Lawn Order: As Southwest dries up, some homeowners ‘green’ their lawns with paint!

Whoever said we can’t adapt to climate change?

There used to be two kinds of homeowners in this scorching city, those with dazzling green lawns irrigated by sprinklers and those with more natural backyard expanses of rocks, cactuses and desert flora, which required no watering at all.

Now, though, the grass may be greener next door simply because of a fresh coast of paint.

This idea is almost up there with the plans of Versace, “to create the world’s first refrigerated beach.”  The NY Times front-page (!) story, Spraying to Make Yards Green … but With Paint, Not Water,” continues:

Homeowners’ associations in this arid region typically have rules requiring residents to maintain either desert landscaping or green grass, with brown lawns not an option….

The grass spraying business took off here as the housing crisis escalated and real estate brokers were looking to quickly increase the curb appeal of abandoned properties on the cheap. A lawn painting, using a vegetable-based dye, can cost about $200. Vigorous homeowners’ associations, which can fine owners thousands of dollars if a dispute drags on, have also been good for business, said Klaus Lehmann of Turf-Painters Enterprise.

I wonder how much it would cost to paint the lawns by hand?

Let’s run through the lawn options as the Southwest turns into a Dust Bowl (see USGS on Dust-Bowlification: Drier conditions projected to accelerate dust storms in the U.S. Southwest and U.S. southwest could see a 60-year drought like that of 12th century “” only hotter “” this century).

You can paint your lawn, of course.  Then there’s artificial turf:

Michael Hague, a neighbor, has a different solution, artificial turf, which has been a compromise choice in some Arizona neighborhoods for a while now. He says it helps him save time, money and confrontations with the homeowners’ association.

“It’s easier to have fake grass,” Mr. Hague said, looking over his deep green, perfectly trimmed yard. “You don’t have to worry about it. It doesn’t fade.”

So realistic is his turf, he said proudly, that a neighbor once mentioned to someone else on the street how green the Hague lawn was, not realizing it was made in a factory.

But, surprisingly, that doesn’t work for some:

But “plastic grass,” as Ed Cunningham, a firefighter who lives nearby, calls the artificial stuff, gets too hot on bare feet in the Arizona sun. He hires a landscaper to handle the painstaking process of planting Bermuda grass, which eventually goes dormant in the winter and is supplemented with rye grass, which dies out in the spring. Keeping the lawn irrigated means his water bill is higher than some of his neighbors’, but the look and feel of the real thing is worth the expense, he said.

But, surprisingly, that doesn’t work for some in the increasingly arid SW:

But do not get devotees of xeriscaped yards, as desert landscaping is known, started about the deleterious effects of all that grass planted around the desert, wastefully sapping water, a valuable and scarce commodity here….

Costs of the various approaches vary widely. Desert landscaping saves substantially on water and maintenance, and can be installed on a bare-bones budget or a high-end one, especially if towering saguaro cactuses are involved. Lawn paint lasts about three months before turning an odd shade of blue and costs only a couple of hundred dollars for a modest lawn, although the grass still needs to be watered so that it will not die out entirely.

Plastic grass, probably the costliest option at the outset, still varies in price depending on how close to natural it looks and feels. Watering and trimming costs disappear, though occasional sweeping may be necessary.

See also “Green acres: The art of xeriscaping.”

What does the future hold?

“We’re seeing a trend away from grass,” said Rodney Glassman, who got his Ph.D. in arid land resource sciences at the University of Arizona. He introduced legislation while serving on the Tucson City Council requiring new commercial buildings to collect and reuse rainwater and promoting the reuse of some water in new homes….

Marty Campisi, who runs Desert Oasis Landscape Design and Concepts in Phoenix, has desert in his backyard and promotes the natural approach, reminding customers that many municipalities offer financial incentives to those who convert from grass….

As for painting the grass, Mr. Campisi does not even bring that up. “It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s putting a Band-Aid on the situation.”

Perhaps the best term for it would be ‘maladaption.’

