A weed by any other name

Several years ago, the couple down the street -- one of them a landscape architect -- decided to tear out their front lawn and put in a drought tolerant garden. This being Southern California, no one batted an eye. In fact, San Diego Home & Gardens magazine did a photo spread on the project.

My mother, who spent most of her adult life in a Philadelphia row house with a cement backyard, felt entitled to a horticultural appraisal. After all, she grew beautiful rosebushes and daffodils in a small strip of dirt along the property line. Here’s how she described my neighbors’ xeriscape showplace: “It looks like a bunch of weeds.”

Apparently my mother has her supporters out there. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Nick and Maggie Camperlengo of Hurst, Texas, have been getting violation notices about their front yard full of perennials and wildflowers like coneflowers, salvias and yarrows. Their battle with City Hall has been going on for several years, ever since they tore out their front lawn and the neighbors started complaining. The notices describe the property as “offensive to the neighborhood.”

Over in Albuquerque, N.M, a similar situation is developing. Residents in a housing development are required to maintain turf on at least half their front yard. But a Bernalillo County ordinance, which went into effect in October, prohibits homeowners’ associations from passing restrictive covenants against xeriscaping. A spokeswoman for the pro-turf homeowners’ group said it is re-examining its rules in light of the new ordinance.

After having reported on periodic droughts and watering restrictions across the nation, I’m a bit confused. All the efforts aimed at conserving water -- the low-flow shower heads, the water-saving washing machines, the rain barrel collectors -- pale in comparison to a nation of homeowners pouring water on their lawns. I’m not suggested abolishing lawns -- I realize that’s heresy -- but anyone who can live without one, hey, go for it.

Not being one to bite the hand that feeds me -- retail sales of lawn care products totaled $8.075 billion last year, according to the National Gardening Association -- I’m just suggesting the time has come to widen our aesthetics. Allow homeowners to experiment with landscaping that doesn’t involve turf, because believe me, they’ll still be spending like crazy in the garden section. And I have a stack of receipts to prove it.

My house has both a lawn and a drought-tolerant garden, and I think the backyard lawn is actually cheaper to maintain. It’s Bermuda grass, which turf lovers claim is a weed to begin with. You can’t kill it. We only water and fertilize it when people are coming over for a barbecue. Of course, they have to give us two week’s notice.

My front yard is never going to be featured in San Diego Home & Gardens, but I’m very proud of how it looks. The cluster of Pygmy Date Palms look great, and so does the barrel cacti, the rosemary, the various succulents and the ”Spanish Dagger” yucca tree. I was the first on my block to put in boulders, big ones, three of them. A huge truck with a claw delivered them early on a Saturday morning 15 years ago, and the whole neighborhood turned out. I’m sure some thought I was a little nuts, but nobody called code enforcement. One guy from around the corner walked by, stopped to look, and said, “Great. Now the wife’s going to want boulders too.”

Although I’ve never tallied up my lawn and garden expenditures each year, I can tell you that I just shelled out close to $100 on numerous bags of cedar bark to lay out over the weed cover that never really works. This is an annual expenditure. Since drought-tolerant plants tend to bloom infrequently, I add color with potted annuals and perennials that I throw out when they stop blooming. (I know I’m not the only one.) These need to be changed out every four to six weeks.

Let’s not get into insect control. Ka-ching!

So here’s my final, all-encompassing point: Lush green lawns are inarguably a voracious consumer of water, and xeriscaping is something we should all take a second look at, both in terms of revenues and aesthetics. Perhaps weeds are in the eye of the beholder.

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