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San Francisco grass growing experiment proves ‘old lawns are dead’

Design firm says drought resistant grasses fared well in extreme weather, but everyone should consider scaling back on greenery

Photo courtesy of Perkins and Will

In August of 2016, San Francisco design firm Perkins and Will turned half of its lawn into a patchwork of different grass seeds in a quest to unearth the secret of a lawn that can thrive in California’s brutal new weather norms.

At the time the entire state was still in the midst of a drought, and the firm didn’t feel that its water-hog lawn did much to polish their green design chops. The six rows of new native grasses were supposed to thrive with less hydration. A little over one year later, we checked in to see how they did.

Jennifer Cooper-Sabo, landscape practice lead at Perkins and Will, says the great lawn experiment might have taught everyone a few things about designing and planting in San Francisco. For example:

  • It’s possible that traditional lawns weren’t a bright idea in the first place. “We got our suburban lawn ideas based on old English gardens,” says Cooper-Sabo. “And then New England settlers wanted their own little patch of green too. That just doesn’t translate well to little yards in California. In a way, old lawns are dead. They’re great for dogs and kids, but you don’t need that everywhere.”
  • California lawns have to live with California weather. “With climate change, our wet times are getting wetter and our dry times dryer. In fact, if we’d known we’d have such a wet winter followed by such a wet winter, I might have planted some even more extreme varieties, like agave.”
Tufts of sharp grass growing in a bed with the Bay Bridge nearby.
  • Which is not to say that some of the grasses didn’t do well. “The sod looked great from day one, but it had an unfair advantage covering the ground completely and immediately. The dymondia [aka “silver carpet”] was really great too and made a creeping silvery ground cover. The blue fescue was the only grass that looked good all summer, because its seed heads shot up and turned beige in summer.”
  • Don’t expect California native grass lawns don’t behave like old suburban grass. “Once it started raining and getting lush, everyone stopped and commented on our lawn. But then in the summer, I let everything go golden and people asked what happened? But that’s what native California plants do—they go golden and dormant [in the heat].”
  • Also, don’t plant purple needle grass. Some experiments are just failures in the end. “It’s just not naturally supposed to grow in big bunches. The row furthest from the building had more sun and it did a little better. The row in partial shade died quickly.”
  • In the future, open space just plain might have to emphasize something other than the grass. “If you don’t need lawn, maybe fire pits, chairs, that type of use could be more accommodating. In a really beautiful modern dry garden, you can keep the lawn minimal.”

That’s the takeaway after 15 months of watching grass grow. But the experiment isn’t over. Another wet season is on the way, and next spring any number of surprises may still sprout up.