And speaking of putting a Band-Aid on the situation, the NY Times ran this as a front page story today, presumably as some sort of ironic human interest story.

But in this entire piece on how people are dealing with the lack of water in the arid Southwest, the NYT doesn’t see fit to provide any bigger-picture context.  Yes, water is “a valuable and scarce commodity” — but how about explaining how the massive influx of people in recent decades has exacerbated the problem?  And could we mention just once that the region is expected to get drier and drier thanks to human-caused climate change?

The fact is that how the Southwest (and the world) responds to Dust-Bowlification is going to be one of the biggest climate change stories in this country in the coming years (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path).  But you’d never know that from this context-free story.

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20 Responses to Lawn Order: As Southwest dries up, some homeowners ‘green’ their lawns with paint!

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Palm Springs, California, is filled with golf courses and watered lawns because the water is cheap there. Under the city is a fossil aquifer, which will be drained in either decades or centuries.

    In Yucca Valley, 25 miles north of Palm Springs, water is delivered from the Mojave Water District via Owens Valley pipelines. This isn’t quite sustainable either, but it’s very expensive, so there are no lawns, few swimming pools, and only one golf course. The boulder and native plant lawns are much more attractive, too. Phoenix is kind of hillbilly and not catching on, but it will eventually.

    Water, oil, and gas are all way too cheap. Prices that reflect scarcity and environmental costs are the simple solution. They are rarely implemented because fossil fuel and water developers want to maintain large markets. We should not allow this to happen.

  2. Vic says:

    What, you’ve not heard of desalination out there in Arizona ?

  3. dhogaza says:

    Let’s not be too scornful, at least the homeowners association accept xeriscaping now, for the most part. This hasn’t always been true.

    And would you rather have people water their lawn all summer, or just dye them? While it is silly, I’m a bit sympathetic to the homeowners, who would be fined if they let their lawns go dormant and brown, rather than dormant and dyed. At least they’re letting them go dormant …

  4. Barry says:

    I agree with dhogaza (#3). Dying a lawn is stupid but better than the alternative of watering it. And a stupid expensive thing won’t last long. Lawn painting seems to me to be destined to be a short lived transition out of “green” lawn laws. It is like switching coal to natural gas on the way to renewables.

    Anyone following the water and climate trends know that lawns in dust-bowlizona are toast in the near future — painted or not.

  5. Barry says:

    Painted lawns reminds me of some guys I knew in college who had a pretty messy dorm room but also had one of the most amazingly healthy looking giant fern plants hanging from the ceiling. Everyone who went in was drawn to it and usually asked what their secret was.

    The lads would just smile and recommend people feel the foliage. If you did so you found it crumbled into powder in your hands. It was a long dead dried-out fern they spray painted a lovely shade of green rather than throw out. Classic dorm prank worth tonnes of laughs.

    As a strategy for dealing with climate destabilization — not so much.

  6. Mike says:

    If we could get them to paint their lawns white we might reduce global warming a bit. ;)

  7. Edith Wiethorn says:

    Changes in design-mind perameters come easiest with great examples for stimulation. Google Images is quite rewarding for a search on “lawn alternative” – without the ” marks. A selection of options curated over time would be even better. More …

  8. Robert says:

    In the UK when water is short they impose a hosepipe ban. Then they fly overhead and prosecute anyone with a green lawn!

    With respect to your mainly American readership, I figured Americans were slightly insane several decades ago. Trees grow everywhere where we lived and most gardens have as many as they want. Then a nice family from Texas moved in next door – he had been sent over to head up the UK launch of some sort of concentrated washing up liquid pyramid selling scheme. The first thing they did was unpack a 12 foot high genuine plastic tree and put it proudly on display in the front garden.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Several of my American and Canadian friends consider me quite dippy when I rush around turning off taps freely running for no purpose, mentioning dripping taps etc. And then I discovered that some of them didn’t even have water meters! ME

  10. Joan Savage says:

    The pictures of dust storms past and present bring up a need for well-attached ground cover. The plastic lawn seems a dead end choice in that regard. The plastic layer surely heats up the soil underneath and limits seeds from maturing. If a wind can lift off the plastic layer, what is underneath is likely to be loose dust, although it might hold some moisture at first.

