Our good buddies at NASA have put out this image showing how much of the U.S. is devoted to turf lawns. Says NASA's Earth Observatory:
The map shows how common lawns are across the country, despite a wide variability of climate and soils. Indeed, the scientists who produced the map estimate that more surface area is devoted to lawns than to any other single irrigated crop in the country. For example, lawns appear to cover more than three times the number of acres that irrigated corn covers.
Just take a look at, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or any other "desert" town to get a sense of just how important we perceive lawn to be to our way of life. Books such as American Green explore our obsession (albeit a bit pithily, says the New York Times), and magazines such as Forbes estimate that we "Americans spent $25.9 billion on lawn-care and landscape maintenance in 2006, a figure which includes, among other things, professional services and water bills."
That article goes on to mention xeriscaping -- technically, landscaping with plants that can withstand bone-dry conditions, such as the lovely specimens offered by High Country Gardens -- but also notes that local ordinances may actually override common sense, dictating plants of a certain type or lawns of a certain size.
My clients know I believe lawn is good for children and dogs, and not much else. My neighbors despise me because I've let the gratuitous patches of lawn in our front yard die ("it's not brown, it's golden," I remind them) as I await the fall planting season. My readers know I've wrestled with the dilemma of natural vs. artificial turf for my back yard (natural won, in a split and ambiguously ethical decision involving invertebrates). But I still find that most people I talk to for the first time can't let go of their vision of a lush, green lawn. Never mind that we Americans use as much as 19 trillion gallons of water and 2.4 million metric tons of nitrogen-based fertilizer annually to care for our lawns... you've got yours, and I want mine.