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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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

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