SciSun: How Green was my Lawn   Leave a comment

Grass, as the saying goes, if always greener on the other side. While the ‘other side’ usually isn’t explained, what this adage implies is that compared with something we already have, there’s something else nearby that looks better; even if appearances can be deceiving (another well-worn motto) and we’re better off with what we have, rather than the greener grass on that other side. But what if that grass isn’t green at all, but brown? And in true spirit of the saying, what if we find the other side not better but much, much worse?

In the extreme drought California and many parts of the west are enduring, in some communities, neighborhoods and commercial developments it’s become fashionable to stop virtually all landscape watering and allow grass and plants to die (brown is the new black!); or as a extreme reaction, even replace all existing grass and foliage with rock, artificial grass or hard surfaces. While saving water is vitally important (and there are still people watering their green lawns three or more times a week, in a water-wasting, losing battle!), allowing established landscape to die is causing more harm than good.

Turf and landscape specialists at the University of California, Riverside are concerned that the sudden shift from lush green landscaping to sullen, dead lawns; tree and shrub removal; and the return of dry desert environment to suburbs and urban centers is resulting in both short- and long-term challenges that could be impossible to overcome. Once established many plants require a minimum amount of water in all but the most extreme conditions. Native plants, and those that have been acclimatized to a specific location and ecology are of course the best choices for any landscape; but who, for example, would try to create a lush tropical backyard at the edge of the desert? Or grow palm trees in Northern California? Oh, that’s just what’s been happening the past 100 years? In that case, it’s probably a good idea to re-think those landscaping decisions.

That dry, alien-looking space isn't dirt – it's the cracked and mummified remains of grass that was, three years ago, green number 7 of a world-class golf course.

That dry, alien-looking space isn’t dirt – it’s the cracked and mummified remains of grass that was, three years ago, green number 7 of a world-class golf course.

Carefully managed grass, shade trees, and area plantings are, most everyone can agree, a more pleasant environment than concrete, plastic grass or other manufactured landscape. Artificial turf can be 180 degrees or more on a hot day, and sometimes must be cooled by water spray (that’s contradictory!) before it’s safe to use for sports or playgrounds. Barren surfaces such as asphalt, concrete or dirt get hotter faster and hold heat longer than organic materials, adding to the heat island effect, where areas of dense, artificial development radiate more heat than nearby natural areas (those city parks aren’t just somewhere for squirrels to live, they help keep the city cooler! Although squirrels can be cool, too). And speaking of squirrels, grass, trees and other plants create homes and food for small mammals, birds, insects, worms, and all the millions or more other creatures that help create and maintain a healthy environment. The more lawns that are allowed to die; trees and shrubs removed and not replaced with more environmentally-appropriate plants; and the construction of ‘conservation-friendly’ concrete surfaces (concrete itself needs about 50% water to mix), leads to a sterile, hot, unhealthy and when the rains do come – which they will, one day – dangerous situations when water can’t seep into porous soil or be absorbed by green undergrowth, but races down streets and floods into buildings.

Turf research confirms that all this information only applies to existing, established landscapes, and not new plantings or lawns that have already been allowed to die. Once gone, established landscape is virtually impossible to restore and without expensive and wasteful re-plantings will ‘come back’ only as weeds: Freshly planted grass seed or sod requires daily watering at more than half a gallon per square foot; 60 to 70 gallons for an area about 10′ x 10′. Established lawns, maintained to survive but not be lush, need less water just once a week. Of course a dead lawn can always be ‘revived’ by spray painting it green. Which, if you’ve even seen it, always looks good, particularly if it’s far, far off to the other side.


Michonne Says: Green grass is nice to walk on and it tastes good too. Rocks aren’t as nice to walk on and you shouldn’t try to eat them. But marmots are happy being on either grass or rocks. We’re pretty flexible, as long as there are flowers to eat.

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