The water needed to keep the grass green and trees alive at California mansions

Due to water shortages and water restrictions in California, we now know how much water some celebrities are using for their homes and grounds:

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Now, the celebrities are among the 20,000 residents in the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District – that holds jurisdiction in the cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, and Westlake Village – forced to abide by water restrictions with the installation of restrictive devices that will reduce the amount of water used during showers and for sprinklers.

Amid the relentless drought, the water district moved to ‘Stage 3’ restrictions on June 1 to reduce water consumption by at least 50 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Kim Kardashian is one of the A-list celebrities that has received notice to limit the water usage at her Hidden Hills home and her fixer-upper property she purchased next store – after she exceeded water use by about 232,000 gallons in June…

Rocky Balboa actor Stallone and his model wife, Jennifer Flavin, reportedly went over their water budget at their Hidden Hills home by about 533 percent, or 230,000 gallons, in June. The couple used 195,000 gallons of excess water in May…

Meanwhile, NBA star Wade also received a notice that he exceeded his water limit by 90,000 gallons or 1,400 percent in June. While Wade’s water usage is an improvement since May, it’s still more than most users.

While more than just celebrities have received these notices, the water figures here are staggering. To keep a large house and property going, they have exceeded their allotted use by a lot of water. If this does not contribute to the idea that a lush green lawn and landscape is a status symbol, I do not know what does.

On the flip side, imagine a major celebrity eschewing the green lawn and garden-filled property for a property with a lot fewer water needs. Could images of a celebrity yard of drought resistant and native plants help turn the tide against this kind of water usage? Or, a major social media influencer? Overcoming decades of the association between homeownership and status with a green lawn is going to be hard to overcome.

(Consider this a companion post to the one yesterday about California property owners getting money to tear out their grass lawns.)

Paying California property owners to tear up their grass lawns

A good number of property owners in California can receive money to remove grass:

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The largest district in the state, the Metropolitan Water District serving 19 million people in Southern California, is paying $2 per square foot of grass pulled out. Water district customer cities and agencies can add more…

The Metropolitan Water District told CNN the number of requests for grass removal rebates jumped four times in July, to 1,172 applications…

The horrific drought led Larry Romanoff to combat climate change by ripping out his grass and replacing it with cactuses and decorative stones. Romanoff will collect $10,500, a whopping $6 per square foot of lawn removed from his desert home…

The Coachella Valley Water District and its customer, the city of Rancho Mirage, are each paying Romanoff $3 per square foot of lawn torn out…

The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center estimated for CNN nearly 50% of the 409 water agencies in California are offering some sort of turf removal rebate, both residential and commercial.

Paying property owners now will presumably pay off in the long run as it reduces water use.

Given the water shortages facing California and other Western states, how much money will be allocated to such programs and how many homeowners will go for this? Getting rid of the grass lawn may lead to fewer maintenance needs. But, the grass lawn is such a key part of both the image and the mystique of the single-family home. It might be harder for many to envision a property of rocks and cacti or more native and drought-resistance plants.

Chicagoland suburbanites respond to No Mow May

At least a few residents in the Chicago suburbs have adhered to No Mow May:

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The effect can be dramatic, with neat suburban lots growing shaggy and wild, and the jokes flowing freely along with the #lazylawn social media posts.

But the goal is serious. Scientists are increasingly concerned about studies showing key insect populations are falling due to factors such as loss of habitat, pesticide use and climate change. And the plight of these unsung heroes of the food chain has proved difficult to publicize

The northern suburb of Northbrook suspended enforcement of its mowing ordinance and offered its first No Mow May this year, with free wildflower seed packs for participants. In Glenview, 292 residences signed up for a less ambitious No Mow ’Til Mother’s Day program offered by the village. In Westmont, 236 residences registered for No Mow ’Til Mother’s Day, up from 161 in 2021…

“We’re getting a lot of feedback that, ‘I’m seeing more rabbits, I’m seeing more bees than I’ve ever seen in my yard before’ — these exciting types of new discoveries made at the residential level. And of course, a lot of kids really love dandelions, so that’s a cool outcome.”

Not everyone is happy with No Mow May in general and those extra dandelions in particular. Northbrook received a public comment from a participant who said their neighbor mowed their lawn in the middle of the night. On Facebook, No Mowers said they were concerned about upsetting their neighbors and spreading dandelions. One woman said she had taken to deadheading dandelions to avoid seed spread, a time-consuming task.

This reaction against this new practice is about what I would expect. There is a strong cultural norm that suburban lawns, and lawns in general, should be green and free of dandelions and leaves. Growing anything in the lawn beyond well-manicured green grass is discouraged formally and informally.

This would also line up with a number discussed in the article. A biologist estimated 5,000 Americans participated in No Mow May this year. Given all of the online conversation about No Mow May, only 5,000 people are trying this out? The green lawn crew is even stronger that might be suspected. Perhaps this number grow as the idea spreads and institutional actors, such as municipalities, support it.

