The Rise and Fall of the Lawn

kurapia, courtesy of EcoTech Services, Inc.

Eleanor Porter, who lives in Laguna Hills, emailed as follows: “I need my whole yard of 2500 square feet re-sodded. I have no grass now. I need a low water, low maintenance yard.”

You might wish to consider a new lawn grass alternative, as lush as the real thing, that was recently developed in Japan. It grows in full to partial sun exposures. Known as kurapia, a Lippia nodiflora cultivar, it grows to a height of only one inch. While it can absorb light foot traffic, it is not suitable for playing sports. You establish it from plugs, grown in plastic cells, that are planted 18“ on center. Optimal planting time is March through September and and it takes 4 months for full coverage. You can plant kurapia any time of the year but should you do so in fall or winter it will grow more slowly so you should put down a layer of mulch around the plugs as a means of weed control and soil enrichment. Kurapia produces white flowers from May through November and you do not have to use a mower or string trimmer (weed eater) on it unless you want a decidedly grassy look and would prefer not to see the flowers.

Once established, you will not need to water kurapia more than once a week except in very hot weather, when two weekly waterings will be sufficient. Annual fertilization is in March, at the rate of 1/2 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet, and you can fertilize again in the fall, if you wish, to keep it greener during the cool season. A study at UC Riverside demonstrated that kurapia water requirement approximates that of Kikuyu and buffalo grass.

In the Metopolitan Water District, at least, kurapia appears on the list of lawn replacement plants that merit a rebate. For complete information on kurapia, as well as how to order it, visit kurapiaplugs.com., the website of a San Clemente company, where kurapia plantings in your own Laguna Hills are included in the Project Gallery. If you are set on sod, you should plant Kikuyu grass, which is available through emeraldkikuyu.com., the website of an Apple Valley sod farm.

Years ago, a species of lippia (Lippia canescens) was sold as a ground cover. Its use was discontinued due to its invasiveness. It was highly drought tolerant but its seeds were dispersed throughout your garden and into your neighbor’s garden, too. Kurapia, however, is a sterile Lippia cultivar so it has no seeds to be blown hither and yon.

It’s appropriate that a serious lawn substitute should come from Asia since that’s where lawns first appeared in human history. Although we often think of lawns as devoid of any utilitarian purpose, lawns were kept for hundreds of years precisely because of their practical value. Surrounding imperial palaces first in China and later in Japan were hunting grounds covered with grass that was kept low by grazing livestock. Low-growing grasses made it easy to spot approaching wild animals as well as providing sustenance for domesticated flocks and herds.

During the Middle Ages, lawns in Europe were introduced for recreational use. The origin of lawns in England during the Middle Ages paralleled the development of lawn bowling and soccer in that part of the world, with contemporaneous development of golf — and the grooming of the lawns it required — first in Holland and later in Scotland. The lawnmower was invented in 1830, giving a boost to wider utilization of lawns.

Lawns made their first significant appearance in the US after World War II. The development of Levittown tract housing communities, first on Long Island and later in a number of Eastern and Midwestern states, included an obligatory lawn. This was in harmony with the tenor of the times, as those millions of soldiers who had become accustomed to the orderliness and spit and polish of military life took delight in an immaculately kept lawn, which they saw as an aspect of personal and civic responsibility, of adhering to community standards.

It might be of interest, in this context, to step back for a moment and contemplate the decline of the lawn. Yes, there are obvious ecological and resource management components to lawn removal in favor of native and drought tolerant plants and I number myself among those who have opted out of having a lawn. Yet I can’t help thinking that there is another aspect to this development which has more to do with the simple fact that a lawn is more time consuming and expensive than other landscape or garden alternatives.

Meanwhile, though, many, many front yards that were once lush and green have turned into patches of brown . And somehow, without anyone saying much about it, these yet to be transformed dead lawns have become an acceptable blight upon neighborhoods throughout Southern California and beyond. Along with the demise of the lawn, priorities seem to have shifted and having an attractive yard or garden may not be as important as it used to be. Consider also the triumph of informality as opposed to standards in personal grooming and behavior, the entrenchment of “doing your own thing,” and you end up with convenient excuses for neglect of yard and garden.

200 foot tall wax palms in Colombia, courtesy of indietraveller.co

Here’s a riddle for you: which type of plant, although it may grow to a height of 200 feet, has a closer botanical association with a lawn grass than it does with a redwood tree? If you said “palm tree,” you would have been correct. Palm trees, like lawn grasses and every other type of grass, for that matter, are monocots, while trees and other woody plants are dicots. The difference between woody and non-woody plants is best expressed in their flexibility. The kinetic quality of grasses — the ease with which they bend in a breeze — is seen in palm trees as well and explains their swaying without breaking in hurricane force winds. Among plants, at least, the ability to bend imparts the greatest strength. Incidentally, the 200 foot tall palm species to which I refer, known as wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), is the national tree of Colombia.

Tip of the Week: I was prompted to write about palms after receiving an email from Alan Go, who gardens in Arcadia. Go sent a photo of a palm tree with exposed roots emanating from the base of its trunk and asked if this could lead to the tree falling. Exposed palm tree roots are common, especially with queen palms (Sygarus romanzoffiana) and king palms (Seaforthia elegans). I have never seen a tree with such roots topple over but it is recommended to cover the exposed roots with fast-draining soil and, if possible, to fill in soil under those roots, taking care not to damge the roots and to leave the trunk exposed.

exposed queen palm roots, photo by Alan Go

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