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Trying an Alternative to Lawn

I have a confession: I am addicted to grass, and no, not the kind some people want to legalize.

Editor's Note: Randee Fenner is writing as guest columnist this week, while Go Rural columnist Pam Walatka explores Nicaragua.

Even though I grew up in the desert-like climate of Southern California, grass was everywhere. So it was not surprising that, when our family moved to Los Altos 25 years ago, we had our landscaper design our “garden” around grass—and lots of it.

Initially, we were delighted by the visual pleasure that new grass—thick, weedless and inexplicably green—confers. But soon reality struck.

Our gardener told us we needed to hire a company to control the weeds, improve the color and apply special fertilizers. The company, in turn, suggested adding semi-annual aeration and grub and insect control to the maintenance menu. 

Then there was the vast amount of water required to slake the lawn’s seemingly unquenchable thirst. And because of the physics of our yard, much of the water ran downhill and pooled in the gutter—a constant reminder of our wastefulness. 

The final blow was delivered by the animal kingdom—crows, squirrels and raccoons that picked at, dug in and rolled up the grass, searching for the perfect meal, and mocking our misguided efforts to exert control over nature.

Still, I fought hard for the grass, even when my husband—a devotee of sustainability—pointed out the absurdity of cultivating a green lawn in a Mediterranean climate. I begged and bargained for just one more season of verdant splendor.

That all came to an end this fall when our gardener pronounced our lawn beyond redemption. We had a choice: Replace it with new grass or—gasp—something else.

Fortunately, years of walking in Los Altos Hills had prepared me for this crisis point. Little by little, I had developed an almost unconscious appreciation for natural landscaping. I never would have admitted it, but I actually found myself admiring some of the wilder and carefree yards I passed along my route.

And then a solution presented itself: The horticulturist who designed the Los Altos Town Hall and Purissima Hills Water District landscaping gave us her card. She assured us (mostly me) that she could replace our lawn with luxuriant California-native perennials that would delight the eye and cure my grass addiction.

Like any addict seeking a cure, I wanted to believe. So we signed the contract, and all but a tiny patch of backyard grass disappeared.

I’d like to say that my addiction disappeared with it.  But this may be more of a multi-step process, requiring the passage of seasons and the promised growing together of the baby bushes that now cover our front slope.  

I will say that my longing for lawn is not nearly as acute as it once was. Each day, I see something newly born—a small lavender flower, a crown of golden buds. I find myself eagerly anticipating the changes that will occur, something that grass never offered.  

Happily, we’ve canceled our chemical lawn treatments, replaced our mow-and-blow gardener with our landscaper’s eco-friendly maintenance crew and anticipate a huge reduction in water consumption once our new landscaping is established. We also have qualified for a nice subsidy from the Santa Clara Valley Water District. And several neighbors who are contemplating taking a similar leap are watching our project with great interest.

But perhaps best of all, the crows and nature’s other emissaries seem to have quit mocking us—at least for the time being.

Randee Fenner is a lecturer in law and co-director of the Moot Court Program at Stanford Law School. She has lived in Los Altos for 25 years.

Valley Water-District February 22, 2011 at 04:28 PM
If you're interested in the Santa Clara Valley Water District's Landscape Rebate Program, check out the program details before you get started: http://www.valleywater.org/Programs/LandscapeRebateProgram.aspx

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