What We All Need to Learn About Lawns


green lawn at home. On a Sunny summer day.

Photo: Getty Images

America’s Obsession with Lawns

  • Throughout history lawns were the exclusive possession of the upper classes until something changed at the dawn of the 20th century which fueled America’s middle class obsession lawns and made the suburban lawn a status symbol of home ownership.
    • The lightweight push mower! Lawnmower was invented in 1830 but was cast iron and HEAVY. Before the lawnmower lawns were manicured via scythe.
  • 2005 NASA satellite survey discovered that lawns cover an estimated 63,000 square miles of America— larger than the entire state of Florida. Which makes lawns the largest intentionally grown and managed “crop” in the United States and the only crop with no agricultural value. Lawns provide no food for humans or livestock or habitat for wildlife.
Lawn mower on green grass in a sunny day.

Photo: Getty Images

Lawns are unnatural in at least three ways:

  • Grasses want to sprout, grow about 2’ tall, go to seed, turn brown and die. They don’t want to be kept perpetually green. FYI - the world’s tallest grass can get 150’ tall - giant bamboo.
  • Most lawn grasses are “exotic” (not native) and don’t provide habitat for native insects.
    • The two most popular species of American lawn grass aren’t native to North America. Bermuda grass is from Africa and Kentucky Bluegrass is from Europe and the Middle East.
    • Insects co-evolve with native plants over tens of thousands of years and have EXTREMELY narrow diets. 90% of the insects in Southern California have no use for non-native plants or grasses.
  • Relative to other plants or trees, lawns require massive amounts of water, fertilizer, pesticides and maintenance. In America lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides per year.

Lawns and Drought Myths

  • 77% of California water usage is for agriculture. Only 10% is urban landscaping.
  • Changing your lawn isn’t going to save California from drought … but it will save your water bill.

Research from the University of California’s Centre for Landscape and Urban Horticulture suggests a lawn of less water thirsty grass or native plants can save over 60% of your personal water use.

Popular practices like xeriscaping or replacing grass with artificial turf do even greater damage through the “heat island” effect, less carbon sequestration, and killing off soil microbes, destroys habitat, hotter than concrete, doesn’t pass the theater test, too perfect, doesn’t feel real.

Hand holding an artificial grass roll. Greenering with an artificial turf.

Photo: Getty Images

Fescue

Also known as Marathon, the ubiquitous lawn grass for Southern California landscapes. Like all plants it has a dormant season, which is summer. Although it does pretty well in our yards, it’s not the toughest grass on the block. If you’ve had St. Augustine or Bermuda in the past, these vigorous grasses can overtake it.

Fescues are more active in the cold season. That’s the time to weed and feed and water them to a certain thickness so they can survive their summer dormancy with some shred of dignity.

Fescues are highly susceptible to dog urine die back.

Use corn meal to suppress weeds in January. Use a spot spray to kill off dandelions in the summer. Don’t try to get the deep green look in July. Let it green up naturally in November when the rainy season begins.

Bermuda

Like its name, Bermuda is a heat-loving tropical grass, dormant in the winter, active in the summer. Some homeowners confuse their “dead” lawns in the fall with the simple fact that they are dormant.

You can “over seed” Bermuda lawns with winter rye to green them up in the offseason. Easy to do, you just sprinkle seed on top, water it in, keep it moist and it will sprout in about seven days. But know that a serious winter heat spell could kill off your rye.

Hybrid Bermuda is a water guzzler and greens up when fed in the summer. It can also be overtaken by the less desirable common Bermuda. Don’t worry about weeds, Bermuda will choke its own.

St. Augustine

This lawn, if properly cared for, is indestructible.

Active in the summer, dormant in the winter, it still looks tidy even when a little bit brown.

Weeds don’t have chance. Dogs can’t touch it. The books say it requires a lot of water, but Dean doesn't water his much and it looks great.

Chinch bugs can cause brown spots. For a diagnosis, set a piece of white paper near your brown spots. The bugs will hop on to it. You’ll have to use chemicals to kill off chinch bugs, or you can leave the spots.

Clover

Clover used to be the standard in American lawns and is a bit of a European look where green swaths are really just a mish-mash of plants. There is a new push to include clover in our lawns for a lot of reasons.

Clover gives you that green swath you seek all year long. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil and as we know, lawn grass loves nitrogen. Clover plus lawn is a win-win combination and everybody is organically happy.

Clover is immune to dog spotting and will stay green in areas where your fescue has died out. Clover needs little or no watering, it chokes out weeds, and you can cover 2000 square feet for $20.

You will get white blooms in your lawn from the clover of choice: Trifolium repens or ‘Dutch White’. But it’s a look we can learn to live with.

Native Grasses

Kurapia

  • Lippia + Kurasawa
  • Self healing
  • Deep 5’+ roots
  • Sterile

Tips for Summer Lawn Care

  • Mow High
  • Aereate
  • Check your grass type for watering requirements
  • WATER AT NIGHT!!!!The internet is filled with north Eastern gardening advice.

General design tip: more trees, more plants, less lawn

Rabbits and gophers

  • fence - 2’ above ground, 1’ buried
  • gopher wire
  • motion activated sprinkler
  • plant rabbit food on the perimeter - clover and dandelion
  • DO NOT USE RODENTICIDES

Sponsored Content

Sponsored Content