Over the Hill

For Central Coast lawns, brown is the new green

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

Everywhere I go, I see more and more brown lawns. They have become badges of honor and good sense. They show that more and more people now take this drought seriously and are willing to do their part to help their community survive this severe climate crisis.

Brown lawns used to be proof of laziness. Many people used to consider brown lawns to be prima- facie evidence of poor citizenship. But the current drought has turned that opinion bottom side up.

In California and the Southwest, the brown lawns reveal the true nature of this region: hot and dry. Green lawns here are unnatural. I doubt that any Southwestern Indians ever watered dirt except to produce food.

I also doubt that the Spaniards and Mexicans, who later conquered this region, ever surrounded their houses or haciendas with watered lawns.

If you want evidence of that absence of grass, I urge you to visit Mission San Miguel, much of which is authentically original. You won’t see grass growing in its public museum areas. What you will see is grayish dirt with some stone chips or small gravel.

There’s also a large, raised fishpond and several kinds of growing things, including a few cacti, some century plants and several trees — but no green grass. I can’t believe the mission padres ever planted grass.

My guess is that our strange custom of watering dirt to raise green lawns came to California when Americans migrated here from the East. Where they came from, rain was generally plentiful. Front and back lawns usually just grew naturally.

I grew up on a little farm in western New York state. We didn’t even own a hose. Our front and back lawns were green in the spring, summer and fall. Although, during some especially vicious summer hot spells, our grass might look thirsty.

So for Easterners like me, lawns in front of our California houses remind us of home. Mamie and I have owned three houses. All had front and back lawns. I planted our present backyard myself. But first, I trucked in loads of stuff from an Atascadero mushroom farm in my little Toyota pickup to improve our backyard soil.

Back then, the lawns almost seemed as necessary as the bathrooms. But we’ve had a couple of droughts since then. They demolished that nonsense. I now view lawns as a waste of a precious resource.

But a word of warning: If you let your lawn go brown and die — as many of us are now doing — you still can’t just forget mowing it. Grass dies of thirst easily, but several kinds of ugly weeds don’t. They need mowing. And I’m also still dithering over what to use to replace my now dead lawn.