Herbicide in the first degree
Here's a primer on how to kill your lawn and not feel bad about it.
Thu, May 28 2009 at 2:51 PM
Illustration: Felix Sockwell
As a general rule, I avoid anything approaching murder. I can’t even bring myself to kill a bug. When I was little, accidental caterpillar casualties reduced me to tears and turned pleasant bike rides into guilt-ridden funeral processions. I’m less melodramatic in adulthood, but my tendency toward overwrought compassion remains. When it came to killing our lawn though, I didn’t bat an eye. In fact, I leapt at the opportunity. And the lawn never even saw it coming.
A couple of years ago, my husband and I demonstrated our exquisite sense of timing by purchasing our first home in Los Angeles at the tip-top peak of the soon-to-burst housing bubble. At the time, I had a vague hunch that I might be a sucker, but since this wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling for me, I managed to successfully ignore it and forge full-speed ahead toward financially stressed home ownership. Hooray!
Luckily I love the place for which we overpaid, though it’s nothing like the house I fantasized about owning when I was younger. That house, enthusiastically rendered in childhood drawings, had zip wires, trampoline floors, chocolate water slides, graham cracker furniture, and a marshmallow lawn that allowed for both cushiony zip wire landings and convenient s’more assembly.
Our new actual lawn, by contrast, was made of boring, old, water-guzzling grass when we first acquired it. Now, nearly three years later, we don’t have a lawn at all; we have an array of low-water plants better suited to the frequently drought-plagued, Mediterranean climate in which we live. In the big scheme of things, it was an easy transition from lawn to sustainable landscaping, but in actuality, the journey between the two was rife with disapproving neighbors, sprained lower back muscles, avian sabotage, and cold-blooded herbicide.
By conventional standards, the original lawn was gorgeous: lush and green, complete with pop-up sprinklers that kept it fresh, misted, and utterly and out of sync with its surrounding ecosystem. Maintaining a lawn in general is a questionable pursuit because it takes so much water and energy to keep the alien grass alive and nourished. Maintaining a lawn in the desert is just plain silliness. It requires diverting large amounts of water that then get inefficiently used, creating dirty runoff that drains through sewers and eventually into the ocean, poisoning marine life and polluting our beaches. All in all, not the most brilliant cycle around.
So we opted out. Shortly after moving into our new home, we simply stopped watering our lawn. The hot southwestern sun did its business and before long, bare patches of dirt cropped up, giving our formerly spectacular front yard a sickly, mangy appearance. This did not endear us to our new neighbors. No one said anything outright, but I imagined disappointed head shaking and accusatory glances. I pictured our neighbors lamenting that we were bringing down property values with our disrespectful, slovenly ways. When the housing bubble burst soon after, I felt personally liable. We’d moved in, killed our lawn, and turned it into a dirthole, and there went the neighborhood.
On a couple of occasions, we attempted to reassure people by describing our master plan. We might have tossed around the word xeriscape (an organic landscape composed of native plants, designed to conserve water and protect habitats) for extra sizzle, and it’s possible that a corny joke was made about how the grass can’t seem greener on the other side of the fence if there’s no grass! Responses ranged from bewilderment to concern. I’m fairly certain the size of my pupils was checked.
But we backed up our crazy talk by bringing in an eco-savvy gardener to help us remake our outdoor space into a sustainable landscape. Out went the dead grass, in went low-water trees, plants, and shrubs. The sidewalk that previously split the lawn was recycled into a prettier broken-slab path that better complemented our climate-friendly vegetation. Our embarrassment over being the blight of the block was transformed into excitement about the new buds, butterflies, and birds that arrived overnight. We love them all, except for whichever bird it is that insists on plucking up our new ground cover shoots. Just because they look like little, delicious worms does not make that behavior OK.
We still spend a lot of energy on our new yard — replanting ground cover, applying organic mulch, and finding other ways to hurt our lower backs. Satisfaction helps soothe the spasms though, because we genuinely love our new anti-lawn. And the time I used to spend stressing about wasted water I can now spend buying HD-DVDs. Clearly, they’re a smart investment. Trust me, I’m never wrong about these things.
Kristin Gore is the author of New York Times bestselling novel Sammy’s Hill (2004) and the sequel Sammy’s House (2007). She has no regrets about killing off her lawn.
Story by Kristin Gore. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.
Copyright Environ Press 2008.
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