Kill your lawn

Sacramento homeowners love their lush green front yards—but why?

ILLUSTRATION BY miles harley

For more information on creating a water-wise yard, check out and

Cookie McWilliam denies being the Earth-saving hippie type. She makes this disclaimer while standing in the middle of her drought-resistant, low-water, low-hassle garden.

Look around her front yard in Sacramento’s Rosemont area, and you’ll see bright red, yellow and purple bell peppers growing among leafy stalks. A cactus garden sits off to the far right side of the property, lined up with yellow, red and white native California poppies. Silver slipper carpets the entire garden area, sometimes creeping up over the stepping stones.

Wedged between the garden and the planter near the sidewalk sits a strip of grass—a rectangular reminder of what the entire front yard used to look like. What did the neighbors think when she ripped out her lawn and started hauling in truckloads of dirt in the front yard?

“They just laughed at me,” she says.

If not for environmental reasons, what’s the big secret behind McWilliam’s decision to tear up her front lawn?

“I’m cheap,” she laughs. “I wanted it to be pretty and relatively low-maintenance, and just be able to play [in it] as much as I wanted.”

America’s largest irrigated crop

Spend a few minutes cruising the post-5 p.m. streets of just about any Sacramento residential neighborhood—by bicycle or electric vehicle, of course—and you’ll soon notice what’s really funny about the lawns: They’re mostly empty stretches of grass. There are no kids sliding and slipping down Slip ’n Slides; no neighbors chugging beers on front-porch overlooks, arguing about just how bad the Sacramento Kings suck.

When something is happening in the front yard, it almost always has to do with someone pushing a lawn mower or lugging an edge trimmer—or maybe a sprinkler system spraying water on the grass and onto the driveway.

In other words, the only thing going on in most of these large, grassy front yards is the work put into maintaining them.

Think about lawns for a minute: What are they for? In public parks, we picnic on them and practice our laughable American soccer skills. But when lawns sit in a front yard, what exactly do they do?

The answer: mostly nothing.

Lawn grass is America’s largest irrigated crop. Every year, each American homeowner dumps thousands of gallons of water—accounting for more than half a household’s water use—on a plant that, for most of us, ends up as little more than a dog toilet.

That may not sound like such a bad thing; after all, a lush, manicured lawn can make a house look attractive in that suburban-dream-world kind of way. And who doesn’t love the smell of freshly cut grass?

But consider this: Freshwater supplies are drying up fast. California is entering its fourth year of drought.

So why are we still dumping so much water on our lawns?

Lately, there have been signs of a growing movement to get homeowners—especially Sacramento ones—to trade their lawns for more region-appropriate landscaping. Up until a few years ago, this trend sometimes ran afoul of homeowners’ association regulations and local code-enforcement offices.

But times are changing.

Could it be that new statewide legislation, state and regional incentive programs, and a budding crop of low-water landscapers may actually make it easier for homeowners to finally kill their lawns?

Cookie McWilliam took out her traditional lawn and created a garden that features drought-resistant plants and uses very little water. She’s seen here picking cherry tomatoes, but she also grows peppers, melons, strawberries, herbs and flowers.

Photo By Wes Davis

When lawns took root

All right, so what’s the big problem with lawns, anyway?

To answer that question, we have to go back in time, before grass lawns first came around.

Thanks to a fossil find in India in 2005, scientists who get paid to study dinosaur poop discovered that grasses appeared around 70 million years ago. Poaceae, the scientific name for the grass family, spread across the world and evolved over millions of years into some of humanity’s most important crops. Rice, maize and wheat are all grass species that provide calories both to humans and to the livestock that ends up on our barbecues.

In the cool, rainy climate of England, natural grass lawns took root. Over time, the plants surrounded the vast lands of the super-rich—the only ones who could afford the scythe-wielding servants or the livestock herds that would trim down the growth.

European immigrants brought grass seeds to the United States, where expansive lawns remained a status symbol for the well-to-do up until the turn of the 18th century. Scottish immigrants brought the games of bowling and golf (ever notice all the parts of the country called “Bowling Green”?), which required large plots of playable turf.

