Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Are painted lawns a sensible response to the drought?

California has been in a serious drought for 4 years but the public response changed dramatically in 2015 when the governor declared mandatory water restrictions.  Water districts were ordered to reduce water use by 4% to 36%, depending upon their history of prior use, with the goal of reaching a 25% reduction in urban water use by 2016.  The battles and finger-pointing that accompanied the announcement have moved into the background and Californians have made surprising progress in meeting the new requirements.  As of July, California as a whole had exceeded the goal, achieving a 31.3% reduction.  People are taking shorter showers, gardeners are changing out their plants for less thirsty specimens, and many lawns are going brown.  Local garden centers are advertising artificial lawns but I've seen relatively few installations in my own area to date.  However, I recently saw a brown lawn go green overnight with the help of a coat of paint.

Painted parking median at a local mall


When I first noticed the painted lawn at a nearby beach city mall, I didn't think it looked too bad, at least from a distance as I stared out the window of the restaurant where I was having lunch.  A couple of weeks later, when I was back at the mall, I brought a camera and took a closer look.  Again, if you're passing by quickly, it doesn't look too bad.



But a close inspection reveals its drawbacks.



It hasn't stood up well to foot traffic.  The color seems bluer than it was when the paint was first applied but, with sun exposure, perhaps that's to be expected.  When the rain returns, the grass will presumably return to green on its own, assuming the paint doesn't cause permanent damage, but as our rainy season is short it will as quickly revert to brown.  What do you think?  Is lawn paint a reasonable option for public spaces?  And does it make sense for use by homeowners?  

I'm linking to the garden bloggers' Q&A hosted by Ricki at sprig to twig.


All material © 2012-2015 by Kris Peterson for Late to the Garden Party

37 comments:

  1. I don't suppose that idea will catch on. We did have someone in Austin who, when their buffalo lawn went dormant, painted large varied colored polka dots on their lawn. We have friends in Fallbrook who put in artificial turf. He did the job himself and after 5 years it was really looking good. You would never have know it was not real grass even to the little weed that was growing along the edge. It certainly had kept its color.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Grass painted in multiple-colored polka dots sounds like a very California response to dead lawn, Jenny - I'm surprised no one has done that here yet! I gave some serious thought to artificial grass. There seem to be a lot of better options available now with variable leaf color and length to provide a more natural look but concerns about their permeability and the heat they can build up put me off. There are recent reports that 5 LA schools have been forced to replace their synthetic turf due to melting. One report can be found here: http://usatodayhss.com/2015/five-artificial-turf-fields-at-l-a-schools-being-replaced-for-melting-pellet-problems

      Delete
  2. Well, in my opinion if you can't have a natural green lawn what is the point in having one at all ? I can't imagine any circumstance that would compel me to paint my lawn. I'd rather just let it go moderately brown in summer or better yet replace it with something else. I ripped out most of my lawn years ago, what remains is basically a small path that I never water much so it looks pretty sad all summer, and worse this year !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your question reflects my point of view as well. The rest of my lawn is set to come out in 2 weeks.

      Delete
  3. My neighbors across the street applied a DIY green color to their front lawn back in early May. With planting opportunities months away, I thought it was a reasonable short term option. In this area, a brown lawn has long signified an abandoned or unmaintained property and so I understand why some homeowners are uncomfortable with that option. Now, will they choose an alternative landscape once we can plant or do they believe that winter rains will allow them to return to a thirsty green lawn?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lawn painting strikes me as a short-term solution too, Sheila. At first, I wondered if the mall was banking on El Nino to solve our drought problem but, passing through the area again yesterday, I noticed a sign saying "landscaping changes in process" so I'm hoping that the turf will come out eventually. With one heatwave after another, it makes sense to wait awhile so the paint may be just an interim solution.

      Delete
  4. Hmmm... I didn't think it looked too bad at first either, but the later photos changed my mind. Why not rip it up and put a couple of drought hardy natives and surround it with mulch, bark or any other, or even just mulch on its own if you don't want to have to get any plants established (zero water)?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope the lawn paint is temporary, Amy, but only time will tell. There are succulents, ornamental grasses and other drought tolerant plants in other areas outside the mall so there are precedents for that kind of replanting. The medians in the open area parking lot present the biggest challenge as those get a lot of foot traffic so they need to select plants that can stand up to that.

      Delete
  5. It is so difficult to change our cultural background and habits. The idea of not having a lawn in southern California is not going to change this year or the next, maybe the next generation if they grow up with the idea and with GOOD MODELS which at present are few and far between. Those of you subscribing to the cram theory of gardening with succulents are making a start.

