Sod it: Californians turn back to grass lawns as drought shaming ebbs

The states punishing drought saw neighbors scorned and water-guzzling lawns ripped up. But turf-industry insiders say grass is making a comeback

Yumi Wong adores the latest addition to her southern California home: a lush, emerald lawn.

It just looks much nicer with all the green. It feels clean and peaceful, she said on Tuesday, padding across the 2,800-sq-ft grass expanse. I thought about artificial turf but I just wanted the real stuff back.

It arrived last week, a boon for her two children, two dogs and tortoise, and fitted right into Rancho Cucamonga, a neighbourhood east of Los Angeles. Here nobody on the street has got rid of grass, said Wong, 36, a physicians assistant.

They did not do so because Californias great grass purge seems to have faltered. A punishing drought triggered mandatory water restrictions last year and seemingly turned lawns into an enemy of the state. Thousands were ripped up. Vigilantes drought shamed reprobates who maintained verdant lawns. The ideal was brown lawns, or no lawns.

Southland Sod Farms, a big turf supplier, saw orders plunge from a high of 500 a day to just 80. One customer requested a clandestine delivery to avoid shaming. Critics called the company an environmental vandal. A Facebook post compared it to the Nazis.

Now, however, Southland Sod Farms is delivering about a hundred lawns daily across Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego and is cautiously optimistic about the future. This panic to drive lawns out that only went so far, said owner Jurgen Gramckow. Deep down inside people appreciate the recreational and aesthetic value of lawns.

He talked up grasss environmental benefits absorbing greenhouse gas, cooling air temperature, impeding soil erosion and his clients conservation efforts.

Wong, for instance, used to have an even bigger lawn until drought fried it. She compromised and replaced about half of it with drought-tolerant landscaping and the rest with the new lawn.

Norm Lopez, a sales rep for Southland Sod Farms, on the lawn of one of his clients. Photograph: Noah Smith for the Guardian

Some clients install lawns only in backyards, hidden from the street, Gramckow said. They want to look like theyre doing their social responsibility by not having a lawn out front. Other, bolder souls say, in effect, sod it. With these folks its: my world begins on my property line, and stay out of it.

This year is on track to be the hottest ever recorded and California is enduring a fifth parched year, but anecdotal evidence suggests lawn lust, the California love that dare not speak its name, is indeed back.

Horrified landscapers and conservation activists have reported spotting new lawns around LA and San Diego.

You see them going in. I always stop and stare and think, what are you doing, are you really that clueless? said Marilee Kuhlmann, a landscape consultant and president of Urban Water Group.

Some people are choosing to keep their lawns and just pay the [water] bill. I guess they want it bad enough, said Andrew Ferguson, a landscaper with Terroir Malibu. He recently spotted what appeared to be a new 20,000-sq-ft lawn in Malibu. It boggles my mind.

Brook Sarson, who runs H2OME, a water conservation company, said some residents simply denied the realities of a Mediterranean climate. People think, Oh its just a little lawn, what else can I do to save water? I think in San Diego and LA we just have this entitlement I want what I want.

Bob Pool, 62, a Beverly Hills lawn owner and screenwriter, thinks there is no need to purge lawns until climate changes impact is clearer. I think eventually well have to get rid of lawns but Id be hesitant to jump the gun, he said, while admiring lush gardens in Santa Monica. Panic a topic he explored in Outbreak and Armageddon will not benefit LAs landscape, he said.

Wyatt Shattuck, 24, a construction worker, approved of lawns for public spaces he was eating lunch on one but lamented that wealthy clients were keeping private lawns.

Esther Margulies, assistant director of landscape architecture and urbanism at the University of Southern California, said the urgency felt last year yielded some positive results, such as greater use of drip irrigation and solar panels, but that neighborhoods with big properties showed little change. The lawns remain the norm.

Drought shaming, which ranged from aerial photos of celebrities lawns to people tweeting photos of neighbours sprinklers, has receded.

Tony Corcoran, who pedals around west LA documenting water profligacy in YouTube videos, thinks shamelessness is trumping shaming.

I have only seen a small reduction in yards used for grass, he said, and in many cases I see so much foliage planted that it is not in any way reducing the water used.

Yet just a year ago there was a war on lawns. State-funded ad campaigns urged no watering with slogans such as Brown is the new green. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) doubled its rebate from $1 to $2 for home and business owners to remove grass, to such enthusiastic response the budget for it didnt last long.

Yumi Wong outside her home. Photograph: Noah Smith for the Guardian

Then two things happened.

Some homeowners who had replaced lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping hated the result: gravel with a smattering of succulents, yarrow and other plants. Often the plants died, giving way to weeds.

Another lawn alternative artificial turf lost some luster when CBS2 reported that LAs department of water and power, which is tasked with punishing water wasters, watered fake grass at its substations. The reason? Wash out dog pee.

Read more: