The tyranny of lawns and landlords

Renting culture puts dreams of cultivating wildness out of reach.

 

Before I rented my first house in Boise, Idaho, a city with little precipitation and lengthy dry spells, I dreamt of having a xeriscaped paradise complete with a pollinator garden, raised beds of squashes with drip irrigation, and a rain-catchment system to store all the water I needed for my yard. Ten years and three houses later, I am scattering seeds of Kentucky bluegrass and pellets of fertilizer, and routinely using the sprinkler. What happened to my dream?

For renters like me, conservation can be difficult, or even impossible: According to a recent University of Utah study, renters of single-family houses in the state were 94% less likely than homeowners to make landscaping decisions. Meanwhile, the Pew Charitable Trust estimates that the percentage of renters nationally is at a 50-year high. In the three most populous Western states, the percentage of renter households ranges from more than a third of Washington and Arizona residents to almost half in California.

In the West, about 70% of residential water is used for landscaping, and most of this water ends up on grass.

In the yard of my first Boise rental, splotches of withered grass grew, but little else. The grounds were sprayed by a powerful herbicide that killed everything but the grass, and dust from the patches of empty dirt blew into my living room. The landlord told me I could not transform the yard with rocks and mulch. Instead, I had to “maintain” it.

At the time, I was reading Thoreau’s Walden. I decided to put one of his ideas into practice: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” I let new elm trees sprout to shade the yard. I let clovers and dandelions propagate to provide pollen for bees and nitrogen for the soil. I watered as little as I could, spread native grass seed, pulled weeds by hand, and put decorative rocks in front of the house to reduce the space I needed to water.

After a year without fertilizers, pesticides or mowing, the grasses grew tall, and they seeded new grass that sprouted the following spring. The yard did not look like the conventional grassy lawns of my neighbors, but it thrived in its own wild way.

At the end of my two-year stay, my landlord made me re-think Thoreau’s maxim: He kept my deposit and billed me for yard work performed on my behalf.

I drove by the property a few weeks later. Everything but the grass patches and oldest trees was gone. Without shade from the elms or groundcover, sunlight cooked the dirt into dust. The landlord’s mission to bring the land back to a monocultured lot negated any environmental good I thought I had done.

Landlords might install grassy yards to maintain property values or homowners’ association rules, or they might assume that a grass yard is both more desirable and easier to maintain than other yard types. In the arid West, about 70% of residential water is used for landscaping, and most of this water ends up on grass. Yet even during droughts, renters are told to maintain thirsty lawns.

Landlords might be surprised by how attractive a more natural yard can be, or by its other benefits. In addition to saving water, practices such as xeriscaping can require fewer chemical inputs. Pesticides can directly harm people, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 40% and 60% of the nitrogen used on lawns runs off into rivers and lakes, harming fish and other wildlife. Smarter decisions about Western yards can improve the health of people and the environment.

Even when landlords are flexible, the impermanence of renting can get in the way of environmental dreams. After living for nearly a year in Laramie, Wyoming, in a 100-year-old house carved into four apartments, I potted plants to attract lacewings and butterflies, I put together a composter for food and yard scraps, and I built three large planter boxes — all with the permission of my landlady. A month before I was due to re-sign the lease for another year, the landlady decided to sell the house. With no place to store anything and nowhere to replant any of my plants, everything ended up in the nearest dumpster.

I'm still inspired by Walden, but unlike Thoreau at his cabin on the pond, I have landlords who expect lawncare. Currently, at my new place in Denver, I am being cautious. The houses around me sell quickly, and my current landlady floated news that she might be selling soon. Luckily, with my lease signed for another year, I recently unboxed my composter. I might not be able to transform the entire yard, but I am pulling weeds by hand, and I have sown pollinator plants in a small box built in the backyard. This will not become the xeriscape paradise I dreamed of, and I won’t get away with not watering the lawn, but at least I know that this summer, a few butterflies and bees might visit.

Kevin J. Kelley is a writer and educator. Find more of his writing at authorkevinkelley.com.

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