about 2030, we’re going to have to face the music in Phoenix," says Martin, "and that’s really going to mean something for landscaping. Landscaping will be at the front lines."

Twenty-five years ago, Denver got a glimpse of this future. Colorado’s Front Range was hit with a serious drought; at around the same time, Denver Water, the water utility serving the city and county of Denver and many suburban residents, settled a lawsuit over the proposed (but never built) Two Forks Dam project (HCN, 11/20/00: Water Pressure). The agreement required the utility to create an "institutionalized water conservation program," with a goal of reducing water use by at least 15 percent by 1999.

The utility responded, in part, with a garden party. "We advertised it as an X-rated party," chuckles landscape architect Ken Ball, a 32-year veteran of Denver Water. Some of the party’s several hundred attendees might have been mildly disappointed to learn that the most risqué guests were a few exotic plants: the X stood only for Xeriscaping. The word, the brainchild of a utility employee, described a new sort of landscaping, one Denver Water hoped would help extend long-term water supplies for the city and suburbs.

Ball helped boil the Xeriscaping concept down to seven key principles, including the use of low-water plants, careful planning and design, efficient irrigation, and "practical" or "appropriate" turf areas. (Contrary to popular belief, Xeriscaping does not forbid turf, and it does not specifically endorse native plants.) With donations and support from landscaping firms, Ball and his colleagues planned and planted a Xeriscape demonstration garden at Denver Water headquarters, which now contains about 200 species, including arrangements of ornamental grasses, a garden of native wildflowers, shade trees both native and exotic, and swaths of low-water turf varieties. The utility and cooperating city governments then began a campaign of workshops, talks, and other events.

Early reactions, Ball says, ranged from eager acceptance ("It’s about time!") to total rejection, mixed with more than a few complaints about the awkward name. But press coverage of the utility’s Xeriscape garden began to draw calls from water managers and city staffers in other states, and the idea gradually took hold. "This huge network was created," says Ball. "People were not only talking in Santa Ana, Calif., or in Austin, Tex., about their projects, but also talking with people in New York and Georgia."

Inspired by Denver Water, cities large and small began to sponsor Xeriscape gardens. Colorado now has at least a dozen scattered across the state. Voluntary Xeriscaping programs have cropped up in 40 states and five foreign countries, including Mexico, New Zealand, and the Sultanate of Oman.

Xeriscaping has no central organizing force — the short-lived National Xeriscape Council closed its doors in the late 1980s — so it spreads mostly through local governments and rank-and-file converts. This diffuse approach can lead to misinterpretations, such as the over-watered Xeriscapes that Chris Martin sees in Phoenix. But as the number of converts grows, so does their influence, and the diversity of their arguments. Some Xeriscapers simply want to conserve water; others want to retire their lawnmowers, or save money in maintenance over the long term. Some hope to stand out from their neighbors, while others have a deeper desire to live in a "native" or "natural" landscape, however they may define those words.

Luanne Stenho, an elementary-school teacher in the Denver suburb of Arvada, volunteered her neglected, turf-dominated corner lot for a city-sponsored Xeriscaping makeover, and was thrilled by the transformation, which Ken Ball designed. "I invite people over to see it all the time," she says. "I grew up in Illinois, so I’m used to green lawns, but out here, that just doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather save water, and enjoy something that looks more natural in Colorado."

But the lure of the lawn can’t always be quelled so easily. "Some people, you’re going to pry the lawnmower out of their cold, dead hands," says Doug Bennett, conservation manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas and the surrounding area. This resistance isn’t just emotional: Though Xeriscaping usually saves residents time and money in the long term, getting rid of a lawn and redesigning a yard requires some up-front investment. So several Western cities have supplemented their educational programs with less delicate measures — including a bit of bribery and coercion.

