Lawns draw scorn, but some see room for compromise
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Lawns draw scorn, but some see room for compromise
A photo provided by Soft Studio shows repurposed flagstone and gravel used with drought-resistant plants and native grasses to convert a lawn into a sustainable garden in Orinda, Calif., near Oakland. Conventional turf lawns have come under attack, but landscape designers have found a way to use water-wise and native plants to balance green with “green.” (Soft Studio via The New York Times)

by Stephen Wallis



NEW YORK, NY.- The lawn is dead. Long live the lawn. Lately this entrenched symbol of American domestic life — verdant, weed-free and crisply mowed — has come under wider scrutiny as a profligate relic, out of sync with an ecologically conscious era.

For many years, environmentalists have deplored conventional turf grass lawns as biodiversity dead zones that require billions of gallons of water every week in the United States, with outdoor irrigation accounting for a third of household water consumption on average nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. To say nothing of the polluting fertilizers and toxic pesticides and all the mowers belching greenhouse gases to keep those lawns lush and manicured.

“Lawns seem to draw as much irrational hate as they do love these days,” said Paul Robbins, dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of “Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.”

He added, “Green lawns, as much as brown ones, are now seen as a moral failing.”

But there is room for compromise. Even the most ardent proponents of sustainable, ecologically mindful landscaping argue that a simplistic “lawns are evil” narrative is unhelpful.

Edwina von Gal, a landscape designer in East Hampton, New York, who founded the Perfect Earth Project a decade ago to promote toxin-free, biodiverse gardens, emphasizes that lawns are not inherently negative.

“There’s nothing else like lawn for playing with your kids or your dog or a Frisbee,” she said. “But I always ask people to think about how much lawn they need. How far can you throw a Frisbee?”

Her philosophy: “Think of a lawn as more of a function than a fashion, because the fashion is changing.”

A growing number of Americans are scaling back their grass lawns or doing away with them entirely, especially in drought-affected parts of the West, where some states and municipalities have implemented restrictions on new lawns and on irrigation as well as offering financial incentives to replace existing lawns with low-water landscapes.

“Really you have to look at lawns as reservoirs, given the amount of water it takes to care for them,” said Charlie Ray, founder of the Green Room, a landscape architecture firm in Phoenix. “We are trying to reframe the conversation of what is beauty and what is lush-feeling. When you see these huge, incredibly water-intensive lawns, is that really what high-end looks like?”

Even in the desert, it is possible to create seasonal landscapes that feel lush, using native, “water wise” plant material, he said. And a bit of functional lawn can absolutely be a part of that.

Just how much lawn depends on factors that include local climate and ecology. A general rule of thumb suggested by von Gal is two-thirds for the birds. “The science shows that if you have roughly 70% natives, you’re going to be able to support a healthy bird population, and they’re the key indicator species for environmental health,” she said.

Recently, Steve Ells, founder of the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, hired von Gal to replace most of the lawn at his home in the Hamptons, on Long Island in New York. “Over time, we are planting native ground covers and low grasses, punctuated with flowering plants,” she said. “It will be magical.”

Edmund Hollander, a landscape architect with offices in New York City, Chicago and the Hamptons, said aesthetics were a powerful argument for seeking alternatives to large stretches of mowed lawn.

“Most people realize at this point that rolling around in a perfect green sward of pesticide-covered turf is probably not the best thing for anybody, but I’m not going to rely on people’s ecological awareness,” he said. “I can appeal to their sense of beauty and the other sensory advantages to doing something that’s not just ordinary grass.”

Because turf lawns can be monotonous. “It’s the same thing all the time,” Hollander said, whereas meadows not only change seasonally but attract the spectacle of pollinators and “all sorts of wonderful wildlife.”

For one recent project on Long Island, he converted expanses of conventional turf on a large property into various types of meadow, some with native grasses, others with clover or no-mow fescue, while preserving parcels of standard lawn around the pool and outdoor dining area.

As interest in ecological landscapes continues to grow, demand is outstripping the number of designers, gardeners and groundskeepers adept at these approaches.

“It’s a whole different set of protocols,” said Larry Weaner, a horticulturist and garden designer near Philadelphia with a particular expertise in meadow landscapes.

“What’s the right thing to do as a gardener?” he asked. “Fertilize and irrigate? Well, that’s actually helping the weeds more than the meadow, and it’s counterproductive. There are a lot of things you do in traditional garden design, and particularly in turf culture, that in this realm is counterproductive.” (Overwatering is a prime example.)

By necessity, landscaping approaches tend to shift as one gets into the drier regions. Still, the mention of native, low-water landscaping, or xeriscaping, conjures images of dusty plots with a few cactuses and scraggly shrubs interspersed with rocks.

According to Christine Ten Eyck, a landscape architect in Austin, Texas, too many people in the Southwest haven’t “learned to live with a landscape that is brown sometimes.”

“They want everything green all the time,” she continued, “and they just aren’t used to the native aesthetic.”

For a recent project in San Antonio, Ten Eyck reimagined a 6-acre property that had been covered with a lawn of invasive Bermuda grass. In its place she layered native low-water grasses and wildflowers along the perimeter of the grounds. Near the house, mounds of wispy sedge, white mistflower, yucca and agave mix with native grasses and perennials, while plantings of switchgrass, buttonbush and Louisiana iris mingle beneath bald cypress trees in the areas around a rehabilitated pond.

There is also a lawn area, “for the grandkids,” Ten Eyck said.

It takes time and money to replace a lawn, but municipalities in a number of mostly Western states, including California, now offer rebates to help offset those costs.

When Clementine Jang and Jessie Booth, founders of the firm Soft Studio in Oakland, California, converted a lawn into a sustainable garden for a client in nearby Orinda, the project qualified for a rebate from the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Using drought-resistant plants and some native grasses, the designers created an intimate, pollinator-friendly garden with a serpentine path of repurposed flagstone running through it.

The financial incentives for replacing water-hogging lawn with something less thirsty — whether through municipal rebates or slashed water bills — can override and possibly transform conventional tastes. In the 1980s, as many as 90% of Phoenix residences had grass lawns. Today, that number is about 10%, according to the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.

“It used to be that basically about three-quarters of the water that was consumed per household here was outdoor use,” said Matt Thomas, director of studio operations at the Green Room. “There is definitely an attitude and value shift, with people much more into native plant material, looking at the ecological benefits but especially the low water-use aspect.”

When clients want to include some lawn as part of a landscape, the firm won’t consider artificial turf, said Ray, the Green Room founder. Instead, it may set lawn areas lower than their surroundings to capture water runoff, as with a project completed a few years ago at a 1960s Modernist residence in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

There, Ray and his team used a drought-tolerant blend of grasses for limited lawn areas, while the rest of the property was arrayed with native and desert-adapted plants, including ironwood trees and statuesque saguaros.

“The Sonoran desert is one of the most diverse as far as plant material in any zone,” Ray said. “And when you expose people to how rich this type of landscape environment can be, and the wildlife it attracts, they get excited.”

Ultimately, the goal of many designers of residential landscapes is to create a connection with nature and wildlife. “It’s reassuring to see the cycles of life and the inhabitants of the garden,” Ten Eyck said. “They say that if you appeal to two or three or more of the senses at one time, it is truly a healing space, that it lowers your heart rate and does all these good things to you physically, not to mention mentally.”

She added, “It’s certainly healthier than listening to the news.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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