The Drought Diaries: Lawn Begone!

By Eilene Lyon

While I wouldn’t say our decades-old drought is over, we had an unusual amount of moisture this past summer. We got over an inch of rain just last week. Normally August and September are what I call “brown season.” The grasses and forbs have died or gone dormant by then.

Even today, I see more green than I’m used to. On Saturday, I drove to Albuquerque through the desert. There, too, verdant views, water in the arroyos, full stock ponds, and standing water in low patches near the highway. Amazing!

One good summer will not cure our water deficiencies, though. When I reached Bernalillo, New Mexico, I crossed  over a dry Rio Grande. It no longer lives up to its name. All the water flowing from the Rocky Mountains has gone to irrigation and refilling empty reservoirs.

In many desert southwest cities and towns, landscaping is already confined to rock and native drought-tolerant plants. But lawns are still common in other areas, including Durango. Even some rural homes have massive areas of turf, primarily for looks.

A typical yard in an Albuquerque subdivision, featuring rock, pavers, native and drought-tolerant plants, and artificial turf!

Yes, agriculture uses the bulk of the West’s water, but that does not absolve residential users from the need to conserve.

Lawns are purely decorative, an aesthetic imported from wetter climates. You can’t eat them and nothing else does, either, especially when they’ve been sprayed with herbicides. I’m happy to report that people are getting the message and finding better ways to landscape around their homes.

One does not need to have bare dirt or a weed patch. Here’s a sampling of other options.

A mix of mulch, gravel, and paving stones offers contrast in textures and colors. Curving lines add aesthetic appeal.
Mulch can be combined with scattered plantings of shrubs and drought-tolerant plants.
Two front yards that eschew lawns. You can see that mulch tends to turn browner with age. Raised beds provide a space to grow edible plants.
A closer look at the second yard from the previous photo. Paving stones mixed with ground cover and low shrubs.
A colorful house using different shades of gravel in place of turf.
That strip of land between sidewalk and curb? Here’s one idea. No mowing (i.e. fossil fuel burning) required!
This homeowner uses large rocks, ground cover, low shrubs and succulent sedum to add visual interest to their small yard, and that strip by the curb.
Then, there is the edible yard. Only one tiny patch of lawn. Note the ground cover plants used outside the fence, next to the sidewalk.

The above group of photos were all taken in a two-block area in downtown Durango.

At our public library, the Durango Botanical Society has ripped out a large section of sod and replaced it with alternative landscaping. Better than concrete, all these ideas make efficient use of water and allow moisture to penetrate into the soil rather than contributing to stormwater runoff that can pollute the river and flood roadways.

Educational signs designed to look like open books dot the new garden.
They also added a mural of plants to a nearby wall. Maybe someday this section of lawn will go, too.

Feature image: Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

52 thoughts on “The Drought Diaries: Lawn Begone!

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  1. We had the opposite—an incredibly dry summer. I am looking into less grass on the lawn of our new home in anticipation of water shortages and for all the other reasons you mentioned. It just makes sense.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice article. One of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen was in California using nothing but succulents. Coming from the Midwest that’s saying a lot.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When I moved here after living in places like Ohio and western Oregon, I did not care for brown. Now, after 37 years, I really have come to appreciate the beauty of the desert and the spare green it offers. Thanks for reading and commenting, Tonya!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Gorgeous photos of those gardens! My sister lived in Tuscon for two years and I remember the cacti in her front garden 🙂 Xeriscaping is catching on up here in BC as well as our summers have become drier. We seeded drought tolerant grass and don’t treat it with anything or water it. The bears will eat the clover and dandelions as will the deer. The bees love them as well 🙂 I have planted drought tolerant perennials as well that need little watering. We’re on a well, but still try not to use water excessively.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love your examples apart from the artificial lawn which is bad for the environment. I’m astonished to see them here where we have no trouble keeping grass green! Labour saving of course, which I CAN totally understand. We have no grass at the back and a tiny patch at the front which is maintained by the factor (management company) so I suppose I can’t judge – too hard!

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  5. We still have areas we call ‘lawn’ though it is just mowed native grass that we use as walk ways or to cover the septic field. We don’t water it – when there is enough rain it is green and when there isn’t enough rain it is brown! I’m always amazed how well it comes back after dormant brown periods.

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  6. Applause to all those creative people. I’ve always had one question, and you are the perfect person to ask. If you do away with the lawn and use hardscape alone doesn’t it hold the heat? A lot of the areas you showed used combinations which I would think would be cooler. There is also the aesthetic piece of the new meadow trend. A neighbor across the road has put in a meadow in his front yard for the past couple of years. He puts out seeds in the spring and then lets it do its thing for the rest of the year. I have to admit that it gets pretty unruly, full of weeds, and is ugly to look at. I know as a gardener I should applaud his efforts, but I always look forward to when he trims it back as winter approaches. 🙂

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    1. The neighborhood where I took these photos has many large, mature trees shading the hard-scapes. I’m sure in a place like Albuquerque it does hold heat. The lizards are quite content in the evenings.😁 the meadow trend probably works better in an area of multi-acre lots, not in a tight neighborhood like in town. Just because you let the wild things grow without mowing doesn’t mean no weeding! I’ve seen some very nice meadows planted. One is at the local college.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting how lawns are slowly disappearing in some parts of the country. I like all the hardscaping that is taking their place. Your photos are great. We still have lots of grass, but we also are adding more stone-y areas in anticipation of what is to come.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This was interesting how people are combating drought and still maintaining stylish yards. My friend retired and moved from Michigan to New Mexico and told me he enjoyed no more snow shoveling, nor mowing, as he had all cacti and small stones in place of grass for the front and back yards and declared “the flamethrower is my new gardening tool.” I never did know if he was kidding or not. My grass went from lush to crispy in fewer weeks than usual this year. It will be back in the Spring.We were in moderate drought but had no restrictions.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great photos and examples of drought-tolerant plantings, Eilene. I am happy to see similar changes occurring in No. Calif. We have severe water restrictions for homeowners and their lawns, which has helped folks transition from grass to rocks, pavers, sedums, cacti and/or artificial turf.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love all the ideas! I will never understand the American obsession with the manicured lawn. It serves no purpose, eats up a ton of water and is time consuming to maintain. How much time do people spend mowing? Plus the cost of mowers, gas, maintenance, etc.

    My yard is enormous which is common here in rural Ohio. I would love to replace it all with native flowers that would help out our pollinators but the job is so enormous I wouldn’t know where to begin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That does sound like a daunting project! Like any big project, tackle it in small chunks.

      I remember my dad mowing our lawn with an old fashioned push mower (only human-powered). Hard work! Then we got gas mowers. What a chore that I don’t miss a bit! It does seem rather pointless.

      I hope you explore some ideas that would work well in your area and not be too expensive or difficult to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Well, if England was officially in drought this summer, it’s not surprising that the southwest US was as well. I think we are still technically under a hosepipe ban, though we’ve fortunately had enough rain this autumn that it hasn’t been much of an issue. I am impressed with how much flora you found around New Mexico though!

    Liked by 1 person

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