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Xeriscaping: why brown is beautiful and makes sense

At a time of water shortages in much of the US, some communities are forcing homeowners to use copious amounts of water to keep their lawns from turning brown.

In Sacramento, California Anne Hartridge and Matt George are working hard to be “green”; they have solar panels, a Prius and a clothesline. So when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought in June of 2008, they decided to stop wasting water and let their lawn turn brown.

Their efforts weren’t seen as good for the community, but rather a “public nuisance” and the city threatened them with a $746 fine in violation of a code which states that front yards “shall be irrigated, landscaped and maintained.”

While some communities have embraced xeriscaping- landscaping that doesn’t require irrigation-, there are others stuck in another time, a time when water seemed cheap and the community image had to be upheld with generously watered grass (lawns account for half of residential water used in the US as we discuss in Lawns: time to ungarden).

Fined for watering, fined for not

In the Tampa Bay area of Florida, homeowners associations are so strict with their covenants for watering lawns that they have begun to battle city officials who are restricting water use and residents are being squeezed in between.

In spring of 2008 when Hillsborough County (Florida) resident James Lyle watered his yard once a week, his homeowners association fined him $1,000 for having a brown lawn. When he watered it twice a week he got fined $100 by the county water department for using too much water.

Lyle has since replaced his lawn, but his story is just one among many. One homeowners association is trying to impose mandatory landscaping requirements on vacant lots.

Another area resident, Diogenes Paula, has spent $4,500 replacing his brown lawn and is ready to vote with his feet: “I’m thinking about moving out of here and buying a house with no neighborhood association”.

The cost of lawn upkeep may also help drive momentum for the anti-lawn movement. After spending $4,500 to replace his entire lawn to avoid community fees, Florida resident Diogenes Paula is ready to vote with his feet. “I’m thinking about moving out of here and buying a house with no neighborhood association”.

Go native or be prepared to drink sewage

While a new Florida state law prohibits subdivisions built after 2001 from forcing homeowners to landscape only with grass, this regulation falls short, according to Steve Kintner, director of environmental management for Volusia County (Florida): “Many (homeowner associations) don’t allow native plants, which require little water. A lot of people don’t know what they’re getting into.”

The West Volusia Audubon Society has asked a local city commission to prohibit homeowner association covenants that penalize people for refusing to water their lawns during drought conditions. Audubon Society officer Karyn Hoffman calls this type of regulation ludicrous: “It goes against all the water restrictions.

I’d like to see a little more wiggle room for homeowners. Covenants that don’t force watering and allow more creative landscaping with native plants. It’s either going to be that, or people drinking treated sewage water” one day.


The fight for acceptance of native landscaping is not a new battle. In the mid 1950s, Milwaukee resident Lorrie Otto let her lawn go back to nature, allowing native plants like goldenrods, asters and blackcap raspberries to take over her front yard.

Local officials stopped by one day and mowed down her meadow without her permission. Angered by the lack of understanding of the natural beauty she had been cultivating, she invited city officials for a tour of the native plants they had chopped down.

Otto was awarded a settlement for her town’s lack of respect for her natural yard, but the incident politicized her and she began speaking out against lawns, and their resource intensive care, as “immoral” “evil”, “sheared, poisoned, monotonous, sterile landscape” and “flagrantly wasteful of drinking water and our non-renewable resources”.

She didn’t set off any radical revolt against lawns, but she did inspire others to experiment with native gardens, as well as the founding of the national native landscaping group Wild Ones.

Over the past half century, homeowners have had to fight to defend their right to native landscaping. In one case, a Wisconsin wildlife biologist was forced to refute city claims that his backyard meadow was a health hazard.

It seems astonishing that he would have enlist the help of a botanist to establish that wildflowers and natural landscapes don’t create a pollen problem, when in reality the exotic plants “like Kentucky Bluegrass, and trees, like oaks, create more allergenic pollen than a native prairie“.

Arrested for not watering

The options to go lawn-free are limitless, but in some communities being too free with your lawn could also get you slapped with a fine or even arrested. Last year in Orem, Utah, 70-year-old Betty Perry- the “Lawn Lady” who hadn’t watered her yard in a year- was arrested after fighting with the police over a ticket for letting her lawn go brown.

Our national lawn fetish has gotten us so out of touch with reality that we now live in communities more worried about unsightly wildflowers than the toxins we spray to keep our yards resembling astroturf or the massive quantities of water wasted on a species never meant to grow in most climates in America.

