Drought worries: should Edmonton re-think the front lawn?

Is our North American obsession with green front lawns worth all the work -- and the water? We take a look at some of the creative ways of replacing the grass with something else.

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      A well-maintained, thick green lawn. In North America, it's a nearly universal sign of being a responsible homeowner and a good neighbour. 

      But with Alberta suffering some of the driest conditions in years, is it really worth all the water and work needed to keep a lawn green?

      Landscaper Collette Russell has a simple solution: stop watering.

      "Let it be," she told CBC's Edmonton AM. "To fight with nature, doesn't make sense for me."

      Russell said homeowners are too afraid of letting their lawns go brown. Contrary to popular belief, that doesn't mean the grass is dead, she said. Instead, grass will go dormant to survive times of drought.

      "When the wet weather comes back, it will be green again," she said. 

      Removing the grass is another option Russell often suggests to her clients. Replacing the lawn with something easier to maintain, such as rocks or drought-resistant plants, can cut down on work and water use. 

      Russell also recommends putting in a garden for those who still want to use the space to grow something. 

      That's the step that Gale Gates took. Her brown lawn used to be "a constant embarrassment." That is, until she tore it up and replaced it with ornamental plants and trees. 

      "It just did not make sense for me to be putting all that effort and water into that little patch of grass," she said.

      However, EPCOR says Edmonton isn't in danger of running dry anytime soon. Craig Bonneville, director of Edmonton's water treatment plants, says the city only draws around two or three per cent of the total water from the North Saskatchewan River. 

      Bonneville said that on some hot days, the treatment plants can be strained if too much water is needed at one time. The best way to get around that is not to stop watering lawns, he said, but rather to change when it is done. 

      He suggests setting up sprinklers to soak the grass. 

      "If you're going to water your lawn and want that nice green lawn, do it not in the middle of the day where you will lose a lot of it to evaporation," he said. 

      Bonneville also suggested ensuring sprinklers are positioned to keep the water on the grass, not on the sidewalk. He thinks many homeowners would balk at the idea of letting their lawn go brown during the dry spells.

      "We have such a limited window, I think we like to see our lawns green for the three or four months we get to see them green and not covered in snow," he said. 


      North America's love with a green lawn is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Paul Robbins, director of Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

       The author of Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are, Robbins said lawns were not common until the 1940s and 1950s. As housing plots grew larger, people needed a way to fill the space. Grass was a cheap option. 

      Robbins said that led to a "social cycle," where people had to spend money and time keeping those lawns in ideal shape.

      "I think we're obsessed because we are obsessed with each other," he said. 

      "It's about their community. People want to help out. They do it in strange ways." 

      Listen to the full interview

      Social pressure has led to people taking unwanted steps, he argued, such as using increasing amounts of fertilizer and chemicals to keep the lawn green and weed-free.

      "They feel real crummy about it, but they feel that they have to."

      But that pressure can change quickly. Robbins said there has been an increasing trend in drought-affected areas, such as California and Vancouver, of "lawn shaming" where people criticize their neighbours for having lawns that are too healthy and take a lot of watering. 

      "I actually find that encouraging, in a weird way, that we can really turn our culture overnight into something new if the environmental conditions change."

      He said the trend is likely to spread west if water becomes scarce in other places. 

      Jim Hole doesn't think grass is all bad. The owner of Hole's Greenhouses in St. Albert thinks there are some benefits to lawns that other options can't match.

      "If you have kids, marigolds make for a very poor athletic field," he said. 

      He argued that lawns also cool the area on hot days and can prevent erosion. Instead of going grassless, he suggests striking a balance by switching to more drought-resistant grasses and giving over some of the area to gardens and water features. 

      Hole said homeowners should not be afraid of having their lawn go dormant occasionally. Even his own yard can get "pretty brown" sometime.

      "It does recover when the rains come back," Hole said. 

      Edmonton AM is looking to hear from you: have you gone grassless ? What is in your front yard? Gardens, rocks, or just letting it go natural? Send your pics in to webedmonton@cbc.ca or @TimAdamsCBC and let us know.



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