Good-bye grass, hello gravel

November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

turf Remember when I wrote about a neighbor who was “unclear on the concept” of transitioning from a water-hog front yard of grass to one with low water-using plantings? (No? You can read about it here.)

My complaint was that the spread of gravel substituted for grass might have met the letter of the California Friendly® Landscape Incentive Program, but not its spirit. Granted, the new yard had a few drought-tolerant plants scattered about. They were hardly enough, however, to create the “friendly landscape” promoted by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and Metropolitan Water District. Those rocks would not convert CO2, a greenhouse gas, to user-friendly oxygen or be good at capturing rainwater. In fact, they would absorb heat and increase temperatures.

Turns out, I was on to something.

Bloomberg Businessweek recently featured an investigation into what the two water agencies got in return for their $428 million incentive program. The story focused on the work of a company called Turf Terminators that banked 12 percent, $44 million, of that pot o’ gold, the largest single share.

california-friendly-landscaping-image-englishTurf Terminators was created by a couple of 20-something entrepreneurs who jumped into the program just as the MWD raised its rebate from $1 to $2 a square foot in 2014. City residents can get an additional $1.75 from the LADWP for a juicy total of $3.75 for every square foot of lawn removed. The company’s pitch to homeowners was that in return for rights to whatever rebate was owed them, Turf Terminators would replace their lawns for free. And Turf Terminators would even handle the paperwork.

Technically, the company should not have been in the rebate game: Landscapers were required to be in business three years in order to participate. Turf Terminators solved this problem by buying out a contractor who’d been around for a while and, presto change-o, the subsidies began to flow.

Turf Terminators claimed that in less than two years, it removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. Not everyone was happy with the results, however, and they vented on Yelp. This lament from a Porter Ranch homeowner was typical.

So here’s the deal: before you hire anyone to rip up your yard consider the implications of what that means. Your front yard will look like a crappy gravel parking lot or an abandoned drive-in theater. If your grass already looked bad then this just might be an improvement.

Not the case for me. My, once, lush beautiful green yard now looks like it’s only missing an abandoned car on blocks then the image would be complete.

Having a gravel yard hasn’t saved me any money. My LADWP bill is pretty much the same.

I can’t say for sure if my neighbor’s yard is a Turf Terminator creation, but it fits the profile: a few plants, a lot of gravel, and, over time, weeds poking up through a supposedly impermeable barrier. Customers also reported broken drip irrigator controls and plantings that failed to thrive, even after multiple replacements.

The MWD was well aware of these problems. Emails obtained by Businessweek through FOIA requests show that MWD staffers “griped about the slapdash nature of the of the [rebate] applications.” Lawn sizes looked inflated and photographs didn’t match what was at the listed address.

Staff also knew about the quality control issues. When a city councilman invited media outlets to observe Turf Terminators replacing his lawn, an MWD resource specialist took a look at photos of the new yard and compared the dense plantings there with a redone yard in her own neighborhood. “They obviously knew the job was at a council person’s, because it doesn’t look like any other project out there,” Businessweek quotes from her email to the program director.

ttIn May 2015, the MWD board met to consider whether to extend the program beyond its initial $88 million funding, which had been gobbled up in less than a year. During public comment period, community and environmental activists communicated their concerns about inappropriate landscaping. Their critique would be echoed a month later in an L.A. Times Op-Ed by noted landscape architect Mia Leher and colleagues. They said in part:

Gardens and lawns act as air conditioning for L.A., which is only getting hotter with climate change. Plants and trees provide shade and transpire moisture to cool the air; gravel and artificial turf don’t. In fact, they create the opposite of a virtuous cycle: Fewer plants means more heat, and more heat means faster evaporation from watering, swimming pools and vegetation. More heat also means more water to support the same landscape.

Yet the MWD board went ahead and committed an additional $340 million without any requirements on how lawns should be replaced or with what.

Just a few months later, in July 2015, all of the new money had been promised to applicants and MWD called a halt to the program. (The LADWP continues their incentive rebate of $1.75/square foot.)

