The Lure of the Lawn

Can Westerners get over their romance with turf?

  • There's an alternative to water-sucking turf, and it doesn't have to look like this

    Mark Skalny
  • The lawn experiment on the Arizona State Polytechnic campus includes a full turf lawn

    Mark Skalny
  • ... 'oasis' landscaping of turf grass

    Mark Skalny
  • ... and granite gravel with a mix of exotic high-water use and desert-adapted plants; xeric native and desert-adapted plants with drip irrigation

    Mark Skalny
  • ... and native landscaping without drip irrigation

  • Christian DeSouza takes a shot from brother, Noah, in their suburban Denver backyard. Parents Chris and Sarah say they love their lawn -- with three boys (including youngest son Jackson), two active adults and two black Labs, grass is the only option.

    Paul Bousquet
  • An irrigated swath of turf meets the Arizona desert, where rainfall is about seven inches annually

    Mark Skalny

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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.

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