Allen Norwood

Southerners are rethinking the great American lawn

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If it seems as if the yards you pass on your way to work are shrinking, it might not be your imagination. Indeed, a national survey shows that grass lawns are giving ground to natural and paved areas – or disappearing entirely.

It's hugely a reaction to drought, of course.

Lawns are shrinking fastest in California, as you'd imagine. That state has been hammered by parched conditions. But it's dry here, too: Charlotte's water utility asked for voluntary water conservation just this week, which included limits on watering lawns.

Besides, we read and watch all that drought news from California.

“It's hard to know whether it's the news or local conditions,” says Nino Sitchinava, an economist with Houzz, “but (the reaction to the drought) is meaningful.”

Houzz, the online home design behemoth, recently released a landscaping study after surveying 1,600 of its users who'd completed or were planning outdoor projects.

The study showed that home purchases trigger major landscaping – but the drought shapes those projects.

Across the country, one third of those who responded said they were reducing the sizes of their lawns.

Nationwide, 16 percent of homeowners are removing grass lawns altogether – and that rises to a whopping 46 percent in California.

I asked Sitchinava and the helpful folks at Houzz if they could provide regional figures. Yes, indeed.

Here in the South, 37 percent of respondents said they were reducing grassy areas – and 14 percent were eliminating lawns altogether.

In place of the fescue (or the pernicious bermuda that always creeps in), homeowners in the South are installing hardscapes (64 percent), garden beds (60 percent), outdoor structures (46 percent), mulch (45 percent) and other ground cover (33 percent).

The top reason listed was to achieve a new landscape design but, here and across the country, owners also said they were eliminating grass to help the environment and cut their water bills. Those figures were highest in the West, followed by the South.

More than half of the owners said they were spending $10,000 or more, and 59 percent are hiring pros for major projects.

There are a couple of reasons owners might be turning to nursery and landscape professionals, Sitchinava says. “With the large diversity of plants available, just going to the nursery is an overwhelming experience..... And plants have to be adapted to local conditions.” Climate change and shifting planting zones make it even more important to get professional advice.

One in five owners surveyed said they're including rainwater harvesting or greywater systems (reusing water from sinks, showers and washing machines) in their projects.

That figure rises to one in four in urban areas. Young buyers of urban townhouses like rain barrels as much as they like small, compact yards with little upkeep.

Apparently, they've learned from watching their suburban parents: You can love fescue – but it won't love you back.

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