Suburban lawns and religious alternatives

With religious motivation, the suburban lawn can be transformed into an area of biodiversity:

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Mr. Jacobs is an ecologist and a Catholic who believes that humans can fight climate change and help repair the world right where they live. While a number of urban dwellers and suburbanites also sow native plants to that end, Mr. Jacobs says people need something more: To Reconnect with nature and experience the sort of spiritual transcendence he feels in a forest, or on a mountain, or amid the bounty of his own yard. It’s a feeling that, for him, is akin to feeling close to God…

Mr. Jacobs, for his part, looks around at all the pristine lawns (“the lawn is an obsession, like a cult,” he says) and sees ecological deserts that feed neither wildlife nor the human soul. “This is a poverty that most of us are not even aware of,” he said.

And he has started a movement to promote better ecology:

About 20 years ago, he began compiling quotes from the Bible, saints and popes that expound on the sanctity of Earth and its creatures, and posting them online. He considered naming the project after St. Francis of Assisi, the go-to saint for animals and the environment. But, not wanting to impose another European saint on American land, he instead named it after Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th Century Algonquin-Mohawk woman who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and, in 2012, became the first Native American to be canonized…

Three years ago, Mr. Jacobs took a step further, teaming up with a fellow Catholic ecologist, Kathleen Hoenke, to launch the St. Kateri Habitats initiative, which encourages the creation of wildlife-friendly gardens that feature native plants and offer a place to reflect and meditate (they also teamed up to write a book, “Our Homes on Earth: A Catholic Faith and Ecology Field Guide for Children,” due out in 2023). They enlisted other ecology-minded Catholics, and have since added an Indigenous peoples program and two Indigenous women to their board.

What exactly is the connection between religious faith in America and the suburban lawn? Two hints above:

  1. First, Jacobs suggests the lawn is “like a cult.” Americans put a lot of effort into keeping the lawn looking good. The lawn signals status and is part of necessary upkeep for the sacred single-family suburban home. The lawn may provide insight into someone’s soul. The devotion to the lawn has its own practices, beliefs, and organizations.
  2. Religious traditions have something about how to approach the earth and land. Jacobs draws on Catholic theology, tradition, and practice to develop both his personal personal practices and an organization that now has members around the world. In a country where a majority of residents are Christians of one tradition or another, how many suburbanites draw on religion to help them interact with their yard and nearby nature?

As more people reconsider whether to have a lawn or consider modifying their lawn, bringing religion into the conversation could help clarify what the lawn is all about. Is the lawn itself worthy of religious devotion or does it help point to larger and transcendent realities?

Adding social norms and social pressure to seeing lawns as “a window into your soul”

Do lawns say something about a homeowner?

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To our neighbors, our lawn was just another suburban expanse of green. But to my dad, like millions of other yard-having homeowners, it was a canvas, a psychologist’s couch, a playpen, a physical manifestation of his deepest fears and greatest joys. Our lawn was one of the few places in my father’s world where he could impose his will. Plus, it was a respite from his three children. It was a miracle he ever came inside.

Watching my dad out there year after year taught me this: A lawn can tell you an awful lot about its owner.

This fits with the American idea that things you own, ranging from a home to a car to your smartphone, say something important about you. They are not just items to use or enjoy; they reflect your personal brand, even as millions of others may have the same things.

People might also do this with lawns. If people keep up their lawn, they assume the homeowner cares about their property and home. Americans generally like this. Those who do not keep up their home and lawn are less trustworthy as are people who do not own homes.

At the same time, lawns are also the product of social norms. What do the neighbors do with the lawn? How might a messy lawn be perceived by neighbors? Are nicer lawns connected to higher property values? How do different brands sell grass seed and other lawn products? I have argued before that a well manicured and clear lawn is connected to social class. Communities have expectations about what lawns should look like and can exercise both formal and informal sanctions, whether mowing lawns for residents and sending them the bill if the grass is too long to dirty looks.

More broadly, the idea of a green and lush lawn is tied to the American suburban dream. The nice single-family home surrounded by an oasis of green hints at private property, nature, and an attentive homeowner. A neighborhood with such lawns is a sign of care and neighbors who value their community.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

A famous author mowing the lawn, giving purpose to caring for the suburban yard

As I raked most of the remaining leaves this weekend, I pondered again the task of taking care of the lawn. Should I continue to help uphold the class status of the neighborhood or let the leaves break down naturally and nourish the grass?

But, if a famous author also took the time to care for his lawn, perhaps so could I. From a recent Facebook post:

ChurchillTolkienMowingthelawn

Caring for a lawn (or garden or field or yard) may just be part of the human tendency to want to cultivate the land around us. Maybe the motivation matters here: if I am more interested in raking because of the property values, this is worse than wanting to get some fresh air and participate in the changing of seasons. Maybe the quotidian tasks give the brain and body a chance to to relax and recharge. Maybe the truly inspired parts of life often follow everyday tasks. Maybe only people who keep fairly regular journals can figure this stuff out (and notice how much Tolkien did not comment on).

All that said, I would guess the average American suburban homeowner would feel better about mowing the lawn or raking leaves or caring for their landscaping if they could connect it to a purpose larger than just wanting the lawn to keep up appearances.

