Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The grass is always greener when you live in a place with water

The other day, along with my sister and niece, I did a drive-by of the house I grew up in. There have been times in the past when it looked pretty ratty – for a while there was a pentagram spray-painted on its side – but lately it’s been in good shape. The lawn was a victim of this year’s drought, but it was basically okay.

Basically okay was not how our front lawn looked during my childhood. When my father was alive, the front lawn was beautiful. From spring through fall, our frontyard was like an emerald green velveteen carpet. Our backyard, which looked like most folks’ front yards, was our playground. Tag, hide and seek, Simon Says, catch, badminton, sledding. It’s where we had the sandbox and the swing set, and where we hung out under the big oak tree playing board games. And it’s where my mother hung the washing out.

But the frontyard was sacred territory. At school, we’d been told that it was a mortal sin to walk on the “holy grass” that bordered the church. It was pretty much the same at home. When you walked on the front lawn, you used the flagstone path. No cutting diagonally if it was the fastest route. You kept to the flagstones, unless there was some special dispensation and we were allowed to go barefooting for a bit.

The care and feeding of the front lawn was meticulously attended to. My father had special flat sprinklers that he used for watering. (The backyard just had whirly-bird sprinklers, and on a hot day we could put on our bathing suits and run through them.) To mow the front lawn, he used a hand mower. For the backyard, a power mower did the trick. And all of the Rogers kid learned early the best way to remove an all-offensive dandelion: with a screwdriver, making sure to pull up all the roots.

This year’s drought played some havoc with the local lawns, but the ability to water your lawn is generally something you don’t normally have to think twice about in New England. Water’s one resource we can usually draw on.

Not so in Southern California, which is not as naturally green, grassy, and watery as most of New England is to begin with, and which has been experiencing a multi-year drought. Which makes it tough for Californians to have the sort of emerald velveteen lawn my father specialized in.

In response, many Californians have installed “drought-tolerant landscaping.”

When I think about “drought-tolerant landscaping” I think desert garden, and they can be beautiful. Not green-velveteen beautiful. But beautiful, nonetheless. Not so for some who chose to redo their landscaping with an outfit called Turf Terminators. What they got was gravel and a bunch of dead and dying plants.

“We thought we were doing the right thing to save water,” Staci Terrace Goldfarb, a Southern California homeowner, said late last winter. “I hate looking at it.”…Fourteen months after the initial job, [her] shrubs looked uniformly stubby. Some were withering. Weeds poked up through the rocks. This month, Goldfarb wrote in an e-mail, “My yard just looks worse than ever. So sad, the plants may be drought tolerant, but certainly not heat tolerant. Soon I could end up with all rocks.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Most people don’t have Beverly Hills money to invest in drop-dead gorgeous landscaping, putting in “eco-havens of olive trees, white-flowered chamise shrubs, and California golden violets with, perhaps, paths of decomposed granite wending through them.”

For those can’t afford white-flowered chamise shrubs, Turf Terminators looked like a great alternative. And their business, the brainchild of millennial entrepreneurs with fancy-pants Columbia University educations, really took off.

In less than two years, the company removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. During that time, Turf Terminators was the veritable face of water-saving landscaping in and around Los Angeles, praised by government officials and some customers for providing a fast, affordable way to get rid of grass. But it also left behind a trail of complaints like Goldfarb’s.

Turf Terminators took an interesting business approach, taking advantage of a rebate programs set up by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the LA Department of Water and Power. Between the two programs,residents of LA could get $3.75 per square foot for getting their thirsty turf terminated. The deal was, customers would sign over their rebate and their lawn would be replaced at no cost. Over time, Turf Terminators managed to rake in $44 million in rebate dollars.

Unfortunately, the Turf Terminators modus operandi shoddy.

It’s the cheapest in-and-out thing that they can possibly do,” said Melanie Winter, director of the River Project, an L.A. nonprofit that aims to restore and preserve original waterways…“If you’re going to transform a landscape, you should do it in a way that adds the most value,” Winter said. That means not only using less water but also reclaiming as much of it as possible, as well as providing cooling shade to reduce evaporation and overall warming. Gravel radiates more heat than lawns, dead or thriving, helping to create, along with AstroTurf and paving, what environmentalists consider an urban heat island.

So replacing your lawn with Turf Terminators took things from bad to worse. Needless to say, the Terminators feel differently. And some of their customers, if not exactly thrilled, feel that the approach was a “quick fix” that would at least get them started on the road to a more environmentally friendly front yard. 

Anyway, there’s now a movement afoot to stop the “gravelscaping” of LA.

Their cri de coeur: “Even ‘shallow’ L.A. can become known for beauty that is more than skin deep.” Gray water systems would be a more efficient investment than turf removal. Soil retains water, and planting deep-rooted flora encourages pollinators and would help cool the parched city.

Meanwhile, Turf Terminators has pretty much terminated their business.

And meanwhile/meanwhile, even in places where there is generally plenty of water, there’s mounting opposition to green lawns, which do suck up a lot of water and stay green and grassy thanks to some pretty nasty chemicals used to fertilize and weed-whack. Every weed is not taken out the Al Rogers way, with a screw driver.

When the fatwa on lawns occurs here, I hope we’ll learn something from Turf Terminators’ gravelization approach.

Until lawns are outlawed – at which point, only outlaws will have lawns – the grass will always be greener if you live in a place with water, even if it doesn’t measure up to the one my father maintained, all those many years ago. (I can still feel that front yard grass beneath my feet. Thanks for that memory, Dad.)

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