It was a shiny, blue-sky kind of spring day, and I’d decided to go for a jog. My mood was like the weather, buoyant and breezy. But as I trotted down Beverly Drive in Highland Park, my thoughts suddenly turned dark. It was Friday, and that meant my neighborhood was a war zone.
The roar of lawn mowers and leaf blowers rattled my tympanic membranes. A toxic mix of carbon monoxide, grass clippings, and dust stung my eyes and clogged my lungs. Choking, I dashed to the other side of the street, only to be ambushed by more yard-work shrapnel. After a few detours, I finally found shelter on a bench in a nearby park, where I reflected on the fact that no matter how many times I did battle with my neighborhood’s yard crews, it never got any easier. Even a 1999 resolution endorsed by the Highland Park Town Council, which calls for gas-powered blowers to run at “half throttle,” doesn’t seem to have made a difference. Either my foes are not observing honorable rules of engagement or half-throttle leaf blowing falls into the same category as half-pregnant.
Maybe you don’t mind leaf blowers as much as I do. But I’d submit that they’re the single most potent symbol of the inconvenient truth that, regardless of how green we profess to be, we still treat our environment with insouciance and hubris. It’s a matter of vanity, really—what validates one’s social status better than a perfectly coiffed yard? So we lavish water on our grass, shrubs, and trees until they need almost constant cutting and pruning, then set zealously upon them with gas-belching machines. And yet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, running a gas mower for an hour causes as much pollution as eleven cars; run a leaf blower for half an hour, says a 2000 report from the California EPA Air Resources Board, and you emit as much carbon monoxide as you would driving 30 miles per hour for 440 miles. Not to mention the water waste—an average household spends more than sixty gallons daily on landscaping—and the noise pollution: A blower’s whine has been known to register at least as high as 75 decibels. Whatever happened to rakes?
I wouldn’t be wasting my breath on this rant if, four years ago, I hadn’t discovered a simpler, cheaper, and, yes, greener alternative: Xeriscaping. As basic as its name is exotic, this landscaping approach forgoes a needy lawn in favor of the heat- and drought-resistant turfs and plants indigenous to such climates as Texas’s. I first happened upon the notion due to purely selfish reasons—I didn’t have a sprinkler system, didn’t want one, and I was tired of lugging a hose around my property all summer. Applying common sense, I checked with a landscaping guy and devised a plan to install some ground cover, or blooming plants that could survive a nuclear holocaust without much watering. Not only did I save myself work, I also gave the state’s beleaguered water supply a break and my yard a more authentic Texas look. Even better, my yardman doesn’t mow anymore; he runs a trimmer every few weeks, then forgets about it.
It’s proof that going green doesn’t require a rapturous epiphany—just a bit of pragmatism. But since this year represents an intentional greening effort, I recently invited Dale Groom, a Dallas County horticulturalist who works for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, over to my house for a follow-up and an expert assessment. “The most common mistakes homeowners make,” he pronounced while surveying my property one morning, “are not knowing what’s really in their yard, not knowing how big it will get, not knowing how much water or maintenance it will require. But all this can save you money and trouble.” I’d done a nice job, he told me, considering I didn’t know much, but I really needed some three or four inches of mulch, to better retain water. I immediately resolved to perform a greening twofer the next time my tree pruners came: When they ground the trimmed limbs, I’d pay extra and have them spread the pulp in my flower beds as mulch. (Leaves also make good mulch. Don’t blow and bag them, just rake them into your flower beds.)
As for water savings, Groom said, there was little more I could do. Still, I wanted details. What are alternatives, I asked, for those with lawns