Will there be more lawn mowing or less lawn mowing with climate change?

If the climate is changing with some places predicted to receive more rain and some to receive less rain, how will this affect lawn mowing in the United States? A few quick thoughts:

1. If droughts (such as a few years back in California) and high temperatures are more common in certain places, more people could seek alternatives to lawns (looking for less water use or greywater use plus painting lawns or replacing them). Less lawn mowing!

2. If rain is more common elsewhere, this could lead to lusher lawns, the dream of many suburban property owners. More lawn mowing!

3. Producers of grass seed, lawn mowers, and others would have to adjust. This is a sizable industry that could pursue a variety of paths. Still sell the perfect lawn concept in wetter parts of the country while also selling lawn alternatives in drier regions? Selling hardier and less water dependent seeds in drier areas? I assume they already have plans. Perhaps more lawn mowing if people still want lawns and the right products are available?

4. This could affect how Americans regard the lawn. While the nicely kept green grass lawn seems fairly widespread, perhaps it will be a strong norm in some regions with significant variation elsewhere. How much this could affect other areas of homeownership and suburban life is hard to foresee. A wash for overall lawn mowing?

5. The doomsday scenario: perhaps other problems become so pressing that few care about lawn mowing. For example, why mow the lawn when food supplies are limited?

This question came to me after several stretches this year where rain and humidity constant for a few weeks. This required more mowing then and we have not experienced the typical July/August browning of the lawn because of the rainy spells.

Now is the time to see who really cares about their lawn (and social appearances)

This is the time of year in our area to see which residents really care about maintaining their lawn. There are three main features of the lawn to look at to make this determination:

1. Is the lawn regularly cut to keep up with the rapid growth? At this time of year, the grass grows quite quickly with plenty of rain and warmer temperatures. This likely requires mowing more than once a week in order to keep the grass at a pleasing-to-the-eyes height.

2. Are there no dandelions visible? This hints as the groundkeeper’s efforts regarding weeds. Green grass is all that should be seen as people pass by. The shame of an uneven lawn might be outweighed by having a yard full of dandelions surrounded by perfectly green (and yellow-free) yards.

3. Is the grass uniform and lush? Even with all of the rain and sunshine, different kinds of grass (and other kinds of ground cover) plus patchy spots in the yard could indicate the homeowner is less invested in the lawn.

Two bonus features about the landscaping (often connected to lawn maintenance) to look at during this time of year:

1. If the residence has blooming flowers. This requires either foresight – planting perennial flowers – or time each year to put in new flowers.

2. If fresh mulch has been applied to beds on the property. This may be accompanied by a particular smell or a visible pile (or dirt mark) on the driveway or side yard.

As I have argued before, all of these markers are signs of both residential social norms and class-related behavior.

Grow fruits and vegetables in the front yard instead of a lawn

One journalist discusses alternatives to the grass lawn that dominates the front yard of suburban homes:

Every summer, I imagine a different landscape, one that I do not have to mow. My sunny front lawn would be a great place to grow a vegetable garden: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and maybe some chard. But if my dandelions raise eyebrows, imagine the reaction I would get to a raised garden bed just a few feet from the sidewalk…

Ms. Bordessa sees room for edible experimentation, even in the front yard. A clever homeowner could tuck food-bearing alternatives like basil, peppers, eggplant and blueberries into the flower beds without disrupting the neighborhood aesthetic. Grow a fruit tree and the neighbors might even come knocking for a free peach…

But this spring, I decided to plant more and mow less. A local landscaper who specializes in native plants stopped by my house to offer advice. When I suggested the possibility of a vegetable garden in the front, she steered me to the backyard instead, pointing to a narrow swath near the driveway that gets full light. And I could shrink the rest of the back lawn with native plants like sweet fern, sweetbells, witch hazel and silky dogwood that thrive without full sun. In the front, we could expand the existing flower bed and add new ones. She glanced at me and said, “Of course, you’d need to take care of all this.”…

That first crop was so tasty that each season the couple expanded their patch, planting beets, squash, cantaloupe, kohlrabi, chard and peppers. The plants filled the backyard and wrapped around the side of the house, generating enough produce to feed five food-insecure families in the area every week. Their ambitions grew with the crops. “If we’re going to do 10 plants, why not 20?” Ms. MacLagan said. “Why not the whole seed packet?”

Since the front lawn is part of the important display from the homeowners to the street, any effort to do something different than normal – grass and some bushes, flowers, and trees within reason – might catch attention. These suggestions about growing food in the front go even further as they alter the front lawn from a symbol of normalcy or class status and change the focus to production. Then, the conversation is not just about aesthetics or fitting in with surrounding lawns; it is about cultivating the land for a more practical rather than symbolic use.

I wonder how many comments or concerns are tied to different aspects of having a front yard garden:

1. Does it matter how much of the lawn is a garden? Is a small garden more acceptable compared to 50% or the full land?

2. Do the kind of fruit and vegetables plants/trees planted matter? Some might be more visible as food producers.

3. Is it better to have all garden plants or would including flowers and other non-producing plants help soften the shock of a garden?