Then several factors converged to bring green grasses to the masses.

As industrialized 19th-century cities grew, beautification programs began including plans for parks with public lawns. New York’s Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who would go on to design park projects across the country, soon designed suburbs that included grass lawns for each home. The invention of the lawn mower and the garden hose helped average Americans handle the tasks of cutting and watering.

The bottom line: These forces combined to bring us a crop that doesn’t grow here naturally—and that requires gallons of toxic weed killers and gasoline for upkeep.

But growing lawn grass isn’t just about imitating the estates of English lords. Pamela Geisel, UC Davis Statewide Master Gardener coordinator, says turf grass provides a number of benefits.

“It’s one of the few ground covers you can play on,” says Geisel. “It reduces glare. It can modify the climate, it is a plant that transpires and it does offer a cooling effect.”

“But I think there’s an excessive use of grass in places where it has no function,” she continues. Where are some of those functionless places? Steep slopes and a lot of front lawns, Geisel says.

Silver slipper carpets McWilliam’s garden, sometimes creeping over the stepping stones that lead to the cactus garden, flowers, veggies and fruit.

Photo By Wes Davis

Nice house, green lawn?

Sacramento doesn’t exactly have water to waste on such unnecessary uses. In fact, several factors have converged to thrust the Sacramento region into a water crisis.

First, the drought: In February last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency. “Even with the recent rainfall, California faces its third consecutive year of drought and we must prepare for the worst—a fourth, fifth or even sixth year of drought,” Schwarzenegger is quoted in the press release. “[In 2008] we experienced the driest spring and summer on record and storage in the state’s reservoir system is near historic lows.”

Second, climate change is affecting California’s water supply, as wet winter seasons are increasingly elbowed out by longer dry ones.

And as California’s population grows, more people are having to share less water.

Linda Higgins, water efficiency manager for Regional Water Authority, notes that Sacramento continues to struggle when it comes to water. And although this year has been a little wetter than the last few, says Higgins, “Even if we have a great winter this year, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re out of the drought.”

The water shortage is a problem, especially when you consider Sacramento homeowners dump a lot of water on their lawns. On a yearly basis, says Higgins, 65 percent of a household’s water use goes to outdoor irrigation, and 30 percent of that is lost to overwatering and evaporation.

For a 1,000-square-foot lawn, says Higgins, an average irrigation system will use 25,000 gallons per year. But replacing lawns with moderate-use plants can drop that water consumption to 15,000 gallons; low-water plants would sip about 6,000 gallons in the same yard.

That’s a lot of showers each house could be saving each year.

But if curbing outdoor water use can save so much, what’s keeping people from watering their yards more efficiently? Maybe it’s because Sacramento residents don’t want to work too hard.

“The focus is on easy things we can do, and this is all based on research,” says Higgins. “We did our homework, did our research, did our telephone survey and asked customers what they were willing to do. And they’re all willing to conserve and be more efficient, but they wanted to make sure that that the things they could do were simple and easy.”

Higgins thinks water overuse issues may be partly due to education—some people just may not realize how much water goes to their landscaping.

That’s where water agencies are supposed to step in. There are a number of water-conservation education projects at all levels of government. The RWA launched its Be Water Smart campaign. The state has Save Our Water. Even the Environmental Protection Agency jumped in with its WaterSense program. Through Internet, movie theater and television ads, each program has placed emphasis on outdoor water-use efficiency.

But like all government programs these days, as revenue dries up, programs to help homeowners cut water use are restricted by evaporating budgets. The funding shortage requires that some agencies get creative with their conservation efforts.

The city of Sacramento, for example, has the Water Conservation Ambassadors program, which signs up volunteers to bring water-saving ideas to their neighbors. The volunteers lead classes and spread watering tips in their communities. One idea for future projects is a sprinkler-check day, where neighbors turn on their watering equipment and the ambassadors can make sure the equipment is functioning efficiently.