The water district professes to be pleased with the outcome of their incentive program. They reckon a potential savings of 7.5 billion gallons of water per year. Yet as Leher and her colleagues  tried to tell the agency, calculating water savings is a complex business. They advocated instead “rainwater harvesting, gray water reuse and recycling water from sewage treatment plants” to reduce the use of potable water for watering. “Incentivizing turf removal and not reuse is shortsighted.”

A week after the MWD turned off the rebate spigot, Turf Terminators announced it would accept no new customers. The company completed jobs already “incentivized,” then laid off most of its 450 workers.

As criticisms of their work grew, the company subsequently hired a public relations firm that calls itself “a leader in crisis management of all types.” Businessweek’s request for an on-record interview with Turf Terminators principals was refused.

The men behind Turf Terminators have not exactly folded their tents and slipped away into the night. Rather they’ve formed a new company from the ashes of the old: a contractor services firm called Build Savings. Its website invites homeowners to hire Build Savings to install “money saving home upgrades. The LADWP provides rebates for some elements of such upgrades.

As evidence that their company was competent to do such work, an early iteration of the Build Savings website asserted it had successfully “completed 12,000 installations.”

Perhaps realizing that truth in advertising was warranted, that claim has been removed.


Unclear on the concept

July 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

Got grass?

The L.A. Department of Water & Power and the Metropolitan Water District will pay you to get rid of it: $3.75 per square foot for the first 1,500 sq. ft, then $2 up to the maximum 3,000 sq. ft. A good deal for home owners and landlords who are tired of paying $4.83 for every hundred cubic feet of water (~750 gallons) to keep lawns green.

The one condition attached to the California Friendly® Landscape Incentive Program (yes, they’ve trademarked the term): Turf should be replaced with “water wise landscaping features.” Examples given are California-friendly plants, mulch, and permeable pathways. I’ve previously featured two exemplary Silverlake sites (here and here), completed when the rebate was a mere $1.50 per sq. ft.

turfNow comes Silverlake’s latest low-water entry: this multi-family dwelling on Armstrong Avenue. Its owner will get the rebate, I suppose, because the new landscaping technically meets the program’s requirements. It’s permeable and a rock lawn doesn’t need to be watered.

But a rock pile hardly adheres to the spirit of  “California Friendly.” Water wise plants not only use little water, they convert the sun’s rays into self-nourishment and exchange CO2 –the dominant greenhouse gas–for oxygen.

Instead of lowering temperatures as plants would, these rocks will absorb summer’s heat and radiate it long into the night, keeping ambient temperatures high. And unless these are very special rocks, they’re not going to supply us with oxygen.

Gentle Reader, let design-impaired neighbors know that if they want to conserve water, they can simply turn off their sprinklers. Tell them you’re okay with a brown lawn, which will, after all, revive during the next rainy season.

Even Ezekiel, however, could not revive this pile of dry rocks.

N.B. For a dry landscape alternative to Ye Olde Rock Pile, read this piece about Japanese kare-sansui by my friend Meher McArthur, Asian art historian/curator and blogger.

October 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

There’s a new entry in the low-water front lawn category, Silverlake Division.  Our neighbor collected plants and rocks for three years, then spent months placing them just so. It’s a wide-ranging collection of shapes and sizes and every day –and at different times of day– the garden appears altered. Thank you, Allie & Eddy.




Jacaranda time

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Twenty-one years ago this week I arrived in L.A. I had accepted a job offer and came with my meagre collection of worldly possessions intending to stay, oh, maybe two years, three at the most.

But I fell in love with a native Angeleno and here I am, 21 years later.

Jacaranda 1The night before entering the city proper, I stayed with friends in Pomona. I recall one of them remarking on how the jacaranda trees were still blooming so late in their season.

Maybe late for that end of the San Gabriel Valley; I’ve since discovered that here in the city, jacarandas often stay in bloom right through June Gloom, a gift this noir City of Angels badly needs and hardly deserves.

