Tag Archives: lawns

mowing is like vacuuming…

I don’t have many opportunities to mow the lawn. I’ve basically told John that the day he can’t keep up with the grass will be the day I break into the Monsanto factory and abscond with all the Roundup they have and then apply it to the lawn. There’s lots of other ways I’d rather use the space.

The day has come. John had some work done on a foot and will be hobbling around for a couple months. The grass, however, well-watered from the January and February rains, didn’t stop growing, and it was time to have the conversation.

Well, in the end, I’m embarrassed to say that I caved, reasoning that he should be back to pushing the mower around in a few weeks, and now isn’t the best season to think of planting something that will require water to keep it going through the dry summer and fall ahead. Besides, John really likes his little patch of lawn, and he lets me have my way with most of the rest of the garden.

So I popped some allergy tablets and pulled out the electric mower and headed for the patch of grass. Back and forth I went over the browning green surface. Back and forth, back and forth. It’s weirdly meditative, like vacuuming, I decided, only with a device that can chop off your toes.

My diverse lawn

As I took down the seed heads it was a chance to look at this what we call a lawn. It’s never been a fanatically maintained piece of green, and features little colonies of Saint Augustine, Bermuda, rye, clover and whatever other species the wind has delivered. The biological diversity of this patch would do the Amazon proud and drive any single-species lawn fanatic to distraction.

The cat, last fall, shaking off the thatch from the lawn. This is inside the house, of course.

By mid-summer it’ll go mostly brown as we cut back on watering to continue with our water conservation. At that point, facing four to six months of brown, four to six months of thatch being tracked into the house every time you walk across the garden, that’ll be when we might continue our discussion with whether we might want to do something else with this patch of prime garden real estate.

Whatever we decide, you can rest assured that we will not be installing the plastic turf that’s getting to be a popular garden surface around town. In fact, I like that stuff so little I’ve started my very first Facebook group, Plastic Turf Must Die!!!!!! As far as I’m concerned fardens are about life and growing things, and this stuff is as dead and cheesy as anything out there. If you’re any sort of joiner and hate the stuff yourself, join the group!

lawn reform

Susan from Blue Planet Garden Blog dropped me a note about a new initiative she was involved in. Lawn Reform, a collaboration of nine bloggers from around the US, is trying to reshape how we all think about lawns and their roles in gardens.

If you’re not already out there crying, “Kill your lawn” (or at least something like “Reduce the size of your lawn”) the site lists six good reasons to think again about the green monster outside your house, “Polluted Waterways,” “Pesticide-Treated Lawns that are Toxic to Humans and Pets,” “Guzzling of Water, a Resource in Short Supply,” “Single-Species Monocultures that Provide Nothing for Wildlife,” “Frequent Mowing, with Air Pollution” and “Overtreated and Overwatered Lawns that Waste $$ and Keep Asking for More.”

To that list I’d add a more philosophical reason to rethink a green expanse, the idea that a lawn represents some weird macho domination of all things natural, that nature isn’t acceptable to live with until it’s been chopped to smithereens and reshaped into something that’s a pale imitation of itself. Start with this mindset and it’s not a a big leap to Silent Spring, global warming or The Bomb.

To promo Lawn Reform, Susan is hosting an “I used to have a lawn but now I have…” contest, where you’re encouraged to submit photos and stories related to transforming lawn into something else. The winners, drawn at random, will receive a copy of John Greenlee’s new book, The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn.

Dead Grass

I’ll share a couple of life-after-lawn photos of my own. The newest expanse, which might be described as “I used to have a lawn but now I have dead grass,” is a fairly unattractive alternative to lawn, a patch of unwatered grass that’s in part a response to our current water rationing. This is probably nothing that’s going to make anyone do something else with their lawn, but it’s ugly enough that we’ll have to do something about it.

