By Kreigh Hampel

Bio-pic-Kreigh-HampelSince 2003 Kreigh Hampel has served as the Recycling Coordinator for the City of Burbank and oversees the City’s zero waste programs.  He is passionate about regenerative designs, simplicity and community engagement.

“Oh man, If only I could get my lawn to look like that!” My next door neighbor and I stared across the street at the newest lawn on the block, an exuberant carpet of fluorescent green. We were swept away.

As a boy I couldn’t wait for the day my dad FINALLY LET ME cut the grass. I wanted to yank the rope, hear the engine growl and see the grey exhaust blow. My grass cutting dream came true as a kid and grew into adulthood. At nineteen, I cut golf course greens in Florida then laid down acres of turf around Oregon homes, businesses and freeways. I was working in a green industry and felt good using my muscles.

On this particular blue-sky afternoon, following a Los Angeles rain, that new lawn across the street peaked in pastoral, Photoshop perfection.

But over the next twenty years this young lawn will need some 800 mowings, drink 400,000 gallons of potable water, and generate some 14,000 pounds of grass clippings. Repeatedly, it will likely be de-thatched, edged, trimmed, fertilized, raked, and chemically treated for weeds, insects and disease.

Lawns define a mid twentieth century sense of place, a controlled architectural ideal where nature is an obedient servant. Domesticated plants are sheared into linear boarders, columns, spheres or flat panels. Suburban landscapes were minimized in an engineered aesthetic of post-war industrial America. In spite of all the droughts, surface water pollutants, groundwater sins and ecological denial, the machined lawn aesthetic has remained. In fact, lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the U.S.

Southern California with its mild Mediterranean climate and twelve month growing season is an ideal market place for mass-produced grass. Unlike parts of the U.S. with summer rains, Southern California is bone dry through the high-growth summer and fall. Droughts and watering restrictions aside, our industrial landscapes gulp about half of our cities’ precious drinking water.

In good faith, engineers try to solve social problems with engineering breakthroughs. As a result we now have weather satellites linked to efficient digital irrigation controllers. In spite of the marriage between the space program and our carefree watering habits, broken and maladjusted sprinklers continue to flush a witch’s brew of landscape chemicals, litter and microscopic vehicle dandruff down the streets and flood channels to our ocean.

With all this attention to growing lawns in the desert, we remain profoundly disconnected to them. I seldom see my neighbors spending time on their front lawns. Instead, it’s only the gardeners who spread chemicals, replace broken sprinklers, mow, wack, edge, blow, dump and drive off.

For the past ten years I have worked as the recycling coordinator for the City of Burbank and I measure wastes. Our industrialized landscapes generate mythological amounts of clippings set on the curb for collection. About half of all landscape waste is grass and grass clippings contain a lot of nitrogen the same stuff for sale at the garden centers. If those clippings are left on the lawn, chemical fertilizers could be cut nearly in half.

Trash collection trucks weigh about 35,000 pounds empty and cost well over a quarter million dollars. They have a lot of fancy hydraulics, controls and GPS and get about 3–4 miles per gallon stopping and starting hundreds of times per day.

Wild landscapes will never need a recycling coordinator—nor will they ever rely on modern engineering. The genius in wild landscapes is their diversity, self-regulation, and intelligent resiliency. Wild landscapes have no need for an trimmed industrial aesthetic or an enormous infrastructure to remove nutrients and soil-building organics.

All organisms necessary to process wastes and reabsorb nutrients are alive in our yard’s topsoil. Landscape clippings hauled away are nutrients lost and soils depleted. Our natural landscapes have evolved over time to balance a very complicated agreement between life and death.

It’s not in the lawn industry’s best interest to promote self sustaining natural landscapes. They profit from millions of miles of polyvinyl chloride (PVC ) pipes and millions of power tools; plastic packages full of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, snail bait, mulches, composts and potting soils; plastic pots, vinyl edgings, timers, valves, sprinklers, ornaments, lights, garden fashions, designer tools and outdoor sound systems. I don’t blame anyone for making a living on all of these products, but eventually every one of them passes through the modern, engineered waste stream. That’s what I measure.

Also, don’t expect the recycling industry to help slow the flow of landscape waste. They own thousands of trucks, landfills, compost sites, recycling plants and international shipping routes. Each ton hauled means wages, mortgages and loans paid.

In contrast to the industrial, high-calorie aesthetic, a regenerative, honest and peaceful landscape aesthetic, one powered by sun, rain, wind and soil; one that supports wildlife and includes diverse cultural histories is re-emerging.

Landscape designers are shifting to native plant pallets, harvesting water, planting “cool islands”, connecting wildlife corridors and bringing more nature into urban settings. Thanks to a growing coalition of volunteers, nonprofits and public agencies, LA has new parks, river regeneration plans and streets that harvest water and embrace native plantings. Colleges have improved campuses and launched graduates with regenerative degrees. Students are getting hands on experience building rain gardens.
These initiatives start with gardening friends, inspirational classes and landscape professionals who understand the power and importance of native plants and habitats. Permaculture has gained recognition for exposing designs that link food, shelter, water, energy, wildlife and drastically reduce industrial drag.

Ecological designers measure success by the number of benefits linked in a system. A simple action like harvesting rainwater or mulching landscape clippings causes a cascading chain of positive results that are not always obvious.

With fourteen inches of annual rainfall, a 6,000 square foot lot will receive nearly 50,000 gallons of rain per year—roughly two swimming pools worth. With good design, rain can be held in the soil for weeks.

Rainwater directed to landscapes rather than streets can offset irrigation especially when the plants themselves know how to live on sips rather than gulps. With every gallon saved, water process chemicals, energy and emissions are saved too.

Every can of yard clippings that is spread as mulch rather that dumped at the curb will smoother weeds, reduce labor and herbicides, slow water evaporation, return soil nutrients, reduce chemicals and cut our dependency on heavy trucks, big processes and bagged amendments.

Our landscape aesthetics once dependent on machines, engineering and big wastes no longer serve us. Our new landscape aesthetics: beauty, health, regeneration and a moral inheritance are ready—‘It’s time to embrace the new look.

Originally published by Los Angeles Audubon's Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 3 January/February 2014