For a Greener Yard, Lose the Lawn

Across the Southwest, cities are banning water-thirsty front lawns. Cado Daily of the University of Arizona's Water Wise Program views that as an opportunity to plant a "rainscape" — a yard with drought-friendly native plants that she says can look as lush as a lawn, and lure wildlife back, too.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman filling in for Ira Flatow today. Take a weekend stroll through many American neighborhoods and you're bound to see folks mowing their front lawns. But in Las Vegas, not so much, because unless you apply for a special exemption, Title 14 of the Las Vegas Code of Ordinances dictates that, quote, "no new turf may be installed in residential front yards." It's a grass ban.

In fact, for nearly a decade, Vegas has been giving residents rebates if they kill their lawns. Las Angeles has followed suit along with many other cities across the Southwest. So what's a lawn lover to do? Well, you don't need to settle for a yard carpeted in gravel. Why not plant what's called a rainscape? My next guest has a few tips on how to get started.

And we want to hear from you. Have you degrassed? Have people judged you for it? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK or Tweet us @scifri. Cato Daily is the water resources coordinator for the Water Wise Program at the University of Arizona Cochise County Cooperative Extension. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CATO DAILY: Hello, Flora. Thank you for inviting me to be on your program.

LICHTMAN: It's a pleasure. So where do people start if they want to cut grass out of their lives?

DAILY: Well, what I like to tell people is that rainscapes are the next generation to zeroscapes and that might be a term that people have heard about and zeroscapes are generally a low water-use landscape that, as you were saying, are not these endless expanses of gravel, but they're lovely low-water use, colorful, wildlife attracting landscapes.

LICHTMAN: And what are some of the types of plants that people should be looking at for a rainscape garden or lawn?

DAILY: What I like to say is go take a hike. Go and look around. Go and look around what is growing in your area because those are the kind of plants that are going to do the best in your landscape. There are plants that have adapted to the soil, they've adapted to this moisture, they've adapted to the sun, and all the different climate pieces of your environment. So go take a hike and see what's there. I'd also love to - go ahead.

LICHTMAN: I was just going to say, I guess whatever's living on the side of the road probably doesn't get watered that often.

DAILY: Well, I think that what you need to do is balance out what is available locally in your area and if you don't have kind of plants that you like to see in your yard, well then go to the nurseries and see what plants are adapted to your environment. There are many plants that are found in Australia and in South Africa that are also adapted to drier environments.

But you might be surprised in taking a walk and seeing what beautiful plants are really growing in your area.

LICHTMAN: Right, that don't need a lot of maintenance.

DAILY: Well, that's the other part of the zeroscape and the rainscape concept is that you want to have a low maintenance yard. You don't want to spend your weekends mowing and certainly I spent a lot of weekends as a child trimming the edges of the lawn, and to be honest with you, I've got better things to do.

LICHTMAN: Maybe that explains your career choice, all those weekends trimming the lawn as a child. How did you get into this?

DAILY: Well, interestingly enough, I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, which is a national volunteer program, and the cooperative extension in Cochise County, which is in the southeast corner of Arizona, wanted to start a water conservation program and it was perfect for me because I really believe in the value of water conservation. I think that we all need to be looking more carefully at how we're using our water and certainly landscapes is one of those areas where we can be more efficient. And so I got into it that way.

LICHTMAN: Is this something that people should consider doing, would you say, outside of really dry areas like the Southwest? Is there a good reason to do a drought-tolerant garden in Florida or Connecticut or places that get more rain?

DAILY: Well, it's maybe surprising to know that zeroscape landscaping is promoted in wet areas as well as the dry locations in the U.S. as a water conservation practice. There are seven principles to zeroscape and rainscapes adds one more principle to those, which is balancing your water budgets between the kind of water that your landscape needs and what the available water supply that you have from rain or snow.

And what's interesting is Hawaii and Florida and South Carolina and all the way up to Maine, all of these different states have embraced this zeroscape and low water use - landscape principles.

LICHTMAN: Can you do anything to make your soil hold water better? I've heard mixed things about mulch.

DAILY: Right. Well, cooperative extension recommends that people do not amend their soil and they really would like people to try to plant in what Mother Nature provides for them. Certainly for bedding plants and for vegetable gardens, you want to amend the soil, but the idea is that once the plants get established in your landscape, those roots are going to reach out and they're going to eventually be going into your native soil.

And so you don't want to impede their growth by creating an artificial soil for them. What we do recommend is you put your mulch layer on top of the soil and an organic mulch is really a great thing to use because it gets the little microorganisms all active in that area and then they help to enhance the soil that way.

LICHTMAN: I didn't know that was why you mulch. I always thought it was just a carpet layer to prevent moisture from coming out.