Still, Sacramento’s water usage is far too high.

Right now, Sacramento residents use about 260 gallons of water per person per day, which, when compared to other California counties, sits squarely on the high end. (The city calculates usage based on the amount of water production per day, as most residents still don’t have water meters.)

Jessica Hess, media and communication specialist for the city’s utilities, thinks besides simple awareness about water issues, there’s a sort of regional mentality about water. “I think it was just a cultural attitude in the region,” says Hess. “We’re between two beautiful and abundant rivers with plenty of [water] production.”

Hess notes that the amount of city water production dropped by 11 percent in the last year. That could be due to the recent installation of water meters.

Prior to 2005, the city charter prohibited the use of water meters. But Gov. Schwarzenegger muscled through the restriction and required that water meters be used throughout the state by 2025.

But will meters be enough to get Sacramento to curb its water use?

Cheryl Buckwalter, a landscaper who specializes in native plants and sustainable environments, is seen here holding a sample of UC Verde buffalo grass, a drought- and pest-resistant grass that requires less water and less maintenance.

Photo By Wes Davis

Smarter water habits

One economist who studies water issues says no. David Zetland is the Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in natural resource economics and political economy at UC Berkeley. He blogs about economic water issues at

Part of the problem, he says, is city landscaping codes that require people to keep nice lawns.

“The traditional reason why landscaping codes require that you have a nicely maintained lawn is the idea that the value of the neighborhood is affected by the value of each house in the neighborhood,” says Zetland. “If so-and-so has pieces of cars in their driveway or abandoned washing machines or an untrimmed brown lawn or something like that, this causes disproportionate harm to the neighborhood based on the eyesore.”

“Those initial codes are very old, and they’re based on the idea that a house doesn’t look good unless is has a lawn,” continues Zetland. “But that’s also like saying that you should make sure every house has a place to hitch your horse. It’s an old regulation based on an old need that you have a horse. And now we don’t have horses, and those regulations shouldn’t be around, and the same thing is basically true about requiring people to maintain not just a greenery but a green lawn.”

There are some cases of families running head-on into local code enforcement when they try to take out some of their front lawn. In 2004, one Sacramento family made the news when they tried to grow a vegetable garden in their front yard. And heavy-handed HOAs can sometimes make the transition to water-sipping yards a hassle.

That’s what happened last fall to landscaper Cheryl Buckwalter, who had to answer to an HOA when her Roseville-area client wanted to tear out a good chunk of their grass lawn.

“They kind of sent us jumping through hoops,” recalls Buckwalter. “They wanted to see a plan that was colored in, they wanted photos of all the plants, they wanted to have a sample of the rock material that would be used or the specific mulch that would be used.”

State lawmakers addressed that issue with Assembly Bill 1881, the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, which keeps governments or HOAs from interfering with an owner’s plans to make their yards more water smart. The bill also sets new water-efficiency standards for residential and commercial construction projects.

Landscape codes aren’t the only problem. Zetland’s doctoral work looked into Peruvian coca production. He says that when he later began looking into the water market, “I found out that it’s just as weird and perverse as drugs and prostitution.”

“It’s not a free market with supply and demand that go up and down,” says Zetland. “It’s more a market with regulation and laws that affect the way people behave.”

Zetland suggests that to get people to use less water, you need to hit them where it hurts: in their wallets.

“If water gets more expensive, the demand for water will fall,” says Zetland. “In the case of landscaping, this is a very, very obvious point. A lot of people say we can’t charge a higher price for water, because Grandma will not have enough water to drink or I won’t be able to bathe my children.”

But with more than 50 percent of our water going to our lawns, argues Zetland, that’s hardly an emergency use of water. His idea is to charge customers a base amount for a reasonable amount of water, then jack up the water fees for people who want to use considerably more. People could keep their grass lawns if they wanted to, but they’d really have to pay for it.

Question: Should Sacramento-area governments, through new landscaping codes, force residents to rip out their lawns? Hess wouldn’t say whether such a measure is or is not a possibility.

