29 Jul 2011

The Greeks didn't xeriscape

According to Emily and some discussants at H-Water, "xeriscaping" (dry landscaping) is a neologism coined in the 1980s at Denver Water; this n-gram shows the word's use.

The term caught on in some places but flopped in California because water was abundant, real estate developers likes grass landscaping, and people didn't want cactus yards.

According to Emily (and totally believable to me), water managers found themselves stuck between choices of cacti and grass when discussing water use and landscaping. They eventually changed direction towards "California Friendly" vegetation suitable for California's Mediterranean (but not desert) climate, which has been sporadically promoted by water agencies and semi-embraced by homeowners.

Why? Real estate developers, homeowners and gardeners prefer turf to xeriscaping because of a preference to tradition; they prefer turf to local plants because it's easier to install and maintain [they think -- see comments]. Water managers take this preference as given and write regulations directed at turf (watering restrictions) instead of using a more-general form of persuasion (higher water prices).

Bottom Line: Xeriscaping (or landscaping appropriate to the climate) is not popular because of strong path dependency. We can get off that path by vastly improving the support for (and regulation of) alternative landscaping and/or raising water prices as an incentive to find less water-intensive ways of decorating our near outdoors.


Emily Green said...

Hi David, good post. Love the graf. Jump in there a fix a literal on "likes" on the first line.

A couple of points. First, most people don't know how to garden. Turf is a default blanket used by developers. For homeowners, it's like heroin -- cheap at first, devastatingly expensive over time. If most homeowners in warm climates who pay crews $40 a week or more all year added up that cost, plus seed, fertilizer and even cheap water, they'd realize they were spending what could easily be a kid's college fund.

The turf formula couldn't work if water were priced appropriately or if regulations to do with use of turf were instituted, particularly in the stupidest spots, say on street parkways. Sprinkler run-off is estimated at 100m gallons a day / roughly 109kafy in Greater LA. In 2002, Met estimated 1/2 of domestic use among its 26 or so cities went outdoors and that 1/2 of that was wasted either by overwatering inappropriate gardens, "sweeping" pavement with hoses or car-washing without a stop nozzle. That's 1mafy.

We have a long way to go to recoup that waste. Most water managers hate "active" conservation -- changing public habits. The old engineer/the rest of us interface problem.

Another problem with cheap water is it encourages other incredibly anti-social behaviors involving high cost and pollution to all residents.The air pollution and noise pollution of garden crews with mowers and leaf blowers in LA is enormous. Add public funding green waste disposal, the need driven by fast growth and constant cutting and pruning, and you have another huge city wide sanitation cost. water is the root fuel.

Xeriscape was a turkey of a term. We need to figure out baseline needs for slow gardening, where people can have shade, can have vegetables, but with less waste and pollution. along with fair scales for other household uses, price Prices will, I believe, be a key tool in driving the transition. Alas, LA City Council, for example, is cutting conservation programs while insisting on rate payer advocates to keep prices down, so the political will is actually protecting waste now with huge social and environmental costs... I ramble, I rant. Good post.

Matthew Heberger said...

Good post Dave, and so nice to hear from Emily in the comments. I miss my almost daily dose of Chance of Rain.

I think xeriscape is a funny word. It sounds like "zero"... who wants that for their yard? I do think conservation managers spend too much time emphasizing the savings of water-efficient landscapes. We're vain creatures, and when it comes to our homes, we want something that looks nice and makes us feel proud.

Also, I definitely disagree with your statement that grass is easier to maintain than a California-Friendly garden. Our little front yard of natives and Mediterranean plants is bursting with color and interesting textures and requires very little maintenance--we never water or add chemicals, and basically just cut back the shrubs once or twice a year.

Check out the Garden-Garden project in Santa Monica: two identical homes, one with a conventional landscape, the other with native plants, maintained by the same crew and closely monitored for several years. The native garden uses less water, energy, and pesticides, and produces less solid waste and runoff. And... it requires a lot less labor!


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