    A neighborhood full of xeri-scaping plantings with actual roots seems like better insurance against having the living room window sand-blasted, or dust in the sheets and corn flakes.

  11. Robert In New Orleans says:


    Just use light colored sand and rock for your x-scape.

  12. Ray Duray says:

    The drought in the Colorado River Basin is easing this year:

    Here’s a page that says:

    For April 10th, 2011
    Snowpack is 118% of avg
    TotalPrecip is 119.00% of avg

  13. Tony O'Brien says:

    If it keeps the homeowners association happy, then I would do it. Yes it is stupid, but less stupid than coping a fine.

  14. adelady says:

    me@9 Water meters, yes! I’m often flabbergasted when online with Brit friends – they start complaining when water meters are installed in their area.

    Though it does highlight the differences affecting us where we live. I recall collapsing with hysterical laughter when I heard some years ago that at least one area in Britain called it a ‘drought’ when they’d had no rainfall for a fortnight. I still can’t imagine living anywhere and feeling comfortable relying on near daily rainfall for a water supply.

  15. jyyh says:

    they probably want rather to see an illusion of youth and growth rather than the reality. are lawns cut because they don’t like grassroot movements? then a suprise if the whole plant community dies. ‘do not cut your lawn unless it has rained’ (quite a bit) was a guideline in some gardening book, and I’ve been applying this ever since.

  16. Heather H. says:

    Probably we will not be able to stop scarcity of water in some areas but we are smart enough to cope with it. Many homeowners had realised already that if they want to have fresh looking lawn in front yard of their home it is rather economically unsustainable. As I could see on many places they choose the option of xeri-scaping garden and it works perfectly. Why we should go in artificial way when we have other natural options?

  17. MarkR says:

    I first encountered the artificial yard thirty-five years ago on Siesta Key, Florida, where there is plenty of rain but the wealthy absentee owners did not want to be bothered with maintaining something as annoying as Nature. I was both fascinated and disgusted by the fact and concept of plastic, artificial turf (oh, football stadia; now I know where this idea came from)but I still don’t understand why people are so divorced from the natural world that they think this is a grand idea (oh, air conditioning). Spraying grass a green color is not much better than a plastic or concrete lawn.
    I think that the real reason that places like Phoenix and Palm Springs have grass lawns at all is that if people there all had xeriscapes then they would have to admit they’re living in a bone-dry desert, and that would be dispiriting and unnerving. Time will take care of that.
    Homeowner associations are more annoying than Mother Nature. They’re usually run by get-a-life mini-despots. I despise them.

  18. Robert says:

    I live in Britain and I have to be honest – we do not have a water meter installed. As a result we are definitely far more casual about wasting water than gas/electricity. In the UK we are not (as far as I know) mining ancient aquifers – water is replenished by rainfall in a sustainable way and when it gets low we manage the situation with hosepipe bans and so on. In this respect the situation is not the same as parts of the US.

    The only problem is that water carries a CO2 footprint from the energy required for processing, pumping etc. For that reason alone they should really roll out meters to all households.

  19. Jessica says:

    To Joan Savage, if done properly there is a 3 inch layer of 1/4 minus chat (crumbled up granite) under the artificial grass. It is then nailed into the ground every 3 to 6 inches around the perimeter and seams and sporadically throughout the middle. It then has a layer of sand or rubber sand like particles brushed into it to fill it in, so blowing off the ground is not really an issue unless it is a tornado or something.

  20. Honestly, the people who live in the Southwest are capable of having some of the BEST looking yards out there using the desert landscaping, such as rocks and cacti… rather than having to spray paint their yards… or putting down some expensive astroturf.

    Just my opinion ;)