Like his countryman before him, Theodore Payne, Ian Hughes is a passionate advocate for the use of native plants in the urban landscape.

(Front garden. Rainwater swale, salvaged concrete paving and a host of Californian flora)

(Front garden. Rainwater swale, salvaged concrete paving and a host of Californian flora)

(The same yard just a few years earlier)

(The same yard just a few years earlier)

Ian helped rebuild this house in Los Angeles as a model of energy efficiency.

The garden now thrives on a fraction of average water usage. A magnet for bees, birds and butterflies, it's also a source of pride and wonder.

Considering a positive change? Ian is available as a design consultant offering practical advice on replacing your lawn, planting for wildlife, grey water, rainwater harvesting, growing vegetables, making compost and much more.

(Backyard. Multiple raised vegetable beds and espaliered fruit trees)

(Backyard. Multiple raised vegetable beds and espaliered fruit trees)

(A steel-backed wood stack adds form and function to the garage wall)

(A steel-backed wood stack adds form and function to the garage wall)


By Ian Hughes

The suburban lawn - that bastion of all-American wholesomeness - is an interloper!

The very notion is a historical hangover from the soggy regions of Western Europe. In the areas of England and France where they originated, rainfall was more than adequate to fuel what started out as simple grazing pastures. The cattle they were intended for, kept them naturally short and fertilized. The crop from these first clearings was milk, meat, leather and fur.

The removal of trees from once heavily wooded lands, literally increased the field of view and inspired a sense of romantic expanse. Rolling, open parkland became en vogue for European aristocracy (and was also encouraged by their security forces, as it meant fewer surprise attacks on the castle walls). Other wealthy landowners mimicked this fashion in landscaping, but they wanted to push the unsightly farm animals away from their refined homes. Increasingly, hired hands were used to laboriously weed and scythe the turf. A manicured lawn was reserved for the rich elite and, as such, became an object of desire for everyone else.

The industrial age churned out mass-produced (and highly profitable) mowing machines, seed sorting equipment and chemical fertilizers, bringing this perceived luxury within reach of an exploding population. In the late 1940’s, the first American cookie-cutter suburbs were built with lawns already installed. Returning G.I.’s, well versed in routine and orderliness, were convinced by lawn care product manufacturers that a good, clean-cut lawn meant a good, clean-cut citizen. In the age of McCarthyism, lawn care was even marketed as analogous to combating communism, and this display of patriotic pride spread clear across The States.


For decades, millions of California residents have dumped time and money into inherited lawns. We’ve continued to pamper these greedy patches of green, just like the generations before us, rarely stopping to consider the origins of turf or question its supremacy in urban landscaping.

But now, with severe drought warnings, the threat of escalating water bills, and a rousing interest in ecology, many people are daring to step outside and ask: “Do we really need this lawn?”

Beyond a way to drain our wallets, the grass in front of our homes is rarely used. The idyll of children and pets frolicking across it is almost always confined to the security of the back yard, along with the swing set and the barbecue. The barren patch out front is generally a token gesture of neighborhood conformity.

When was the last time you lay out on your front lawn and read a book? Why throw money at something that sucks down resources and creates pollution, if you don’t ever even use it? It’s like leaving a spare car up on blocks with the engine running - you just fill it up with gas, wash it three times a week and hope your neighbors think it looks pretty.

Horticultural experts agree that the best way gardeners can help redress the negative impact we’ve had on wild California, is with a return to its beautiful and varied native flora.

Natives have evolved to cope in our unique climate without irrigation, fertilizers and fussy maintenance. They provide vital habitat, pollen and food for a myriad of fascinating wildlife, and help connect us with the healthy rhythms of nature.

Many people still mistakenly think that the word “native” refers to any “low water use” plant that can be shoved in the ground and expected to fend for itself.  Images of dusty cactus gardens often spring to mind. This is an unfortunate misconception as California offers us an astonishingly diverse range, including hardy evergreen shrubs, flowering ground-cover and seasonal explosions of color.


While a swath of grass still holds an allure for many Californians, we are more aware than ever that its upkeep requires a huge amount of our precious resources. Let’s look at some of the drawbacks associated with the elements necessary for a successful lawn:

1. Water. Lawns originated in some of the wettest regions of Europe and transplanting them to a dryer climate created a need for supplemental irrigation. In a postwar fervor of optimism and rapid expansion, hastily conceived engineering projects promised to deliver an abundance of fresh water to the arid West. Rivers were clumsily diverted and ground water rampantly pumped with short term “success” and some long-term disasters. Today we stand on the brink of a massive water crisis that in years to come, none will be able to ignore. We need to preserve our precious drinking water to sustain life! Not pour it away to prolong an outdated lifestyle fantasy.

2. Light. Grass does not thrive in heavy shade, so people often exclude trees from their yard, giving priority to the lawn. Trimmed lawns provide almost no sustenance and still less shelter and shade in the garden. Trees and shrubs, in contrast, provide food and habitat for a fantastically wide array of wildlife. They also create invaluable, cooling shade that counters the heat island effect created by urban construction.

3. Food. Non-native, ornamental grass, which has not evolved to draw adequate nourishment from our soil, must be artificially fertilized to look presentable. The production, packaging, transportation and application of these chemicals have a negative impact on our environment. The run-off from excess fertilizer enters our ground water, rivers and oceans, directly polluting the water and indirectly fueling colossal algae blooms that choke out aquatic life and make water unfit for consumption and recreation.

4. Weed and Pest Management. Lawns are, in essence, monocultures; just one plant is deemed desirable and all others are to be removed. Many people find hand weeding to be prohibitively laborious and instead reach for readily available herbicides. Monocultures are many times more prone to diseases and pests than diverse plant communities. Poisonous insecticides are heavily marketed as the easy answer to such inevitable blights. Yet their use has a devastating effect on many forms of life, reaching far beyond their intended purpose. Often, the targeted diseases and pests develop a resistance to these products while naturally beneficial organisms are destroyed. This leads to worse outbreaks and the need for even more powerful poisons - a devastating, vicious cycle.

5. Mowing. How ironic that the more we adhere to this strict regime and the more robust a lawn becomes, the more we must invest in its removal! Keeping grass cut to a desirable height involves a huge amount of manpower, machinery, transportation, fuel, energy and pollution. The only tangible crop from these modern pastures is dumped in the "green" bin and carted away.


Our municipal grassed parkland is a hub for healthy outdoor activity. It should be celebrated and enjoyed. I don’t suggest that every last blade of grass should be removed across the city, just that we should sensibly lower our overall lawn size to reflect what we actually use. Far too many private lawns are never used and only have a vain, ornamental value. Planting well-adapted, attractive natives in their wake will reduce the drain on our resources and increase our quality of life.