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The Lawn's Gone. Now What?
updated: Sep 06, 2014, 1:00 PM

By Billy Goodnick

Eureka! There it was. The blinding glare of a cartoon light bulb ascending from my scalp. After decades of preaching the benefits of murdering lawns, I had stumbled on one of the primary reasons people are so attached to them. No, it’s not an inexplicable attraction to short, vertical blades of green. It’s about one of the most basic design principles. True story…

I was careening through a busy workday when my phone buzzed. The woman on the other end sounded anxious. She was done with her small back yard lawn and wanted my opinion. “What do you think about fake grass?” she asked. “I don’t like that it’s not natural, but I don’t know what else to do.”

I think she was hoping I’d talk her out of going down the faux turf road. My pleasure. I was locked and loaded. First, I pleaded partial ignorance, admitting that there are dozens of brands of fake grass and I wasn’t an expert on each one. But here’s what I’ve gleaned in my research.

Artificial Grass Scorecard

On the plus side

• Fake grass doesn’t need irrigation or mowing.

• Fake grass sorta looks like grass (if you don’t know what grass really looks like).

• Fake grass is flat (unless your neighbor’s kid gets caught underneath during installation).

Pellets like these or ground car tires keep blades upright

On the down side

• Fake grass is made from petrochemicals (enough already!)

• Fake grass requires “filler” made of recycled tires and plastics to prevent the embarrassing shame of blade erectile dysfunction.

• Fake grass is quite expensive to install (unless you go with the cheap crap).

• Fake grass, hastily installed, leaves seams where weeds love to grow.

• Fake grass surface temperatures can burn skin on hot, sunny days (athletic fields hose them down before play – so much for water savings)

• Fake grass causes the gradual die-off of soil microorganisms below.

• Fake grass lasts about 10 years, and then requires special processing and disposal, since it can’t go to standard landfills.

There was more, but I stifled myself. She thanked me and said she’d think about it.

Organic lawn mowers

A week later she’d given up on artificial turf and I was standing in her garden asking a lot of questions. Turns out she has no practical use for the grass: No dog play, no nude sunbathing, no grazing of cattle.

Eureka Moment

Then I asked a question I hadn’t thought of before: “Is it the actual grass you like or is it just the feeling of open space and fine texture?”

The interplay of mass and space is evident in the Zen garden at the Bloedel Preserve on Bainbridge Island, WA.

She pondered. “Yes, I think I just like the openness of the yard.” BOO YA!!! It wasn’t about the grass. It was about one of the first considerations of all three-dimensional design: The balance of “stuff” and “space.” It’s the difference between the simplicity of a Zen gravel garden and a dense woodland thicket. 

Dune Sedge (Carex praegracilis) “seasoned” with sweet alyssum, iris and poppies.

Now the door was wide open to a slew of design options that could cut her water bill, reduce maintenance and possibly end up with a much more interesting and usable yard. We’re working out the details for expanding the surrounding planters with low-water-using, butterfly- and pollinator-attracting, colorful plants, adding a flagstone path to keep the garden accessible, and planting swaths of creeping thyme and sedge, a grass-like, tufting plant that uses two-thirds less the water than grass. We’ll leave space for a few little seasonal baubles to pop in and out throughout the year – you could call it a meadow.

On the Silver Screen

Here’s an example of a recent lawn-to-meadow conversion I’ve been working on with a client in the hot foothills near Skofield Park. The grass had been abandoned long ago and the lower area of the yard had nothing to attract the owners to use the space.

By laying out a path leading to a flagstone terrace and rustic bench, the space under a nearby Jacaranda became a cool retreat, also serving as an enticing focal point from the house. We started with a “base coat” of blue sedge (Carex flacca ‘Blue Zinger’) planted from 2-inch plugs, leaving space for additional low-growers to find their way – sort of a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest approach. The sedge has a cool appearance and spreads slowly by underground runners that are easy to control.

Over this canvas, dotted and clustered here and there, are snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum), Blue Fescue (Festuca ovina ‘Elijah Blue’), Blue Moor Grass (Sesleria caerulea), Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), white flowering African Daisy (Gazania sp.)  and a new discovery for me, Euphorbia ‘Copton Ash’ with its steely silver-blue foliage and cheery chartreuse flowers.

The Point Is…

I think we’re all getting the message that lush green lawns are on their way out. Every time we go through a cycle of dry years (I’m not so sure this is just a brief cycle), garden owners throw in the towel (if there’s moisture in it, wring it over your arugula) or rise to the occasion, make significant changes and end up better for the effort.

I Found Another Water Hero

Suzanne Elledge and her partner, Laurel Perez, purchased a “new” building (circa 1902) at 1625 State Street to serve as the office for their planning and permit processing business. While lovingly restoring the interior, they realized that the front garden had a drinking problem. 

1625 State St. before

Tough, thatch-ridden kikuyu grass was sucking up water and not only dominated the front of the building, but added no charm to this delightful structure. The lawn was removed, a woody, personality-free boxwood hedge breathed its last breath, and plans were put in place for a stylistically appropriate, lower-water-using garden.

Unthirsty plants and DG walkway

The majority of the garden faces northeast, so it’s cool and shaded in the afternoon, allowing the garden to “splurge” on a few slightly thirstier plants like Iceberg Rose and in the shade of a towering Norfolk Island Pine, a few Oak-Leaf Hydrangeas. But the workhorses that are driving down their water use include lavender, Brazilian Skyflower (Duranta), and an array of charming succulents like Aeonium and Echeveria. The garden is watered by drip irrigation and well-mulched reducing evaporation and weed growth.

A young olive tree in the upper corner will soon add scale to the garden and a decomposed granite path provides a shortcut to client and employee parking along the side.  Hats off to a beautiful and intelligently conceived project.

Learn More

I’ll put in another plug for all the great, free resources available to garden owners in Santa Barbara County and beyond. Set aside a little time this week to peruse WaterWiseSB.org looking at the newest innovations in irrigation, learning about how to give your laundry water a second life, where to score free mulch, and my favorite place to send students and clients, the Virtual Garden Tour.

And if you can afford to give up a few Saturday mornings to learn more about saving water in the garden, sign up for my new class, Gone With The Wind: What To Do With Your Drought-Stricken Lawn, offered by the Center for Lifelong Learning.

I’ll be back here in a few weeks with more tips.

Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.

Author of "Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space into the Garden of Your Dreams

Contributing Editor and National Award Winning Blogger at Fine Gardening Magazine

Covering the region at 805Living Magazine

Pontificating at Edhat

Landscape Coaching and Design billygoodnick.com

Drumming at King Bee

Sharing my world at Facebook



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