The “Grass Solutions Tour”

The hardest thing in the world, apparently, is getting rid of a lawn.

This is something I cannot fathom.  I have known many a lawn-lover to moan over the large brown patches that afflict his treasured grass, caused by grubs or drought or incorrect pH balance or some other such thing.  A lawn seems a delicate thing when you want it to be just right, and it drives owners to outdoor centers to buy enormous bags of fertilizers and pesticides.  Green perfection is expensive and time-consuming.

And yet, when you decide you’ve had enough of grass, just try to kill the stuff.  It’s impossible.  The roots, say landscape professionals, go down deep. Grass has amazing ability to go dormant, survive frosts and droughts, and shrug off even brutal chemical assaults of glyphosate. Or so I’m told.

Our house in Tucson had a lawn, once upon a time.  Being neglected since the death of the prior owner, the lawn has become a mess of weeds that carry thorns and provide cover for critters. Our departure for six months certainly didn’t help things.  Now, instead of a lawn, we have a sort of jungle.

In Tucson, having a backyard lawn is strangely common, despite the high cost of water.  The rate Tucsonians pay for water more than triples after they use 11,220 gallons in a month.  It goes up again (140%) if you hit 22,440 gallons per month.  Plus there’s the widespread knowledge that we are in a desert, and thus flagrant use of water is akin to antisocial behavior.  (We use about 2,000 gallons per month according to our meter, or about 66 gallons per day.  In the Airstream we can make 39 gallons last for four days.  Modern houses are designed to waste water.)

Still, many times when we saw a house during our search,  the realtor would slide open the patio door to the back yard, take a peek, and announce with a sigh, “And yes, there’s a lawn.”  He knew how much I hated to hear that. These “lawns” would typically be little 12×12 patches of carefully tended grass in the midst of a lot of gravel.  They were usually just large enough for the kids to play on, like little putting greens without holes for the golf ball.

When I saw these I always imagined some desperate northerner trying to keep a tiny bit of his home landscape alive in the backyard.  Turns out that in reality they are put in by life-long desert dwellers who think a patch of green grass is a status symbol. That’s like northerners keeping a gila monster in a backyard cage.  It doesn’t make much sense to me but it makes some people happy.

The preferred landscape today — and the one mandated by current codes for multifamily and commercial buildings –  is xeriscape, which means a combination of gravel, rocks, and desert-adapted plants that don’t need much water.  Xeriscaping is also conveniently low-maintenance, perfect for our lifestyle since we will be gone a lot.  So our goal from the minute we agreed to buy this place has been to utterly eliminate the grass and restore the backyard to a more natural desert landscape.

If all we were facing was a 12×12 foot patch of grass, this would be a trivial exercise.  But the previous owner of our house had a full-on, wall-to-wall carpet of grass in the backyard.  From archive images from the satellite photos, it looks like he took care of it with plenty of water.

That means we have about 2,000 square feet of grass to eradicate.  (There is no middle ground.  Grass does not negotiate. It’s kill or be killed.)  You’d think that in the desert it would be easy: just stop watering and watch the grass die.  Unfortunately, we have a fairly well-adapted version of grass that bides its time until the rain comes, and thus survives on the mere 12 inches of rain that Tucson gets annually.

The first landscaper who visited us suggested the most reliable solution: “simply” remove the top four inches of soil and truck it away.  I would “simply” write a check for $2,000 for this service — and then we’d talk about replacing that giant expensive divot with something else.

My problem with that solution is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money to get rid of something as dumb as grass. My whole purpose in getting rid of the grass is to avoid spending money to take care of it, and it seems counter-productive to start the process by spending a big pile of money.

There’s the real challenge.  It’s not that getting rid of the lawn is going to be hard.  It’s just going to be expensive.  Since I’m inherently disinterested in taking care of a lawn (that’s code for “lazy”),  it makes sense that I’m also disinterested in spending money to make it go away.  It’s as if the house came with a rusting World War II tank in the backyard.  “Yes, it’s ugly,” we’d say to each other, “But towing it away would cost too much, and it’s not doing any harm, so let’s just leave it.  Maybe we can paint it.”

I suspect the best way to get rid of the lawn is simply to act as if we care about it.  We could buy a nice riding lawn mower, several bags of chemicals (fertilizer, pre-emergent grub control, dandelion inhibitor), a few manual tools like rakes, an aerator, and some sprinklers.  The grass would detect this and promptly go brown.  But who am I kidding.  The lawn would probably know I was bluffing.

It’s decisions like this that make me wish for a quick escape into the Airstream, where such problems are always somebody else’s to manage.  I always appreciated beautiful green lawns when we lived in the trailer, because I could dip my bare toes into them knowing that I wouldn’t be the one mowing later. It’s a real temptation to just skip the decisions and start planning a getaway instead. And there’s a justification there, too: with some time off to think and recreate, a brilliant solution may come to me.

So it’s settled.  I’ll start planning the “Grass Solutions Tour 2008″ as soon as possible.  Folks, this could be a real phenomenon if it works.  Imagine the justifications you can make if it turns out that a simple getaway allows you to solve life’s problems.   Our motto will be this:  “For every problem that comes up, there shall be a trip.”  And the trip length can be a factor of the difficulty of the problem.  For the grass problem alone, we may be on the road again for quite a while.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine