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Something greener than grass

Sweat dripped down Wardell Evans' chest as he blew grass clippings off his sidewalk. His cowboy hat barely blocked the brutal 2 p.m. sun. With his bad back, it took him more than five hours to work on his little Brandon lawn.

But he wanted it to be perfect.

"The outside represents the inside," said Evans, 59.

Evans' view of the green grass of home is common. We nurture our lawns, often at the expense of nature. We spread chemicals on them. We mow, edge and trim them and then blow the debris around with machines that often spew more pollution than a passenger car. And we dump millions of gallons of precious water on them. All this for grass that isn't even pleasant to walk on barefoot. In reality, its about appearances.

Yet if we were starting over and designing Tampa Bay's green spaces from scratch, we certainly wouldn't settle on a standard of thirsty St. Augustine lawns, considering the burden their upkeep places on the environment. So how did the manicured lawn became the yardstick for the good yard?

A lush aesthetic

Blame the Brits.

The first attempts at lawns in America were made by wealthy landowners in the late 1700s who had learned about the fashionable English lawns.

Even Thomas Jefferson was impressed by the expanses of green turf in England's county estates, which he recreated at his Virginia home, Monticello.

But without lawn mowers or irrigation systems, lawns were expensive and difficult to maintain. Only the wealthiest families had them.

In the South, front yards were traditionally packed and made up of swept dirt, clay or sand. Lawns were especially difficult to grow near the coast.

And, of course, we envy what the rich have. The lawn became a status symbol.

In the late 1800s, things started to shift. Inventors pumped out machinery to make lawn maintenance easier and affordable. The first lawn mower in the United States was patented in 1868 and the first sprinkler in 1871.

These inventions, coupled with the American ideal of upward mobility, allowed middle-class Americans to aspire to a home with a lawn of their own.

As this occurred, the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s spread the idea that yard care was important. But it ignored traditional standards for yard care, such as packed dirt and cleared yards designed to keep pests and fires away from the house.

Instead, gardening clubs pushed the front-lawn look and offered contests for the best lawns.

Lawns were becoming even more popular thanks to the surging popularity of golf, and through the designs of landscape architects, including Frederick Olmstead, who set houses back from the street and mandated lawns with a scattering of trees.

Sound familiar? Most local suburban neighborhoods today have the same aesthetic.

In Florida, St. Augustine grass quickly surged forward to become the predominant turfgrass.

Since the late 1800s, locals have praised it for its ability to grow in the shade, its pest-resistance and its tendency to choke out weeds to create a consistent carpet of thick — though not soft — grass.

To start again

But, if we were to start over, would we still use it?

No, say environmentalists and sustainable landscape designers.

Grassy lawns might be appropriate in rainy regions like Portland, Ore., but not necessarily in Florida.

"The United States is so diverse, from forests to meadows, to prairies to deserts, so it doesn't make sense to use the idea of a green, uniform lawn in Connecticut, as well as Nevada and Texas," said Sarah Wayland-Smith, a landscape designer for Balmori Associates in New York.

Instead, she said the country's earliest landscape designers should have focused on using native species that don't need much maintenance.

That's the direction landscape design has been going. Sustainable projects have been in vogue for several years, Wayland-Smith said, popularized by increasing concern for the environment.

And a subtle shift started a few decades ago.

In 1962, Silent Spring warned people about the dangers of DDT, and people started wondering about all the chemicals they were using.

In the 1970s, Lorrie Otto of Milwaukee hosted a popular radio show on alternative gardening.

In the 1980s, droughts led homeowners to rethink lawns. Xeriscaping, which is landscape design that conserves water, became popular in California and made its way to Florida.

Still, a 2005 NASA study showed there were 32 million acres of lawns in the country — about three times the acreage of irrigated corn.

Maybe our love of grassy fields and trees is a little more deep-rooted than we think.

Ecologist John Falk studied the human preferences for grassed landscapes and came to the conclusion that since humans evolved in the grassy savannas of Africa, lawns are just our expression of our origins.

There's nothing wrong with wanting a beautiful yard. Our homes are usually our largest asset, and landscaping contributes to the value.

And lawns still have their purposes, as places for children to play and as sporting fields.

But how did we become so divorced from nature that we have to pull out everything that was native and instead shovel in neat squares of turf?

In Redesigning the American Lawn, three Yale instructors write about a "freedom lawn," which allows several types of grass and plants, such as clovers and wildflowers, to grow. They're mowed less frequently but still look attractive and can take foot traffic.

They also suggest reducing the acreage of lawn and replacing it with low-maintenance plants.

But to start a large movement toward sustainable landscaping, several things need to happen.

First, there need to be attractive and affordable alternatives. The word "xeriscape" should be divorced from the imagery of desert-appropriate rocks and cacti and instead be associated with lush native species, like vibrant black-eyed susans and milkweed.

Many garden centers and nurseries sell drought-resistant plants, and gardeners can find a listing of these varieties at

Second, educational programs must be available. The Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program educates residents about how they can have "Florida-friendly" yards, which can include grass if it's watered responsibly.

County extension offices also offer rain barrels, and agents can visit homeowners associations to discuss how residents can shift toward alternative landscaping.

Also, government agencies need to step on board. Regulations, although not popular, can greatly help reduce our impact on the environment. And incentives can motivate homeowners to make the changes.

In San Antonio, Texas, residents can get rebates on their water bills if they have "watersaver" lawns. That means no more than 50 percent of the landscape can be turf, and St. Augustine grass isn't allowed. Residents must also use drought-tolerant plants, have at least one shade tree and get an irrigation check-up.

In Novato, Calif., the water district offers a "cash for grass" program in which they pay residents $100 per 100 square feet of lawn removed, up to $1,000.

Grass isn't greener

So far, the story is different in the Tampa Bay area. Twenty percent of the potable water used in Tampa Bay is used for irrigation, according to Tampa Bay Water.

We still use noisy, gas-guzzling machines that pollute the air. Leaf blowers are banned in a few dozen cities, but they're a common sight in Florida's suburbs.

But there are some positive changes. St. Petersburg recently passed an ordinance that establishes incentives and regulations to discourage the use of St. Augustine turf and promote xeriscaping.

The City Council is also working to charge the top water users more per gallon, said council member Karl Nurse, a conservation proponent who said he would outlaw St. Augustine grass if he could.

"This recession will end, and we will grow, but we're not going to have any more water," he said. "We need to transition away from St. Augustine grass."

A bill recently signed by Gov. Charlie Crist allows homeowners to move away from sod-only lawns without penalty by their homeowners associations.

Some changes are being made on a small scale, as business owners and homeowners realize their little plot of land affects the environment.

Hillsborough Community College's new SouthShore campus features drip irrigation, drought-resistant plants and a reclaimed water system that collects rainwater and uses it to flush toilets.

And on a recent muggy morning, Riverview resident Mary Elizabeth O'Malley worked on her front yard, planting hearty sunshine mimosa and red trailing verbena.

She started when the drought killed off some of her sod, then it became a passion. She's already planning a backyard filled with only native species.

Her advice to others interested in a greener yard: Start small.

"Begin with a corner where it's hard to grow grass," she said. "Why fight it?"

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

An alternative lawn

• Consider how you use your lawn. Have kids? Then keep some turfgrass for lawn games,

but reduce the overall acreage of turf and lighten up on chemicals and watering.

• Plan before planting. Give thought to conditions, such as sun, pH level and water availability.

Consider using only drought-resistant plants.

• Calculate costs. There may be more up-front costs and long-term savings associated with

changing to a more Florida-friendly yard.

• Customize your irrigation by only using sprinklers for patches of lawn and installing

drip-irrigation in flower beds.

Something greener than grass 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 4:30am]
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