    Artificial turf, imported gravel and paint are lawn substitutes which is not at all the same thing as not having a lawn.

    Our housing developments all have lawn space. That needs to change. The house walls need to be brought out to the property boundaries to eliminate lawn space and the space inside the walls used as enclosed patios. This, of course , is not a new idea. it was used by the Moors in Spain where water was never abundant.

    Lots should get smaller then. One new project in my neighborhood has done something like this. Half way. The entry ways are bordered with large planters on the street side. There is no lawn space. I hope it works out. Actually I've seen this style in a new apartment building in Studio City as well. It looks very nice, the planters are polished something-silvery and filled with the silvery form of westringia.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the new rules limiting grass in California's new residential developments to 25% of the landscaped area have started the shift you're talking about, Jane. I just read an article indicating that there are also restrictions on existing homeowners who embark on major landscaping changes. Commercial properties, like the mall, are required to make choices that reduce water use by 35%. All those changes will gradually shift views of what's attractive and acceptable here - that change in perspective may happen faster than anticipated, especially if public venues do a good job of presenting attractive options (unlike the earlier models adopted by operations like Turf Terminators).

      Delete
  6. There was just a story on our local Austin news about a company that's painting lawns here. I'm not sure that they will hold up to blistering heat, rain, etc. I guess it's a solution for some, but it's not high on my list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. P.S. So looking forward to getting to meet you next week!

      Delete
    2. I hope lawn painting is just a temporary solution to tide properties over until conditions are hospitable for wholesale replanting, Diana. And I look forward to meeting you next week too!

      Delete
  7. I'm not totally opposed as long as the paint/dye is safe and bio-degradable. It is one way to respect the natural (Summer dormant) life cycle of the grass. But, I imagine that it is a case of "your mileage may vary" with regard to foot traffic, sun exposure, initial quality, and whatnot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was surprised to see how fast the painted grass areas deteriorated, Emily. Perhaps it holds up better in a shady setting than a sun-baked parking lot. I understand that the mall wanted to convey the impression of green space but the color is more teal than green already and it's only been a few weeks since it was painted.

      Delete
  8. I suppose it depends on where and how the paint is being used. I definitely prefer green to brown. Hopefully El Nino will render using it a non-issue. One can dream. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Our rainy season is short and the heatwaves here seem to be starting earlier and earlier (in March this year) so I'm not sure the paint buys us much, Grace. El Nino, if it comes (and there are still doubters who say it could fizzle), isn't expected to end our drought so I think property owners need to think longer-term.

      Delete
  9. Maybe for a quick patch up but perhaps not long term at all.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I've never had a problem with lawns going brown - it is temporary. At the moment mine is just starting to green up again after so much ice and snow.
    The simple truth is, is that grasses respond to adverse conditions (heat or ice or drought) by going brown. Only in gentle climates like UK are year-round green lawns feasible.
    I don't think I would like to see painted lawns everywhere....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. California, and the US in general, has a fixation on the English-style lawn. Or perhaps I should say an "addiction." With insufficient cold water to bring us to our senses, we apparently need a 12-step program to move on to a planting style that actually fits our environment.

      Delete
  11. I suppose a safe paint would be superior to an artificial lawn which will, after some time, take up space in the landfill. Don't think that lots need to get smaller and that house walls should extend to the border of the property. It's good to have some open space between properties for passers by to enjoy and for children of all ages to play. However, natives, accustomed to local climate conditions, or exotics from similar climates could replace thirsty lawns.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your comment raises a good question about whether or not California is committed to a long-term relationship with artificial turf, Peter. There are better-looking versions available now but, in the final analysis, it's still plastic. I don't understand why it's a better choice than something living. And recent reports indicate that there are limits to the ability of synthetic turf to handle the heat. Supposedly tested to withstand temperatures up to 170F, the sports fields at 5 LA-area schools started melting and are now scheduled for replacement.

      Delete
  12. One blogger (Evan) admitted to shopping for something that would "look nice against dead brown lawn". Now that's what I call adaptive behavior. What's so bad about the color brown anyway? I like Piet Oudolf's gardens best in autumn, when all of the plants have turned into a symphony in brown, from buff to burnt sienna. I live in a world of green, but find desert gardens inspiring. One year, when Portland was in severe draught, a guy painted his lawn green and another opted for red. It was interpreted as a joke by one and all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe part of the problem is that so many people in California migrated here, literally, from greener pastures and want to recreate their images of home in a less than hospitable environment. My mother told me a story about seeing a billboard extolling California's green and gold landscape as she and my father drove into the state. She lived here more than 50 years and never ceased to complain about brown hills and the heat, comparing it to New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. In contrast, I was born here and, while I appreciate greener spaces, I accept my "gold" landscape (if not the constant heatwaves, which I swear have gotten a lot worse since I was a kid). Painting a lawn does seem rather like a joke (or delusion) to me. Thanks for hosting the gbq&a Ricki!

