Do you ever wonder where the idea of a clipped green carpet around the house comes from? It may seem like lawns have been around forever, and while the rich have certainly planted them for hundreds of years, lawns as a default yard choice in America have only been around since the 1950s. Lawns first debuted in the 1700s when landscape designers in England and France introduced those short green spaces. Americans like Thomas Jefferson brought lawns to this country, but they were the purview of the wealthy. Since there were no mowers, homeowners needed to be able to afford either a herd of cattle or a bunch of servants with hand tools to cut the grass.

The Last Croquet Game of the Summer Published in Harper's Bazar, New York, Nov. 2, 1872.
The Last Croquet Game of the Summer Published in Harper’s Bazaar, New York, Nov. 2, 1872.

The late 1800s brought lawnmowers and sprinklers to homeowners. In fact, the first drought alerts and calls for lowering water usage happened right after sprinklers first made an appearance! Then, in the1880s, the first golf course came to New York. Golf (and croquet) popularity exploded in the U.S. Houses surrounding golf courses and yards that looked like golf courses became a new American goal, but a few more things had to happen first.Mowers, sprinklers and other equipment got less expensive, and new labor laws gave people weekends off so that they had time to work on their yards. By the time the enormous post-war housing boom happened in the 1950s and 1960s, suburb after suburb was built with lawn all around the typical house.

vintage lawn mower
A vintage lawn mower.

The biggest problem with moving the lawn further and further west was weather. England and France have wetter climates year-round and grasses need frequent watering. Even in the eastern half of the U.S., it rains enough throughout most of the year to maintain a lawn naturally. But once you get all the way to the west coast, you are in a completely different climate. We often don’t get rain for 6-7 months at a stretch. You can look at any hill in California and see that most of the year, the grass is brown while the bushes and trees are green. That’s because grass needs a steady supply of water to stay green, which we just don’t have.

I get it. Lawns look tidy, they keep weeds out, and they can be really useful. They are a sign to neighbors that you care about your property. But I ask my clients one questions: Do you use your lawn? If you do, great! Figure out how much lawn you need for sports, playing outside, and entertaining and keep it!

If you’re not using it, is it worth the trouble? Turf grasses are a huge drain not only on water supplies, but on your time and money. Lawns are the second-highest user of water in the state after agriculture, at 7%. Then there’s the cost of weekly gardeners or the time involved in maintaining it yourself. Lawns also pollute soil and waterways when fertilizer runs off into storm drains. Gas-powered mowers, edgers and leaf blowers put 11 times more pollution into the air every hour than a car.

Keeping your lawn

I’ve highlighted some of the headaches and negatives around lawns in California, but it is also true that you can greatly reduce these negatives with some time and effort up front. Constant grass research has developed native and/or low water, low mow grass mixes. They are more expensive than an average lawn but use 25-50% less water and less fertilizer. Many require half the mowing because they grow so slowly. Varieties like Zeon Zoysia and Delta’s Native Bentgrass are great choices for Southern California.

Front yard with Zeon Zoysia grass
A Zeon Zoysia lawn uses less water and less fertilizer than most commonly available lawns.

Irrigation system problems like broken and badly aimed sprinklers and leaky pipes cause an unbelievable amount of water waste. LA County DWP and the city of Santa Clarita offer free water audits. An auditor will visit your property and check indoors and outdoors for equipment that could be improved.  Your local municipality may also offer free water audits.

County of Los Angeles DWP

City of Santa Clarita

I also advise that people only keep the lawn that they actually use. Surrounding your lawn with low water shrubs and flowers cuts maintenance time and water use and looks beautiful!

Ready to Lose Your Lawn?

Stay tuned next month for information on how to get rid of your lawn, how to choose plants, and places to get ideas for your outdoor remodel.