In Las Vegas, Albuquerque, El Paso, and elsewhere, residents can now earn a rebate — $1 per square foot in Vegas — if they tear up their turf and replace it with various forms of water-thrifty landscaping. Over the past five years, some 16,000 Vegas residents and 2,200 commercial customers have completed the program, saving an estimated 8 billion gallons of water. In a multi-year study of irrigation habits at several hundred Vegas-area homes, the Authority found that in spots where Xeriscaping replaced turf, water use dropped an average of 80 percent — even though residents received no formal instruction in water conservation.

Western cities and states also offer a panoply of rebates for water-saving irrigation gadgets, and encourage the purchase of drought-tolerant plants through widely distributed lists of "water wise" plants and promotional tags at nurseries. Some government agencies concentrate their energies on reducing the extent of thirsty turf, and caring efficiently for the grass that remains. "We’ve found that we can save a tremendous amount of water just by properly irrigating the lawns we have," says Molly Waters of the Utah Division of Water Resources. Her agency found that homeowners with "set it and forget it" irrigation timers put an average of 44 percent more water on their lawns than necessary.

In some places, low-water yards are the law. In the Las Vegas area, where the most recent drought has brought the city dizzyingly close to the edge of its water supply, new commercial properties are not allowed to have any turf unless it has some functional use. "A day-care center might have grass in a play area, but if we’re talking about a 7-11 or a grocery store, forget it," says Bennett. Turf of all types is banned from medians and other ornamental areas of new housing developments, and even from the front yards of newly constructed houses. Side yards and backyards are limited to 50 percent turf.

"It’d be ludicrous to spend tens of millions of dollars to change mistakes of the past, and then just continue to make those mistakes over and over," says Bennett. "In this fast-growing area, we had to change our ways." The Authority is so devoted to lawn shrinkage that it’s using aerial surveys and satellite imagery to map the remaining turf in the city — information it will use to focus its rebate program.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District also has a squad of 10 Water Waste Investigators — sometimes dubbed "conservation cops" — who patrol the streets of the Vegas metro area, gathering videotaped evidence of broken sprinklers and violations of watering restrictions. Consequences range from friendly warnings to hefty fines, and program manager Dennis Gegen says that while transgressors are often irate, "their water-conscious neighbors just love seeing us out there." Albuquerque, which has a similar array of turf restrictions and waste enforcers, has also organized a group of volunteers to convert senior citizens’ lawns to Xeriscapes, and has a waiting list of more than 100 seniors eager to participate.

Phoenix enforces some water restrictions on golf courses and other large expanses of turf, and city officials are now considering a ban on turf in residential front yards, says city water resources management adviser Tom Buschatzke. A similar restriction proposed in the early 1990s was defeated, partly due to opposition from the development industry. But Buschatzke points out that Phoenix has reduced per capita consumption by about 25 percent during a quarter-century of education and gradual change; the Southern Nevada Water Authority, by comparison, reports that its rebates and restrictions contributed to a 14 percent drop in consumption from 2000 through 2004. The turf war in Las Vegas, argues Buschatzke, is "desperation, not conservation."

While some city officials argue over the best turf-reduction strategy, a few still defend the traditional lawn. This summer, a homeowner in Provo, Utah, received a letter from the city ordering him to rip out his Xeriscape and replace it with turf. (After a public outcry, the city rescinded the order and is re-examining its turf ordinance.) Some developments in the West require that residents adorn their yards with thirsty varieties of turf, fruit trees, or other water-intensive types of landscaping.

Yet other planned communities are heading in a drier direction. New Town Builders, a developer in the Denver area, includes water-conserving landscaping with some of its homes. At least one upscale development in the Phoenix area uses its all-desert landscaping as a selling point. Last year, the Colorado Legislature even passed a law prohibiting homeowners’ associations from banning Xeriscaping.

Still, some of the biggest boosts for Xeriscaping come from the climate. The severe 2002 drought not only strengthened the turf restrictions in Las Vegas, but also led to tight lawn-watering rules throughout the Denver metro area, and convinced the suburban city of Aurora — which once required its residents to install turf — to pass a turf-area limitation on all new homes. During that especially hot and dry summer, Ken Ball’s Xeriscaping talks and workshops began to resemble club dates by a popular band: For one event in Denver, he remembers, about 350 people filled the auditorium, and disgruntled latecomers had to be turned away.

