ADMISSION: THIS IS AN OPINION PIECE, A RANT, IF YOU WILL
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.