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It’s not easy being green when it comes to lawns in Phoenix

But lush-looking grass can be had with a paint job

This Phoenix property has a desert front lawn instead grass; the latter can be costlier in part because of watering requirements. Also, homeowners’ associations in this arid region typically have rules requiring residents to maintain either desert landscaping or green grass — brown lawns are not an option. This Phoenix property has a desert front lawn instead grass; the latter can be costlier in part because of watering requirements. Also, homeowners’ associations in this arid region typically have rules requiring residents to maintain either desert landscaping or green grass — brown lawns are not an option. (Joshua Lott/ The New York Times)
By Marc Lacey
New York Times / April 10, 2011

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PHOENIX — There used to be two kinds of homeowners in this scorching city: those with dazzling green lawns irrigated by sprinklers and those with more natural backyard expanses of rocks, cactuses, and desert flora, which don’t require watering.

Now, though, the grass may be greener next door simply because of a fresh coast of paint.

Homeowners’ associations in this arid region typically have rules requiring residents to maintain either desert landscaping or green grass, with brown lawns not an option.

This is the time of year, with summer approaching and the winter grass dying out, when letters typically go out to homeowners reminding them of the rules and making it clear that violators could face fines or even legal action should their lawns take on an unsatisfactory hue.

The pressure to keep grass green has prompted some residents to try money-saving shortcuts, the most innovative of which is to dye the grass green.

The grass-spraying business took off here as the housing crisis escalated and real estate brokers were looking to quickly increase the curb appeal of abandoned properties on the cheap. A lawn painting, using a vegetable-based dye, can cost about $200.

Vigorous homeowners’ associations, which can fine owners thousands of dollars if a dispute drags on, have also been good for business, said Klaus Lehmann of Turf-Painters Enterprise.

Doug McGraw, who lives in the Dreaming Summit subdivision in western Phoenix, has been cited for neglecting his lawn. Like many homeowners here, McGraw saw his finances in turmoil a few years ago and had no extra money to spend on the lawn. “I just let it go one year, and it went to brown,’’ he said.

A citation letter arrived from the homeowners’ association.

That is when his wife remarked, tongue in cheek, that if food could be dyed, why not lawns? McGraw began researching the issue and discovered that those who operate athletic fields and golf courses do indeed use lawn dye to keep their grass green year-round.

Unsure whether this would be allowed by his association, and somewhat embarrassed to be taking the easy way out, he dyed his lawn one night in the spring of 2009 without telling a soul in the neighborhood.

By the end of 2009, when the grass needed a touchup, he painted it by day and even offered to do the same for his neighbors, for a fee. Only one person took him up on the offer, but nobody objected to his quick fix, either.

Michael Hague, a neighbor, has a different solution, artificial turf, which has been a compromise choice in some Arizona neighborhoods for a while now. He says it helps him save time, money, and confrontations with the homeowners’ association.

“It’s easier to have fake grass,’’ Hague said, looking over his deep green, perfectly trimmed yard. “You don’t have to worry about it. It doesn’t fade.’’

But “plastic grass,’’ as Ed Cunningham, a firefighter who lives nearby, calls the artificial stuff, gets too hot on bare feet in the Arizona sun. He hires a landscaper to handle the painstaking process of planting Bermuda grass, which eventually goes dormant in the winter and is supplemented with rye grass, which dies out in the spring.

Keeping the lawn irrigated means his water bill is higher than some of his neighbors’, but the look and feel of the real thing is worth the expense, he said.

Costs of the various approaches vary widely. Desert landscaping saves substantially on water and maintenance and can be installed on a bare-bones budget or a high-end one, especially if towering saguaro cactuses are involved. Lawn paint lasts about three months before turning an odd shade of blue and costs only a couple of hundred dollars for a modest lawn, although the grass still needs to be watered so that it will not die out entirely.

Plastic grass, probably the costliest option at the outset, varies in price depending on how close to natural it looks and feels. Watering and trimming costs disappear, though an occasional sweeping may be necessary.

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