“The city is looking at a number of different things, and some of the challenges we face have to do with funding such programs,” she says.

“We certainly don’t want to advocate for no lawn,” says Higgins. “I think what we’re trying to do is make people more aware of their usage.”

Don Smith, of the Folsom Water District, agrees. “That would be a political decision that, I think, would be draconian,” he says. “It’s much more effective to teach homeowners about smart water use.”

And Folsom uses a number of programs to get residents to do just that.

One of them is the use of a smart water-controller system that has been installed in the yards of 100 homes. Its key feature: Homeowners can’t make adjustments to them. (OK, maybe that’s just a little draconian?)

“The typical homeowner overwaters,” says Smith. “We want to direct and educate people to use proper irrigation methods.”

The controllers work: An informal study carried out by the city found that homes with the smart controllers used 30 percent less water than those without them.

Pamela Geisel, UC Davis’ Statewide Master Gardener coordinator, is an advocate of regular turf grass for recreational purposes. “It’s one of the few ground covers you can play on,” she said, “but I think there’s an excessive use of grass in places where it has no function.”

Photo By Wes Davis

Grass isn’t greener

So what exactly does a water-efficient landscape look like? Do the words “drought resistant” mean plopping down cacti and sagebrush in our front yards? After all, who wants a yard that looks like Arizona, right?

This year’s California State Fair gave attendees a chance to see for themselves what a low-water yard can be.

Julie Saare-Edmonds, from the Department of Water Resources, and Teresa McEntire, farm manager for the California State Fair, teamed up to give tours and answer questions for people who want to give their landscaping a water-wise makeover.

“Some people think a water-efficient yard means ugly brown sticks, and it’s not,” says Saare-Edmonds.

“They’re simply water-efficient plants that are still extremely beautiful,” says McEntire.

Visitors to the farm could see examples of gorgeous water-sipping gardens: fleshy succulents; tall grasses (the low-water kind, obviously); and colorful flowers such as daisies, black-eyed Susans and Russian sage. With Sacramento’s Mediterranean climate, it makes more sense to plant plants accustomed to our drier climate.

Saare-Edmonds points out that the benefits of using Mediterranean climate plants extend beyond saving water: “They require less maintenance and fertilizer. You don’t have to yank out that heavy, gas-guzzling lawn mower from the garage every two weeks. Perennial plants don’t need to be replaced each year, which helps retain yard soil and reducing erosion.”

Plus, lawn grass is a monoculture, meaning that it doesn’t support a lot of biodiversity. In the farm’s planter brimming with flowers, several species of bees were spotted buzzing around the bright flower petals.

“When you have a monoculture like grass, you don’t have a lot going on,” says Saare-Edmonds. “A good landscape provides more for the environment; it shouldn’t be only for looks.”

But there’s another benefit to having a unique yard: The neighbors get excited.

Back in the Rosemont neighborhood, Cookie McWilliam has seen that. Every once in a while, she gets a note dropped in her mailbox by some admirer.

“It was a photograph, and the written note said, ‘I really enjoy your garden,’” she recalls, with a proud smile.

She started work on her new yard long before low-water yards were in vogue—Remember, she says she’s not one of those liberal environmentalists. Still, her next project is installing drip-irrigation lines, a direct result, she says, of the new water meter that’s been tacked onto her house.

“The transition I’m doing here is a direct result of the new water meters, so that I can have less to water and it can still be pretty,” she says through a smile. For now, she uses a hose to water her roses—which some neighbors have helped themselves to on Mother’s Day.

When asked if she took advantage of any of the water-efficiency rebate programs, she replies, “I’m not aware of any.”

McWilliam will admit that the project hasn’t been simple.

“Any way you slice it, it’s labor-intensive,” she says. “But I so love it, and it makes my heart happy when I come home and drive up in front of this and look at all the pretty.”

She points to the full yellow bloom of a dinner plate dahlia. “Really, look at that thing down there. Isn’t that gorgeous?”