Concrete Progress: Golden Lawns, Golden State

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Top photograph courtesy of Kevin Cortopassi.

Michael Korte and Laura Whitney, of Glendora, California, became locally notorious environmentalists without even trying this July. California’s been bone-dry all year—no snow in the winter, no rain in the spring—and the couple decided to respect the drought and cut back to watering their lawn just twice a week. But the brownness of that lawn offended a neighbor, so the city of Glendora, thirty miles east of LA, sent them a letter reminding them that appearances are important and that they might be subject to fines of up to $500.

Now, California is pretty arid most of the time—that’s why people move here—but this has been absurd. California’s water system depends on the Sierra Nevada, a 400-mile-long, 8,000-foot-high wall that catches Pacific storms in the form of winter snow and provides the state with something to drink when that snow melts. But in 2014, the storms didn’t come. The Sierra’s final snowpack was 18 percent of the usual, and the coastal cities did no better: northern California’s rivers failed to reach the ocean for most of the winter, while southern California got summer-style fires in winter. Last year was the driest year in recorded history in many parts of the state; I expect this year to beat it.

In response, Governor Jerry Brown recently urged Californians to cut their water consumption by 20 percent—but in politics, suggestions that people restrict themselves out of the goodness of their hearts only go so far. By late July, the state picked up some of the slack and prohibited such profligate activities as hosing down sidewalks. Here and there, cities were hiring “water cops” to investigate water waste and scare any rogue slip ‘n slides back indoors. And still it fails to rain.

The problem here, though, isn’t so much the drought, or the law, or the Singapore-style fines—it’s our society’s addiction to green grass. People expect to maintain the lush and verdant lawns of English duchesses—which is fine, if you live in Greenwich, Connecticut, or Victoria, British Columbia. The city of Glendora urged on Korte and Whitney the importance of keeping “landscaping looking healthy and green,” but in California, green grass is about as good an indicator of landscape health as rouge on a bonobo. Glendora needs to learn about xeriscaping.

Xeriscaping—or landscaping with plants evolved to fit dry regions—reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental watering.

Sonoma County, in California’s famously lovely Wine Country, sits a morning’s drive north of Glendora. It’s dry in Sonoma, too, hence the region’s tremendous pinots and chardonnays, and I’m pleased to say that the people there have taken a hard look at their landscape. Moving beyond the green grass aesthetic, they’re planting their yards with native and Mediterranean flora. This is what’s called xeriscaping: a science-fictiony word for an earthy solution. Californian plants, and plants from regions like South Africa or western Australia, evolved with dry weather for many thousands of years—and as a result, lawns hosting these plants demand minimal water and fertilizer, and they produce little wasteful runoff. Xeriscaped lawns are often also hydro-zoned, with species that need more water bunched together to maximize irrigation efficiency. And native wildlife, which may find nothing appealing in an emerald square of grass, look at such landscapes and see habitat.

There are no numbers on the movement, but it is large enough that one can take an online tour of the region’s widely-landscaped homes. (I should, at this point, mention the Sonoma County Master Gardeners website, where I got most of this information. Check it out, especially if you live in California.)

Environmental issues aside, xeriscaping fits a landscape instead of transforming it, blending smoothly into the khaki chaparral on the hills above Sonoma and Glendora. In my years in the west, I have always found it jarring to see neat green circles or rectangles stamped onto arid ground. Of course, everyone finds beauty in different forms, and some readers might imagine a xeriscaped lawn as a severe and desolate garden of dirt devils and tumbleweed. But no: desert plants grow green—a subtle green—and produce exuberant flowers. Xeriscaping works on nature’s terms: the yards of xeriscapers become their own individual landscapes, places that suit their soil, sun exposure, precipitation, and ecosystem.

I’m told that California was called the Golden State not just because of its precious-metal history, but because in the summer the plants cloaking its hills and mountains dry from green into a golden yellow, in wet years and in dry. In Sonoma, you can see that gold spread across gardens as well. Seems better than fining people for environmental consciousness.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on dam removal politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and will begin an Environmental Studies professorship at Wofford College this fall. In his academic work, he researches the ways people decide to restore and remake their environments.


  1. Please tell me the city of Glendora apologized for the letter. That’s just crazy.

  2. Not as far as I can tell…although I doubt the city will actually levy the fine, especially after all the attention it’s attracted.

  3. If grass is that important to someone, they should live in New England, Pacific Northwest, Kansas or Kentucky.

    It is astounding and incredibly self-defeating to pursue the lawn culture the way so many do.

    The water implications alone are reason enough to move away from grass, never mind the chemicals, noisy and polluting power lawn tools, and native wildlife unfriendliness of a fairway style lawn.

    We are going to regret using all the resources for grass instead of useable crops.

  4. I wonder sometimes if what people want is to live in a constant New England summer day – green grass, blue sky, 70 degrees. We need to get away from this.

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