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In a drought? Think twice before tearing out your lawn

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El Niño is bringing much-needed rain to a thirsty Los Angeles, but it won’t end California’s drought. That’s why homeowners are still ripping out their grass lawns. Roughly half of urban water use in southern California is outdoor watering, so tearing out a lawn can save lots of H2O. But drought panic and cash-for-grass rebates have led to some “haste makes waste” front yards in Los Angeles, according to landscape experts.  

Landscape designer Marilee Kuhlmann of the Urban Water Group, and her friend,  Lili Singer, director of special projects and adult education at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants,  said they’ve never seen so much interest in “doing the right thing.” But the right thing doesn’t always follow good intentions, they said.

Like the homeowners who are conserving water by simply not watering. Dry yards may save water, but they’re bad for the environment. They don’t suck up carbon dioxide or feed all those tiny critters in the soil. And letting a yard go bone dry “exacerbates the problem in the sense that when you go in to do work, you’ve got compacted dry soil, and if it’s clay, it’s really hard to dig,” Singer said. 

Landscape designer Marilee Kuhlmann and horticulturalist Lili Singer

Kuhlmann and Singer are down on fake grass too, which they say creates a heat island effect. Aside from that, Kulhmann can’t stand the look. “It’s like polyester pants to me, y’know, without belt loops.”

Singer says many Los Angeles homeowners are installing drought-tolerant plants that look pretty but are invasive, like wispy Mexican feather grass. “It’s not a neighborly plant,” Singer complained. “It goes into everybody’s garden whether you want it or not.”

Then, there’s “gravelscape.” Cheap, easy and a great water-saver. A company called Turf Terminators created a dust-up when it did a huge business ripping out lawns in exchange for water utilities’ turf removal subsidies. The turf replacement was usually a lawn of crushed white rock with a smattering of drought tolerant plants. Some landscapers complain the white rocks create more heat, don’t provide habitat for butterflies and other garden creatures, and over the long term, compact the soil. Singer predicts some of the yards won’t fare well after a season of heavy rains. “The water’s just going to sheet off and run into the street.”

Changing our lawn habits can be tough. Kuhlmann says grass “mow and blow” lawns were easy. It takes time to research appropriate plants, map out a design and then install a drought tolerant yard. “You have to learn how to garden,” Kuhlmann said, and many Los Angeles homeowners aren’t prepared to invest the time. Some of them are also surprised at how much water it takes to establish their new gardens. That’s why it’s best to plant in the rainy months, not the summer, she advised.

Singer said eventually residents will see what works and what doesn’t and L.A.’s drought-tolerant learning curve won’t be as steep. Planting a yard full of cacti won’t cut it, Singer said.”We’re not Tucson.” Los Angeles is located in a Mediterranean climate, not a desert. Besides, in a concrete jungle like Los Angeles,  a good front yard, “isn’t just about saving water,” she said. “It needs to be pretty too.”

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