Front yard overview

The second shot is an overview of my front yard, taken during the unflattering light of midday in the heat of September, something like 18 years after the we took out the front lawn. At the time we, along with much of Southern California, were into a lot of South African species, so there are a couple different forms of a stately tree aloe, Aloe barberae (a.k.a. A. bainseii) to the right, along with a big mound of Aloe arborescens. To the left is a big clump of the maligned red fountain grass from farther up in the African continent; it’s a plant that people tell you not to plant because of its invasive tendencies, although this version hasn’t self-sown in two decades. (Other versions of fountain grass, however, can take over an ecosystem in no time.)

We’ve tried various California natives over the years in this space. The most successful has been the row of coyote bush brush cascading over the front wall, Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point.’ It’s a plant that’s been said to have a ten year useful life. For us it’s doubled that number of years, though it’ll probably get renewed this planting season. Another corner of the ex-lawn, not shown here, features some buckwheats and plants from the Channel Islands. They’re filling in nicely as they provide more of a California flavor to the yard and soften a yard that used to be a lot more about succulents.

Front yard succulents

Before we undertook this big lawn replacement we asked a question about what we really used the front lawn for. Mostly we walked through it on the way to the front door. Why not put big mounding accent plants where we’d never walk? And in the place of where we used to have one species of grass that required lots of water and pampering we now have several dozen species of plants, almost all of which will make it through the summer with next to no additional watering. Greater diversity, check; less water use, check. The project also succeeds in all the other ways Lawn Reform suggests a lawn replacement would succeed.

But that’s just one success story. There are probably as many different ways to replace a lawn as there are gardeners. What would you do?

my swamp creatures



Here are some of the pitcher plants growing in my guilty pleasure bog garden, a small concrete container in which I have more than a half dozen of these sarracenias and as many sundews. The guilty pleasure part of this comes in when you consider that most of California is now in its third year of drought, and when you realize that none of the plants in the bog garden likes to dry out. And preferably they’d like to have their toes, though not all their roots, in standing water.




The genus Sarracenia is native mostly to wet zones in the Eastern and Southern United States (with one species into Canada). The ones I’ve tried are proving to be pretty easy to grow as long as they get sunlight and good-quality water. (I’ve probably mentioned before how mine get reverse osmosis water from the local water cafe instead of the hyperchlorinated bong water that comes out of most Southern California spigots. So far, providing good water has been the most difficult part of growing these plants.)

These plants, left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Sarracenia rubra
  2. S. leucophylla ‘Tarnok’
  3. S. x Dixie Lace
  4. S. alata
  5. S. minor

There’s also a closely related swamp thing that’s native to Northern California and Oregon. That plant, Darlingtonia californica, however, is as difficult to grow in most locations as it is stunning. If your can’t provide summer night temperatures below 55 degrees, don’t bother with it. You’ll kill it. I killed mine. Not all native plants makes sense to grow if they’re not native to your environment! (If you really must do what I did and not as I say, you could try constructing a special darlingtonia box like they do in Japan to lower temperatures around the plant.)


So what’s the water use? During the hottest months the little bog survives on three to four 5-gallon servings a month of water. That totals around 15-20 gallons for a space that’s about six or seven square feet, or about 2.1 to 3.3 gallons per square foot. I was a little shocked when I compared this number to what one source says it takes to maintain a typical lawn over the summer here in the coastal zone: 2.6-3.6 gallons per square foot.

Like, I can have a tiny little swamp garden for about the same amount of water it takes to support an equivalent spot of average lawn? And when you consider that most lawns are larger than six or seven square feet, I suddenly feel a little less guilty about my little guilty pleasure. And it made me look at lawns differently, that they’re just green swamps full of grass. I think I’d rather have my little bog garden.