Our ill-chosen “national plant” seems a mistake of history, or as Time Magazine writer John Snow wrote, “trying to grow grass in hot, cold or arid regions is almost as silly as trying to grow kelp“.

What is beauty in the backyard?

Arguing with a nation obsessed with lawns may seem a losing battle. Even after several decades of challenge from native landscaping activists, the collective American lawn is bigger than ever: 50,000 square miles- roughly an area the size of New York State- according to a NASA-funded study. But there are signs that the hegemony of turf may be coming to an end in some communities.

Droughts in much of the West are causing communities to enforce watering restrictions. During Seattle’s last major drought, city officials enforced a no watering restriction- backed up by a fine- and urged residents to embrace a “brown is beautiful” philosophy.

To the surprise of the city, it worked. “We thought the rich would continue watering their lawns and just accept the $500 fine as the cost of having a green yard. But that hasn’t happened,” said Water Department spokesman Bruce Becker.

When the Colorado Springs region experienced drought-like conditions in the spring of 2006, the Woodmen Hills subdivision enforced stricter water rationing and forbid residents from laying down sod or planting grass seed (subject to a $1,000 fine).

Developer Rusty Brown explained that brown grass and more drought-resistant plants should be seen as the norm. “When you live out here on the prairie, you have to get used to that. You have to change your idea of what’s attractive to you in your yard.”

Avoiding a $300 water bill

While Woodmen Hills still requires residents to keep up their lawns, they don’t have to contain grass nor do they have to be watered. Green explains that xeriscaping- landscaping without irrigating- is fine, as is the “Phoenix, Arizona, look”. “It can be xeriscaping and native grasses, or landscaping of your choice,” he said. “But you have to maintain it. Even if it’s non- irrigated xeriscaping, we want you to maintain it.”

Brown, who implemented water rationing when he sold his first home in the subdivision back in the late ’90s, admits that it’s easier to sell homes with grass, but only if the price of water is low. “It’s also better for me as a developer if people don’t get a $300 water bill.”

Brown is beautiful: letting grass go dormant

One way to cut water bills is to allow your lawn to go dormant in the summer. While brown grass might seem threatening to the average American, it is actually a very normal state for summer lawns.

While most lawns will make a full recovery in autumn, Oregon turf grass expert Tom Cook counsels: “The worst that will happen if lawns are not watered is that weaker parts of the lawn or areas in hot spots will die. When fall returns lawns can be reseeded and will recover just fine over the winter”.

Xeriscaping: how to landscape without water

Ideally, yards will have minimal or no turf grass and instead, will be xeriscaped. Xeriscaping- combining the Greek word “xeros” for dry with “landscaping”- refers to landscaping that doesn’t need any, or very little, irrigation. It can also be referred to as zeroscaping and smartscaping.

To achieve a zeriscaped yard, most experts recommend following the seven basic principles:

  • Planning and design: Hydrozoning involves grouping plants together based on their watering needs. High water using plants (vegetables, fruits, some flowers) can also be sheltered from wind and/or sun to decrease water needs, and can be placed closer to the home for more fuller enjoyment.
  • Appropriate plant selection: Choose plants native to an area or to a similar climate. The choice of drought tolerant, or xeric, plants varies by region, but generally include for ornamentals: succulents, xeriphytes, halophytes, seasonally dormant bulbs and very deeply rooted plants.
  • Soil improvement: Adding amendments of organic matter to improve water penetration and retention. Amendments should be added before planting, as well as periodically to use mulch.
  • Mulch: Mulching is naturally occurring via leaves and other organic matter that coats and decays into the soil. For a more orderly method of mulching, try compost and shredded bark.
  • Practical and appropriate turf areas: Since lawns require large amounts of water and pesticides, plant grass only when necessary (choose a preferable ground cover like moss where possible). Consider how/where it will be used (e.g. children and pet play areas.). Plant regionally appropriate species (i.e. Buffalo grass instead of Kentucky Bluegrass for much of the US).
  • Efficient irrigation: Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses or more direct watering methods to avoid overwatering the more drought-resistant plants. Use water harvesting techniques, such as channeling runoff to planted areas and mounds/berms to help retain water on the land.
  • Appropriate maintenance: Prune and fertilize minimally. Aerate and de-thatch lawn once a year to reduce runoff. Weed frequently, as they use water. Maintain irrigation equipment and change watering schedules with the seasons. Let grass go dormant (brown) in summer.