Grass into Gravel: Frying Pan, Meet Fire

Two Examples of the New LA: Dead and Deader


That said, with California stealing headlines, thanks to our historic drought, the LADPW’s offer of grass for cash here in Los Angeles feels like a win-win, no-brainer. Lose your water-guzzling lawn, and get paid handsomely to do it. One could think of it as Saving the Planet With Benefits. But the fact is, tearing up your lawn only to lay down DG and even a few paltry succulents, or worse, a gravel pee-pad, is just “paving paradise to put up a parking lot”, to paraphrase Joni.

Don’t get me wrong: the age of the lawn has come and gone for the arid regions of the world. I say this with a certain ennui, because we have a lawn, albeit a tiny one, and our daughter loves it. But lawns have met their match in the age of climate change. For those of us luxuriating in the private sector, lawns and standard toilets are among the dinosaurs of our culture. And here in LA, the city’s plan to pay us to get in-step is a good one in theory. 

But the devil  lies in the details…

As my friends at Root Simple clearly argued, If you’re tearing up your lawn only to replace it with gravel or decomposed granite and a few aloe plants, you’re not helping, and you’re most likely making matters worse. Replacing water-hungry grass with only stone is a horizontal move, at best.  Yes, you’re using less water, but you’re also unwittingly setting out to kill your soil. Without plants and organic matter, soil declines. Rapidly. This is painfully evident in the destruction of the Amazon and in the Great Plains of the US, and simple logic would suggest that the same is true here: If we tear up grass only to line the streets with bare gravel or decomposed granite, we’re doing our ecosystem a huge disservice, one property at a time.

Granted, gravel itself is not the criminal (as I have been informed). Gravel does allow water to get into the soil, and it can actually work to retain heat, not bounce it back to the ozone. But, here in Southern California we are not a desert. “Desert-like”? maybe, but actually Mediterranean Chaparral. And, in my opinion, the goal should be to create water-wise green space wherever possible, for the simple reason that plants and trees cool the earth.

And to do that, we need healthy soil. If we disturb native, healthy soils, then it’s on us to restore them. Plants, some water, and decomposing material keep the earth beneath our feet alive. Those simple elements allow for the plants to thrive that sequester carbon and deliver a large percentage of that carbon to the soil, where it lies, harmless, and doesn’t heat things up.

But, when we dig up the soil to replace the grass, we release that carbon into the atmosphere. If we replace the disturbed area with only gravel, we create a space which is sadly under utilized. With no plants sequestering carbon and the absence of decomposing matter we put an end to healthy soil, and rob our fair city of valuable green space for pollinators, wild-life and a tiny patch of global cooling.

What are the alternatives? Simple: Swap out your lawn for healthy soil, drought tolerant and/or native plants, and cover the area with mulch. Gravel if you must, but plants, plants, plants! It’s not as easy as doing nothing, but it’s a lot easier than looking your kids- or your neighbor’s kids- in the eye in a decade or so and trying desperately to explain just what the hell you were thinking with the lifeless death-strip out in front of your house.

9 thoughts on “Grass into Gravel: Frying Pan, Meet Fire”

  1. The contact information for the public officials connected to this is right there in your link. Start a campaign to get people to support this idea even if it is the same cash reimbursment. Usually if the cost is the same they will bow to the idea. May take a season.

  2. If you read the stipulations just tearing out your lawn and replacing with DG or gravel and a few plants will not get you your rebate.You still have to plant 40 of what you tore out with plants, 50 % of it needs to be native. Stone reacts differently then say cement, same with DG. The ground is still permeable and allows for the water to sink back in instead of washing all away.And the heat effect you are talking about is not so, stone absorbs heat and in turn cools the earth. I think its great that you want to educate people, but please consider this an opinion peace over facts.

    1. Thank you for parsing out my language, and calling me on the permeability and refraction issues where appropriate. It’s true, I’m neither a scientist nor a geologist. However, I stand by the overall intention of the piece. Regardless of the language of the rebate, all across LA, I see more and more “deserts” of gravel, punctuated with a few cactus. Barren strips of stone, permeable or not, are not what LA needs. As you know, LA is not a desert, it is mediterranean chaparral, and a few cactus are slim support for soil that hungers for decomposing matter, plants and trees. Perhaps the language in the rebate is clear, the response has been anything but. Here’s a more pointed take on my observations:

      1. I think the issue is, is that people are interested in getting some “free” money. I do landscape design and install for a living, and though cactus and succulents are less water hungry, they are not the answer for every landscape.People seem to have difficulty paying for their landscape, weather it be design or maintenance, its always interesting to see people react to the cost. LA is in a Mediterranean climate zone, but we really are desert like. I would instead hope that the days of front yards covered by lawns are gone and we can get gardens that are beneficial to both our environment and our planet. Attracting bees, birds, butterflies and beneficial insects into the space. I would say from a critical eye that you are noticing bad landscapes and the article you posted in response gave some beautiful examples. So please pardon my “calling you out” as it is, but really I would hope we could support and get people to create quality over quantity in the landscape, gardens that are both aesthetic and appropriate for the climate zone they are in. Thank you, and lets see if we cant direct into a better direction?!

  3. @GardenSebz- agreed. Retrofitting wild life and pollinator friendly green space into our urban environment is my main passion these days. Hence my issue with creating largely lifeless swaths of open space. Aesthetics weigh in, but my bigger concern is does it support local life?

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