After more than two decades, jacaranda season still makes me dizzy with its visual splendor. When the trees blossom, a hazy purple canopy descends upon the city. Swathes of purple shadows litter sidewalks and lawns.

Jacaranda 3Viewed against our fairy-tale blue Southern California skies, a jacaranda tree can take my breath away.

I wondered for years whether jacarandas were a California native and was misled for a time by an unlikely source into thinking they originated in South Africa: In his inauguration address, Nelson Mandela mentioned several of South Africa’s landmarks and jacarandas were included. But, no, Jacaranda mimosifolia actually hails from southern and western South America. They have now invaded frost-free zones all over the world.

Much as I appreciate the native plant movement, I’m delighted jacarandas made it to our shores.

Jacaranda 4

Jacaranda 2

SoCal exotica

May 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

Lilac 2  It’s been lilac season and flower vendors have been bringing great purple armfuls to the farmers’ markets. Like daffodils and tulips, lilacs need cool weather to thrive; in L.A., they’re an exotic shrub, just as birds-of-paradise are back east. Most of what’s sold here come from high elevations—places like Tehachapi, where apples and stone fruits also grow well.

Whenever I see bunches of lilacs, I sink my face into the blossoms and inhale deeply. They’re frightfully expensive, so their scent is all I can afford to take away with me. That and memories of growing up in lilac territory. When lilacs appeared, we knew that spring had taken hold at last.

Lilacs, sweet gum seed pods—it’s remarkable what can evoke memories, which, in turn, so easily engender nostalgia. And a weighty sense of loss.

Lilac 1

Going native

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

The move to native plants appears to have leveled off in Silverlake. There are still too many rose beds and banks of English ivy. Grassy lawns abound despite the turf removal program  offered by Metropolitan Water District: $1.50 for every square foot of grass replaced.

Native garden 1  But on a block-long side street less than 100 steps from the walking path you will find the ultimate native garden, a model for how to go native and not rely solely on century plants (Agave americana) and crushed rock as so many do.

I think of this garden as native planting in the English tradition. You know how their gardens burst with blooms, seemingly growing of their own free will? Only they’re carefully planned–planned to look casual, which is hard to do!

Native garden 6There’s one of everything in this garden, well spaced and carefully placed. Though it looks like an oasis you might stumble upon, I don’t think you’d find all of these plants together. Yet it looks natural.

Alas, what I cannot convey is how wonderful the plot smells when plants are blooming, especially after rain. For that you’ll have to find Lakeview Terrace West and visit it yourself.

Native Garden 3  Native garden 4

The Meadow

February 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

meadow 1Okay, I admit it: I was wrong.

When someone proposed commandeering a chunk of “unused” reservoir property to use as parkland, I was aghast. “It’s not unused space,” I said. “It belongs to the coyotes.”

True enough: Everyone had their stories about seeing coyote kits gamboling in the field or coyotes slipping underneath the fence or coyotes sitting placidly inside the fence watching us watching them.

I liked having fallow, open space unsullied by humans. I worried about increased human-coyote contact if coyote habitat were curtailed. I didn’t relish more traffic and parking hassles. I envisioned pedestrians attempting to cross Silverlake Boulevard and being mowed down by cars.

The community split: You were either “Open the Meadow!” or “Save the Meadow!” The issue became so contentious that a Saturday morning public meeting held on the contested property drew more than 150 people.

meadow 3The “open” folks claimed that the park would be a quiet place, “you know, where people come to sit and read poetry” (actual quote). Traffic? No problem: Visitors will come from the neighborhood; they’ll walk, not drive.

Nonresidents told us that if we didn’t open the land, we were being selfish. They said just because you have backyards for your kids to play in ( I don’t), doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t have more space.

The openers won. Existing fence was torn down and  moved closer to the reservoir itself. The walking path was relocated. Non-native plants were excised, trees planted, and sod laid.

After more than a year of work, the Meadow (it now required capitalization) was opened with great fanfare. I did not attend the ceremonies.

