An otherwise intelligent-looking neighbor was watering his beautifully-manicured lawn with a hose as I walked past his house one morning this week. His lawn was a lush carpet of St. Augustine grass, a water hog in the grass world. Austin is in Stage 2 water restrictions that limit automatic watering to once a week, while hand watering with a hose is permitted anytime. These restrictions have been in place since late in 2011 when most of Texas and much of the country were experiencing one of the worst droughts in recorded history, while suffering unprecedented wildfires over much of the map.

What this neighbor was doing was legal, but it certainly wasn’t smart. I’ll stick my neck out further and say it isn’t smart to maintain a lawn from Texas to California in semi-arid and arid regions. Water is too precious to maintain traditional lush golf courses over that area as well.

Speaking of traditional, pilgrims landing on the shores of what is now the U.S. achieved religious freedom, but did not shed themselves of the shackles of traditional lawns in Britain, where rain is abundant and temperatures are cool. My early relatives settled first along the East Coast, and they later brought the bad idea of lawns with them across the Appalachian Mountains to points west. This tradition is so steeped in the U.S. that an Anglo moving from Maine to Phoenix thinks he needs a lawn there like the one he had in Maine. Wrong! 

Homeowners’ associations (HOAs) are a major barrier to overcoming such a tradition. For example, about five years ago friends of ours in the Circle C subdivision in southwest Austin removed nearly all of their lawn and installed a dry creek, attractive boulders and smaller rocks, and native plants with low water requirements. Soon after their project was done, their HOA adopted new rules that prevented other homeowners from doing the same. That’s traditionalism, not foresighted leadership. Our friends’ landscape is now one of the most beautiful in Austin.

Such traditional thinking, which is behind the multi-billion dollar lawn care industry, has outlived its usefulness. I would give parents of young children a partial bye on this issue to maintain a grassy area for their children to play, but that does not need to be the entire green space around a family home. A grassy backyard makes some sense while children are growing up, if for no other reason than to keep them safely off the streets, among those fortunate families who can still afford a home.

But there are millions of empty nesters living in the dryer regions of the U.S. who no longer need a lawn. My wife Ellen and I fit into this category, and we’re trying to set an example for similar homeowners who are not so tradition bound.

Before we killed the grass, October 2011

Before we killed the grass, October 2011

We have killed parts of our St. Augustine lawn for each of the last five years and replaced the grass with native plants that are not so thirsty. It used to take me an hour to mow our grass, and now I can mow what’s left in five minutes. In August we will start killing our remaining St. Augustine grass. By November we will have no lawn left and in spring 2013 we will sell our fairly new Toro lawnmower!

After grass, native plants, June 2012

After grass, native plants, June 2012

Here are the highlights of how we have done this so far, dubbed by me as Lawn Killing 101:

  1. Buy rolls of black, 4-mil plastic from your local home supply store.
  2. In late summer, turn off any irrigation system in the area to be killed and spread the plastic over the grass.
  3. Weigh the black plastic down with stones, bricks, scrap lumber, or whatever you have to keep the wind from blowing the plastic off the grass. (Explain this to the neighbors as a necessary evil to make your lot even more beautiful when spring comes.)
  4. Let the grass cook for 6-8 weeks, into the fall planting season.
  5. Remove the black plastic.
  6. Install native plants for your area by digging directly into the dead turf. The brown grass and roots will serve as natural mulch for the new plantings.
  7. Fall planting is superior to spring planting in getting plants established in the semi-arid and arid regions I mentioned. Less water and work are required to get the new plants established.

It’s that simple. It’s smart. It will save water and money over time. It will reduce the work required as perennials get established after 2-3 years.

Your neighbors will appreciate the beauty of a native landscape as well as envy you as they continue to cut their grass while you are nowhere in sight. Believe me.

And you won’t have to look like a dope watering grass that’s native to someplace totally different from where you live.