(Full disclosure: We still do have a small patch of grass in the backyard which gets greened up for the big Fourth-of-July party and then neglected most of the rest of the year. It helps to have heavy afternoon shade like we do to minimize how much water a lawn requires. But when the guy who keeps it mowed and edged won’t do it any more (you know who you are), the lawn is history…)

western dichondra

My parents knew a good deal when they saw one. The house they purchased in the Southern California ‘burbs had the required number of bedrooms, fruit trees in the back, a lawn for the kids to play on, and was located half-way between their jobs. The front yards in the neighborhood were well maintained but not splashy.

Some of the houses on the other side of the nearby main boulevard, however, had immaculate high-maintenance gardens–and probably had gardeners to go with them. One of the groundcover choices that some of those houses sported was a dark green dichondra lawn, smooth and uniform as the felt on a pool table. These were lawns that didn’t tolerate much foot traffic, required lots of weeding, heavy summer water and were meant mainly for show. Compared to our lumpy, spiky lawn, these dichondra tableaux seemed like the stuff that dreams are made of. (We never would have considered that dichondra is considered a weed in many parts of the country.)


Jump ahead lots and lots of years to my current house. Every now and then in one of the raised beds I’d see a plant volunteer underneath some shrubs or around some bulbs. It sure looked like dichondra, but for a long time I thought I wasn’t IDing the plant correctly.

As it turns out the plant really is a dichondra, and it’s actually one of the uncommon native plants found in coastal sage scrub, chaparral and oak woodland habitats. The local species, Dichondra occidentalis, is distinct from the classic lawn plant–one of the subtle distinguishing characteristics being the silver or brown hairs on the stems. But it’s still a dichondra, and I thought its was pretty cool that one of the plants that I’d fetishized growing up somehow managed to find me as an adult.


The dichondra has self-sowed itself into a couple spots around the house. It now forms a welcome groundcover in this raised planter, where a few months ago the narcissus were breaking through the soil…


…and this is today, with white Chinese ground orchids, Bletilla striata alba, blooming away in their bed of soft dichondra.

If you don’t want to wait for the plant to show up on its own, several California native plant suppliers offer Dichondra occidentalis, though it’s definitely one of the less popular items. The plant seems best for me in part-shade. It can take the summer off if you don’t water it, but bi-weekly sprinklings have kept it around year-round for me, though in summer it’s a little sparse. But as much as I hate to admit it, I also have a hard time looking glamorous all the time, so I’m willing to give this plant a break…

a vacant house

There’s a house across that street that is looking like it’s turning into a victim of the current mortgage fiasco. The owner bought at the top of the home valuations and probably expected prices to keep growing.

House for sale
House for sale
When no one had seen the main owner for weeks we were starting to think that things weren’t quite right over there. A month ago a mortgage broker’s sign appeared in front of the house, then someone with the city came by to shut off the water. Seeing all this happening confirmed our worst fears.

Since life here in the desert can’t exist without supplemental water, the last time a house sat vacant on our street one of the neighbors kept it watered while another mowed the lawn. With that situation fresh in John’s memory, he cornered the neighbor across the street and struck a deal. Between the two of them they’d tend the house until a new owner could move in, doing what they can to keep up the neighborhood.

Parking strip, mowed
Parking strip, mowed
At some point the water got restored to the house, and so the yard was getting water. But no one was taking care of the mowing.

Enter John and the neighbor. Now, whenever one of them has a mower out, the parking strip along the sidewalk gets a quick haircut.

Gone to seed
Gone to seed
Unfortunately, the yard inside the gates is going feral, but at least we can’t see it so easily. This was difficult-to-maintain landscaping put in by non-gardeners and only tended by hired help. Once the gardeners left, entropy started to claim the inner yard. (John’s and the neighbor’s commitment to keeping up the neighborhood for free go only so far. And by now you may gather my general shrill attitude towards maintaining expansive lawns in the desert…)

The last word is that the house has been sold. Who bought it, when they’ll move it, who they are–all that’s still the grand mystery that these transactions so often are. These deals can fall through any time.