I couldn’t boycott the place forever, though. Several weeks following the opening, I walked through the Meadow; young parents with a toddler sat on the grass as their child ran free. Then, I “got it”: A vast expanse of open lawn safely enclosed by a low fence where no dogs were allowed was just what city kids needed.

meadow 2Where else could you fly a kite? Where else could you lie back and watch clouds sailing by? Where else could you call up a few friends and hold an impromptu picnic? Maybe some folks even go there to read poetry.

The Meadow is not problem free. Traffic has increased and parking is at a premium. A strategically-placed crosswalk cuts down on—though does not eliminate—jaywalking, but the crosswalk’s traffic light ruins the view of Richard Neutra’s VDL House.

Even so, I don’t mind being wrong when the outcome is so right.

Reading palms, redux

February 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

 IMG_2685Here’s an example of why I decided to actively look at what’s around me.

Two palm trees conveniently side-by-side got me to notice they were different species.

Yeah, I know: Duh!

But palms are tall and at street level, I notice them primarily when their tiny fruits, smushed by passers-by, litter the sidewalk. I rarely see them up close and personal.

I’ve learned that the tree on the right is a fan palm, so named because, well, their leaves look like a giant fan. (I think even I could’ve figured that out.)  This one is probably a Mexican fan palm: Washingtonia robusta.

(Pardon my Latin; I’m not showing off and, anyway, I never remember scientific names of plants. But there are so many varieties of palms that I’m getting dizzy from considering them all. The only way I know how to distinguish one from another is to use the Latin designation.)

If it is a Mexican fan palm, it’s origin is the Sonoran desert. Its cousin, Washingtonia filifera, is a native. I’m guessing this tree is W. robusta only because I read that the preponderance of fan palms in urban Southern California are Mexicans, introduced into L.A. at the time of the 1932 Olympics.

Which leaves open the question of why the native trees weren’t adopted.

Or the question which looms larger for me: Why have I thought for 20 years that these were royal palms?

Because I wasn’t paying attention. Royal palms (genus Roystonea) have fronds like the tree on the left. Couldn’t be more different, eh? These trees have pinnate leaves, meaning leaflets come off of a central stem, usually in pairs. (Pinnate: my vocabulary word of the day. It means ‘feathered’ in, yes, Latin.)

I have no idea if this is an actual royal palm. Turns out there are 55 genus of palm trees (family name: Arecaceae [just can’t get away from this Latin business]), though if I knew how many of them were pinnate we could at least narrow it down a bit.

I wonder how to find out for sure?


Reading palms

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

These are the palm trees that I see from my second-story study. They are my anemometer: before leaving the house, I look at the fronds to determine how strong the wind is, using my own version of the Beaufort scale.

It’s not as if I actually know anything about the Beaufort scale; I stumbled across the subject just today while trying to find out how to spell ‘anemometer.’ But it suits my purposes: it’s a visual method of determining relative wind force that was devised by a 19th century British Royal Navy admiral named Beaufort. Seamen learned to eyeball wave height, white caps, and water spray and to assign the conditions a numerical rating from 1 (calm) to 12 (a helluva gale you wouldn’t want to be out in). There are concomitant land-based observations that rely upon smoke, flags, roof tiles, and, yes, tree limbs, among other markers.

The Royal Navy used these gradients to determine how to position the sails of their ships. I have much humbler intentions: I just want to know how many layers to wear when I go outside.


Difficult neighbors

January 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

When I was little, our Christmas tree was decorated with an eclectic set of objects, from my teething ring to an angel with silver wings resting on a glittered silver globe. (The latter was referred to as the “Carson, Pierre, Scott angel” because that’s where it was purchased one Chicago Christmas.

One cluster of decorations were simple sweet gum tree seed pods –prickly, brown balls about an inch in diameter–painted silver. They were hung from the Christmas tree with thin, red, satin ribbon.

Eighteen years ago I moved next door to a house with three sweet gum trees in the front yard. Each fall, when the leaves turn red and seed pods scatter across the lawn, they evoke nostalgia for Christmases past that is tempered by the knowledge that those holidays were emotionally  more complex than I want to remember.IMG_2637IMG_2592

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