"There are some things you hope for and don’t hope for at the same time," Ball says. "Drought is one of those."

But droughts break, public attention wanders, and soon, the lure of the lawn calls once again. The only lasting antidote is beauty. Unless Xeriscaping is more beautiful than turf, neither proselytizing nor enforcement will succeed in the long run. Who, after all, will fill a yard with ugly plants?

"The bottom line is, people don’t really like native plants," says Panayoti Kelaidis, outreach director for the Denver Botanic Gardens. "We’re deeply ingrained with the traditional vision of gardens — we’re taught that they have to be very lush and green like England or Seattle, and very colorful, with dahlias the size of dinner plates." Xeriscaping, especially in its early days, was often interpreted as little more than a field of gravel with an agave and a wagon wheel plunked in the middle. These bleak, shadeless yards, which critics call "zero-scapes," still send potential converts racing back to their dahlias.

Xeriscaping itself doesn’t prescribe an aesthetic. Though it advises careful planning for maximum beauty, its principles stick close to the ground, concerning themselves with mulches and soil improvements. It’s up to to places like the Botanic Garden, and to gardeners everywhere, to take the next steps.

In the center of Phoenix, city horticulturist Steve Priebe winds through the palm-lined streets of the historic Willo neighborhood. He pulls over next to a single-story brick house, where a carpet of well-shorn turf covers the property from end to end; then, he gestures next door, where a large, spreading mesquite tree coexists with a riot of desert flowers and shrubs. The small lot overflows with different shapes, sizes and colors of plants, most native to the Sonoran Desert but others from farther afield.

To Priebe, the beauty in this crowded yard is obvious. "I look at a landscape like this, and I see so much diversity, so much dynamism, so many wildflowers and trees blooming all spring and summer, and then I compare it to this" — he points to the turf — "I mean, this is green today, it was green yesterday, and it will be green tomorrow. It will never change."

The unruly Xeriscape is an infiltrator of sorts. It belongs to Carrie Nimmer, a New York-trained landscape designer who moved into this downtown Phoenix neighborhood in 1990. When she bought the lot, she remembers, it was covered with Bermuda grass and filled with non-native shrubs — "the kind of landscaping that, if left to itself, would just curl up and die." For about a year, Nimmer lived with the lawn, but she wanted something that would require less maintenance, and attract more native wildlife.

With her tight budget in mind, she made some strategic changes. She killed the Bermuda grass in her parking strip and replaced it with wildflowers. She put in, and then gradually expanded, a few flowerbeds in her front yard. She planted several mesquite trees.

Though the Willo neighborhood was established long before landscaping covenants and restrictions became commonplace in Phoenix, "there was all kinds of screaming from the neighbors," she says. "People are convinced that the integrity of the whole neighborhood lies in the grass." But some neighbors were curious, and a few started asking Nimmer where she’d gotten her shady native trees.

Before long, residents had planted some two dozen new trees in the neighborhood. Then, a neighbor across the street asked Nimmer to redesign his yard. The resulting Xeriscape, which featured a showy red wall, won a gardening award, and tourists started coming to see it. One of the next-door neighbors soon decided to take the plunge, and Nimmer designed that yard, too.

Yet the neighbors on her other side, those with the clean, green lawn, will never give up their turf, she says — "never, never, ever."

Nimmer can understand the lure of the lawn, because she used to miss the lush, dark-green landscapes she grew up with. "But now, I can see and appreciate the colors here — the medium greens, the yellow greens, the blue greens, the grays," she says. "Gray is the green of the West, and if you don’t get that, you’re always going to be wishing you were somewhere else."

Michelle Nijhuis is a HCN contributing editor.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

Have golf's glory days gone by? - Golf – the game that brought grass to the desert – appears to have hit a rough patch in the West

What is Xeriscaping? - The seven basic principles of Xeriscaping are explained

Xeric Families of the West - Photo descriptions of Xeriscapers in the West