      Delete
  13. Painted lawn !! that's weird!
    Boring with raccoon visits ...
    There was no pig in the post, but a different translation I think!
    Parthenocissus quinquefolia changes color, it would be in the title of the post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Painted lawns are weird, Mariana - but so California! Thank you for clearing up the wild pig matter - Google Translate still needs some work!

      Delete
  14. As a quick temporary solution, seems reasonable. Not long term. I still think artificial has uses--but in shade, not in full sun high-heat, where it will melt!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was shocked to find out the artificial turf could melt like that! I like the negative space a green lawn provides but there are probably better ways to create that in our climate. Kids and pets need play space too but not a surface that gets hot or melts. I noticed that both my local garden center and another local mall currently undergoing re-development has installed small sections of what appears to be shaggy grass - Carex pansa or UC Verde maybe?

      Delete
  15. Athletic fields using artificial turf have specific requirements developed to reduce/prevent injuries. It is a shame the schools are facing replacement needs due to melting. Some production center potentially goofed the testing parameters, or ignored results perhaps hoping the extremes would not be reached. Hopefully that stuff came with some sort of warranty!

    Home lawns are a different matter. I sincerely hope people will not move away from planting anything at all, but we do need to get away from the concept that each home should be surrounded by a large expanse of open grass. Garden beds filled with xeric plants such as yours will help create more pleasant microclimates, the biome mass holding moisture and cooling the air much more efficiently than artificial turf or expanses of rock or mulch.

    When we lived in Northern California years ago I recall how amusing we found it as native Texans to see rolling hills with oak trees and native grasses similar to what we were used to at home, only in Cali they were green during the winter rains and golden all summer, while in Texas the hills were golden all winter and green during at least some of the summer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Based on the article I read, it sounds as though your latter assumption about the school athletic field installation is the correct one. I hope the vendor is replacing the turf at its own expenses - the LA schools have enough financial problems!

      I think people are reluctant to let go of the images of home (and garden) they hold dear. My mother really wanted to live in New England and California never measured up. After my father died when I was 6, our garden wasn't maintained and looked half-dead for the next 12 years I lived there so I never developed an attachment to green lawn because there wasn't one. The tiny backyard of the townhouse my husband and I bought had a lawn and nothing else - I promptly pulled it out and filled the space with plants of all sorts. It's been my intention and an ongoing project to pull out the lawn at our current house too. What's funny is that many of my friends objected to that plan when they heard it, probably based on their own concepts of a "proper" garden.

      Delete
  16. No painted lawns! Ugh. Plant something appropriate instead. Even here in Portland I'm surrounded by brown lawns in the summer and I hate them. Why can't people be more creative.

    I also disagree with houses going to the property line, that's just depressing. One can have interior courtyards bounded by shorter, garden walls, the world doesn't have to become a densely built fortress.

    And finally...how I wish I were going to the GWA convention with the others and getting to meet you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We'll meet in person one day, Loree! Either I'll get up your way or I'll connect on one of your trips down this way.

      Delete
  17. I agree that painting may not be the best option but it is possibly better than wasting a lot of water, the environmental aspects would need further investigation though. I saw artificial grass used in England under a tree where grass was never going to grow; of course there wasn't the problem with it melting there! I had thought I would hate it but on reflection I thought it was a good solution, but I'm not advocating it for use as replacement lawn in all domestic gardens - plastics have terrible waste problems apart from anything else.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't come to terms with plastic grass myself, Christina. As long as there's a living option to plant in a space, I'm likely to go for that. The artificial turf does make some sense to me for backyard putting greens, children's playgrounds, athletic fields and the like but only if they're not going to melt!

      Delete
  18. I know we don' have your water shortages here, but all the same. Yuck! Awful, awful, awful! Horrible ! If you can' t grow water hungry, grass, then don' t grow it. Grow something else.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, Chloris. Hopefully, painted lawns will be used only as stop-gap measures pending a wholesale landscaping renovation.

      Delete

I enjoy receiving your comments and suggestions. However, with apologies to bona-fide commentators, due to a significant increase in spam, I've eliminated the option to post comments anonymously.