DAILY: Well, certainly that is one of the key purposes of mulch is that you want to keep some water in the ground and not evaporate into the air. But the other thing too is that it helps to enhance your soil.

LICHTMAN: What about grasses? If you can't get over it, you just want to have some grass to play with your kids or whatever, are there less thirsty grasses you can plant?

DAILY: Absolutely. There are native grasses. One of the grasses that does very well here is a Buffalo grass. I like to tell the story that our irrigation system broke at our demonstration garden and it didn't get water during the driest and hottest time of the year. Looked absolutely sad and we gave it a little bit of water and it popped right back up. So Buffalo grass is a nice turf grass to choose. It does go dormant in the winter.

And also your native grasses. Grasses don't have to be perfectly manicured. They can be lovely and tall and swaying in the wind and catch the light. But again, the most water efficient grass is artificial turf.

LICHTMAN: Right, right. Let's go to Shawn(ph) in Concord, California. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SHAWN: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to comment on what you said earlier about the initial lack of maintenance on these yards, and my wife and I bought a house last October and we tore out the grass. One of the first things we did was tear out the grass and we have the native soil. We tilled it a little bit and we just put wildflower seeds and planted some drought-resistant drought-tolerant native shrubbery.

And it's been great. We've had many birds and bees, you know, in and out every day, all day and we can sit out on the porch and watch these birds and watch the wildlife and we love it. And most people around in our neighborhood actually have grass and we don't see it as much in those areas.

LICHTMAN: Have you had anybody judge you for going no grass, Shawn?

SHAWN: Not that I'm aware of.

LICHTMAN: I wonder how the culture has changed about this. I mean, it seems like in the Southwest, you know, there's no choice, so it's not really a conversation about aesthetics anymore. Is that right, Cato Daily?

DAILY: Well, I think that the more people see, just like Shawn was talking about, how beautiful these landscapes can be and how wildlife enhancing and how enjoyable they are, that they're catching on. I think that what happens is people coming from other places bring those ideas about landscape to their new location and that they find that it just doesn't work for them. And so having people do like what Shawn is doing is an excellent thing.

And Shawn, I would like to also recommend that you try to make a part of your landscape, and maybe it is, into a rainscape, which again is a landscape that once established relies on rain and storm water for all its water needs, so we can conserve on our potable water.

LICHTMAN: There you go, Shawn. Weekend project.

SHAWN: Excellent. Thank you.

LICHTMAN: Cato Daily, is it legal to collect rainwater everywhere or is it illegal in some places?

DAILY: Each state has its own water laws and I would recommend that before anybody collects rainwater that they check to see what their state's water law is. In Arizona, it's legal to collect rainwater that falls on your property, so you can collect it from your roof. And I'd like to just throw this out: A thousand square feet of a collection area will give you 600 gallons in a one-inch rain.

LICHTMAN: Wow.

DAILY: That's a lot of water.

LICHTMAN: That's a lot of water, wow.

DAILY: But if water doesn't originate on your property and is in a defined channel here in Arizona, you can't impede it but you can slow it down. So you can use it to slow it down around plants and give them an extra drink.

LICHTMAN: Shawn mentioned that he seemed to have more wildlife. Is that something that you've found too?

DAILY: Absolutely. When you think about the variety of different kinds of plants and especially ones that are indigenous to your area, they're providing the bugs, the nectar, the nesting, all those different elements of the wildlife habitat that those animals in that area need. And if you have a monoculture like a lawn is, you really are eliminating all those different habitat elements for the wildlife.

LICHTMAN: So any other recommendations for people who are just getting going? Go take a walk, take a hike, as you say. Anything else people should keep in mind? Any challenges that people should know about?

DAILY: I think that one of the easiest and most fun things to do just to get started. Get started collecting rainwater; put a bucket underneath your roof and you'll be surprised at how much water there is available for you to use. And go out and play in the mud. When it rains go out and make little dips and bumps to catch that water that moves across your property.

And then go and talk to your cooperative extensions and go to the nurseries, see what kinds of plants there are available. And then just start trying places and just have fun doing it.

LICHTMAN: Right, and I guess you don't have to do your whole lawn at once? You could try out just a little corner.

DAILY: Absolutely. Yeah, it might be a little bit of an overwhelming project to do it all at once, but on the other hand, you might just get caught up in the excitement of it and just want to take the whole thing out and enjoy your landscape, like Shawn is doing.

LICHTMAN: Thank you for joining us today.

DAILY: It's been my pleasure. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Cato Daily is the water resources coordinator for the water wise program at the University of Arizona Cochise County cooperative extension. And after the break, performance artist Marina Abramovic is here to talk about her experiments in art and in the brain. You don't want to miss it. If you have a question for Marina Abramovic, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Don't go away.

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