Droughts suck for a lot of reasons. For starters, a drought can destroy an ecosystem, agriculture, and the local economy. Plus, they kill your lawn.
Lawns need at least one inch of water per week (even more in the heat), which calculates out to about 0.623 gallons per square foot. That means a 10 foot by 10 foot square of lawn requires 62 gallons of water every week for the entire summer. In areas that see barely any rainfall, it’s not surprising that one of the first things to get restricted is how often you water your lawn. And if you decide the rules don’t apply to you, well, good luck. People who violate mandatory water restrictions in California, for example, get fined upwards of $1000 for every violation.
This leaves a lot of people with dying, brown lawns, which is both a blow to the neighborhood’s aesthetics and to the homeowners’ self-esteems. As the podcast 99% Invisible reported last year, green grass is more than a nice landscaping feature; it’s a symbol of the American dream. Well, more specifically, it’s a symbol of the suburban American dream: the two story house, the white picket fence, the car in the garage, and a luscious, green, and perfectly manicured lawn.
That’s why you can actually get arrested for letting your lawn turn brown (at least in areas not affected by severe droughts). 99% Invisible told the story of Joe Prudente, a 66-year-old man arrested in Florida for not re-sodding his lawn. His local homeowner association notified the courts that he was not taking care of his lawn according to neighborhood standards. He turned himself in while wearing a "Grandpa Gone Wild" t-shirt.
So here’s the conundrum in drought-stricken areas: we’re obsessed with green lawns, but we can’t actually water them enough to prop up their unnatural lives ("Lawns are nature purged of sex and death." — Michael Pollan). What to do, what to do, we collectively mutter to ourselves while pacing back and forth on the patio. Then we call up Xtreme Green Grass Lawn Painting to turn our brown lawns green.
Xtreme Green is just one of many companies that offer lawn painting services. Lawn painting isn’t new, but it is typically reserved for sports fields and golf courses. With the crisis in California, however, more and more opportunistic entrepreneurs are starting their own companies. Jim Power, recent founder of LawnLift, was one of those entrepreneurs. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, "I was up real late one night watching Nightline and there was a story about a guy in New York that was painting lawns, and I said, ‘What a great idea!’"
Here’s the promise of companies like Xtreme Green and LawnLift: for about 25 cents per square foot, their non-toxic and plant-based paint will make your lawn look as healthy as if you watered it every morning. Despite being plant-based, the paint itself is rain-proof and can last all summer. It also doesn’t rub off on clothes or skin. It’s much cheaper than artificial turf, and typically safer if you have kids or pets — artificial turf can heat up to 180° on a hot day. Plus, there may be environmental benefits to painting versus putting in artificial turf.
Sounds like a dream, right? Of course, critics have cast doubt over the idea that this paint is environmentally friendly, regardless of whether or not it’s non-toxic. As Franklin Halprin put it over at Law Street:
… would applying a sheet of paint to the soil clog its pores and reduce insects’ and small animals’ mobility and access to air and food? Furthermore, could covering living blades of grass in a layer of paint block its access to the sun and ability to photosynthesize?
Halprin has a right to be concerned — brown grass is not actually dead grass, just dehydrated. While companies like LawnLift frequently describe their product as similar to hair dye, it’s not really the same: hair is actually dead, and you can do whatever you want to it without affecting the underlying growth. Brown grass, on the other hand, is part of a living ecosystem. Sure, it’s not a particularly healthy ecosystem at the moment, but paint probably isn’t the solution to that.
At the end of the day, we can’t say for certain whether spraypainting your lawn green is good or bad for the grass or for the environment. Every company has their own formula, and there are no regulations controlling them.
There are plenty of alternatives to spray paint besides artificial turf. People usually plant the wrong grass, so calling an expert and re-planting your lawn with a type of grass that doesn’t need as much grass can be helpful. You can also look into xeriscaping, which can completely eliminate the need to irrigate your yard.
Some homeowners may be stuck between a rock and hard place if their homeowner’s association requires a green lawn. One homeowner wrote in to the Los Angeles Times about his homeowner association, complaining that "it fines and penalizes owners who comply with the state's water restrictions." Of course, what this association was doing is against California law, but if they continue to press the fine, this homeowner would have to bring a lawsuit against them.
A good homeowner association will change their regulations to allow alternative landscaping solutions like xeriscaping. But if your homeowner association has their heads stuck in the sand, you may be left with no choice but to break out the spray paint.