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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


Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 550741 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-06 10:57 AM

Great advice (and writing).

I'm coverting a third acre in Montecito to mostly hardscape and drought-tolerant plants and would do so even if there weren't a drought. Lawns are over-rated and inappropriate for this climate. Hopefully this drought will turn the tide towards more common sense landscaping. I'm surprised that I still see lawns going in but I think builders do it because it's cheap and fast to just lay down some sod.


 COMMENT 550768 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-06 01:26 PM

Thank you for another wonderful column with practical information for all of us who have lawns and need advice.

All of your reasons for not having a "fake lawn" would make me change my mind very quickly, but one more reason is that the out gassing of all of that petroleum based product gives many people headaches, yes even when it is outdoors. I remember when they installed artificial turf at City College and many of us who jogged on the track had to go elsewhere because we got headaches and the smell was so unnatural. Unless you like the smell of plastic an artificial lawn is not for you.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-06 02:07 PM

Just after posting this blog, I was discussing artificial turf with a colleague. She wondered what happens when there's a brush fire. What happens to all that polyethylene, rubber and other plastics when it burns? What volatile chemicals are contained in the smoke?

Any chemists out there? Please chime in.


 COMMENT 550779 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-06 02:07 PM

I wish our homeowner's association would just mandate that everyone get rid of their lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant landscaping. We don't want a lawn, don't use it, don't want others using it, and all it does it use up water and require that we mow and maintain it. However, I don't think our HOA would allow replacing it so easily because our development has that homogeneous feel going for it at the moment.


 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-06 02:10 PM

550779 - That's a tough one. I've consulted for a few HOAs with high ambitions but there's that majority consensus thing that frequently stymies the effort. It could be a large effort, but perhaps developing design guidelines with some room for individuality and flexibility, yet some "universal" elements that tie the overall theme together is the way to go.


 COMMENT 550802 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-06 03:41 PM

The lawn evolved, because of common sense. People like the open space and the cheapness of a lawn both in maintenance and installation. The garden pictured was expensive to install (great for the landscaper) and is expensive to maintain. Plus all that plant matter is going to transpire a lot of water and need a lot of watering. And after all that expense, in a drought are you really willing to let that garden die? A lawn you can let die and you can easily bring it back when the rains come.


 COMMENT 550832 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-06 05:48 PM

A question for Billy

What walkable non fake lawn do you suggest?

DG is hot and the grit is an issue for us
That meadow is pretty but I would hate to have it trampled by foot traffic
The sedge looks like a great way to break an ankle

I am using a deep layer of tree guy wood chips instead of lawn and have yet to find a better option but am looking


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-07 09:29 AM

Great ideas, Billy; beautiful photos. We let what passed for our front lawn die during the last drought. A lot of "devil grass" that keeps coming back with the slightest drizzle, allysum grows because I sprinkle seeds by shaking a dying plant over the space, some of our tall wavy grass comes up because the seeds blow over there. We have been calling it the "meadow" for years now, looks great. We need the open space because we have a picnic table and outdoor furniture, our "outdoor living room", nice for entertaining.


 ANDY agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-07 10:55 AM

Billy what is your email address? Want to send you photos of my conversion.


 COMMENT 550998 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-07 04:29 PM

Billy, commenting on the beautiful meadow garden below the zen garden....one of our neighbors who lived on an acre directly across the street from us planted a wild meadow garden and then left for 3 months. While he was away the garden grew and bloomed profusely, every color and variety of wildflower you could imagine. We could hardly wait to look out our window each morning to see what new and vibrant colors were our treat for the day. At the end of the 3 months all the blooms had seeded and it just looked like tall grass. When our neighbor returned home he commented what a failure and disappointment his meadow was until we told him of the beauty he had missed.

So if anyone is contemplating a wildflower meadow garden it is absolutely worth trying even for the short lived beauty.


 COMMENT 551187 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-08 01:24 PM

802- that's a very uninformed point of view.

We removed our lawn several years ago, replaced with native and semi-native plants, wood chip mulch, and a DG path. It cost hardly anything since we did the manual labor ourselves, it requires close to zero maintenance (clip off dead plant parts once in awhile, replace a dead plant now and again), and water use is way down (drip set at 30 min once a week w/ 1gph emitters). When there is some moisture, we turn the drip off completely and save even that small amount of water. One of my main criteria was to get away from semi weekly yard maintenance that a lawn required. I have better things to do on weekends!


 COMMENT 551216P agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-08 03:17 PM

Be careful in a HOA about who is buying the plants for the Association. Thousands of dollars, making a huge dent in our budget, were spent for plants and labor - and the plants were not even drought tolerant and they did not replace lawns. There are cheaper ways to get plants than to buy the most expensive. We have been slowly rebuilding our budget.


 COMMENT 551314 agree helpful negative off topic

2014-09-08 06:24 PM

Great article, Billy. Do you know Randy Arnowitz? We're thinking about taking out our tiny back yard lawn (maybe 15' x 15'?...) and replacing it with something like buffalo grass, or bent grass, or something like that, that is drought tolerant but the dog can still do her business. I've seen a few lawns in photos where they cut it to 2-4" and it seems to work. Curious what your thoughts are.


 COMMENT 624415 agree helpful negative off topic

2015-06-23 12:33 PM

great article and wonderful photo examples of what can be done instead of lawn. I removed most of my lawn about 6 years ago and took the last bit out this last fall. Timely with our drought! I used a combination of drought tolerant plants, bark mulch & DG. I love what I've done, I do miss the look of that last small patch of grass, but I know it was the right thing to do. I am having a bit of an issue with people ripping up lawns and putting rock everywhere and very few plants. I see this almost like pouring concrete. You get a material that retains heat, we don't need it to be warmer. One neighbor removed all grass and shrubs, asked the city to cut down the parkway tree (luckily that was denied) spread 5 inches of rock everywhere and they go inside to turn on the AC!


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