After you live in a neighborhood for a while you get to experience good neighbors and neighbors from the other side of hell. The last ones in this house were some of the good ones–personable, friendly, interesting and tolerant, and we’re sad to see them go. As we head in for another round in this game of new neighbor roulette, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for reasonable ones again.

chemistry, physics, biology

Here’s a cool artwork by Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey that was featured at the recent Wimbledon tennis-thing. It’s made of three panels of grass.

Wimble grass art

The sections were grown in a darkened space under artificial lights that projected through photographic negatives. The brighter the exposure, the richer the green color.

It’s the reverse principle at work as leaving a hose or board on your lawn for a week: When you pick up the hose or board you can see how the grass grew pale where it was deprived of sunlight.

So what would you call this art process? It’s basically using light to effect a transformation of some kind of material, and that’s pretty much the definition of photography.

Photography’s first revolution was the ability to use chemical processes to fix an image made by light–think of the photographer disappearing into a darkroom with some unpromising plates or film and coming back with a magical image. Then the physics of turning light sensors into electrical impulses made chemistry-free imaging possible, leading to things like television cameras and your cellphone camera.

And now comes this process where the recording device is biological. Of course, relying on something living and growing, the result is anything but permanent, but that’s also one of the nice things about the pieces. Nothing lasts forever.

The grass artwork reminds me of Dennis Oppenheim’s brilliant 1970 photographic performance, Reading Position for Second Degree Burn, where he leaves a book on his chest as the exposed parts of him sunburn on the beach. The first picture shows him at the beginning, with the book. In the second, hours later with the book removed, a sunburn describes the area where the book protected him.

Dennis Oppenheim Reading Position for Second Degree BurnDennis Oppenheim. Reading Position for Second Degree Sunburn. Chromogenic prints with applied text.

It’s just as much a “biological photograph” as the Wimbledon piece. While the grass piece stuns most in its execution, the Oppenheim piece, coming out of conceptual art, buzzes with ideas and humor.

Next time you come back from the beach with untanned patches where your swimsuit shaded your body, why not consider yourself a walking photograph?

[ Thanks to Landscape+Urbanism, where I first saw the Wimbledon grass pieces, and to Creative Review, where I’ve linked. ]

the dark side of lawns

I was thumbing through The American Lawn, edited by Georges Teyssot, a collection of thoughts on the phenomenon of American lawns by eight contributors. It’s a wide ranging collection of essays looking at the place of lawns in American culture since colonial days. One of the pieces, “The Electric Lawn” by Mark Wigley, has a couple of quotes that interested me in my current disenchantment with all things turf-related.

On lawns and power relationships:

While renderings for clients may show the lawn, and manuals of drawing technique may describe the ways in which it can be represented, the drawings with which architects communicate to themselves and other architects leave the lawn out. It is assumed that wherever there is nothing specified in the drawing there is grass. The lawn is treated like the paper on which the projects are drawn, a tabula rasa without any inherent interest, a background that merely clears the way for the main event. Yet the lawn is always precisely controlled, whether by the architect or landscape designer. Lawns are all about control. The green frame is far from neutral or innocent. What is left out of the picture often rules the picture.

And a look at 50s green-lawned utopia gone bad:

The deadly lawnmower is the star of the dark side of suburban life. Take Stephen King, the high priest of suburban gothic. In his 1985 film Maximum Overdrive, a passing alien spaceship causes all the machines on the planet to turn against their operators–insulting, taunting, torturing, and then killing. A young boy rides his bicycle down the middle of a generic suburban street. Lawns pass by on either side. The only sign of trouble is that the automatic sprinklers uncannily respond to his presence…A blood-stained lawnmower lurks behind a tree, idling, waiting. When the boy finally stops, it roars to life and chases him down the street…

Well, I didn’t see that movie, and Leonard Maltin rates it a bomb: “Stupid and boring.” Maybe a couple of interesting takes on suburbia, but nothing for the Netflix queue…