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Sunday, November 1, 2009

The unnecessary cost of lawns

The official count is 130 golf courses in and around Palm Springs, Calif.

Every fall, the grass on these greens is forced into early dormancy by withholding the water supply. Then the machines come in to scalp the grass down to the roots. Then they overseed a type of fast-growing grass, most likely annual rye, upon the barren surface and water like crazy.

Within a week, the course turns green again, followed by copious amounts of fertilization and watering that must be maintained all winter.

When 130 golf courses (not to mention private lawns) scalp at the same time, the environment takes a hit. The air becomes full of dust, pollen and fragments of grass to which many are allergic. There’s no getting away from this process, which is also a colossal waste of human and natural resources.

The only reason this desert can support so many courses is because of an enormous underground aquifer, which in the past has had enough water to squander on greens such as golf courses. But as the water table gradually declines, there isn’t as much left for the necessities of life.

This process, which varies from state to state, illustrates how resource-consumptive lawns can be. Certainly, where there is sufficient rainfall, the demand on water supply isn’t comparable to that of a desert community. But when you factor in the costs of gasoline to run the mower, chemical fertilizers to make the lawn green, pesticides to keep the grubs out and herbicides to kill the broadleaf weeds, the process is still downright extravagant.

However, the lawn has always been an integral part of our home landscapes. It makes the house look beautiful, encased within a sea of green. It provides a place for the kids and their pets and friends to play. So, eliminating all lawns isn’t realistic, as it will affect how families use their outdoor space at home.

What’s doable is cutting back on unnecessary lawn areas that aren’t useful, and simply using turf to fill the space. Often, inessential greens are the result of lazy designers who use lawns to fill areas they failed to integrate into the overall scheme.

Even if you aren’t seeking a new “green” sensitivity, virtually everyone is taking a closer look at how we spend every penny. In some California communities, the cost of water is rising this year as much as 15 percent. Add that to all the other costs detailed above, and it’s clear that reducing lawn areas is just smart.

Many homeowners, particularly those empty-nesters who no longer need space for the kids, are reassessing their landscapes. One of the most popular repurposing methods is the development of a food garden that offers endless supplies of organic food and herbs. Rather than paying for an expensive lawn, this garden pays you with its harvests.

Food gardens can be quite beautiful if you explore the French potager, a foursquare garden that dates to Roman times. With walkways dividing the quadrants, and perhaps a sculpture or fountain at the middle, the food garden can resemble highbrow European design.

With the economy in shambles and no real end in sight, this is the year to rethink your home landscape. Buying another house may not be possible, so we must work with what we have to evaluate what potential the homestead offers.

And remember: You needn’t give up all of your lawn, but the more you repurpose, the more affordable the remainder becomes.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read it at E-mail her at Also, join her online for the Garden Party social networking at