California gardeners say their industry is drying up because of ongoing drought

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Shortly after he came to the United States from Chiapas, Mexico four years ago, Bernie Velasquez, 22, started working as a gardener.

Ever since then, week after week, he has been taking care of lawns in residential areas of Southern California, cutting the grass, plucking the weed and cleaning up yards.

But now, in the face of a withering drought, a growing number of Californians are taking advantage of “Cash for Grass” rebates available throughout the state and ripping out their once green turfs to replace them with drought-tolerant plants, gravel and shrubs. The situation has made gardeners like Velasquez uncertain about their future.

“Many houses are removing the grass and replacing it with rocks or mulch,” said Velasquez who takes care of gardens and yards in several cities of Orange County.

“Once we remove the grass there is no more work to do there, and that’s affecting us, the workers,” he added during a pause in yard work at an Orange home that still has a front lawn.

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For Latinos, who make up 38 percent of the state's population, the landscape and lawn care is an important source of employment. More than 73 percent of workers in the landscape industry in California are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce using American Community Service Data 2005-2009. Many say the shift from luscious green lawns to cactus, mulch and rocks is crippling their industry.

In the last year, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) received requests for $322.1 million for turf removal rebates. In the city of Los Angeles alone, a total of 5,098 residential and commercial customers have taken advantage of the program since it launched in 2009.

California districts are offering property owners $1 to $2 for every square foot of grass replaced with water-efficient landscaping. Los Angeles is providing a combined $3.75 per square foot rebate for turf replacement.

The MWD says it has seen monthly rebate applications increase twentyfold since April, when Gov. Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water cuts. The agency recently set aside an additional $350 million to fund the rebate program.

While the surge of conservation requests has been a major boost for large landscape companies, it has become a challenge for smaller, individual Latino gardeners like Velasquez, who will have to either adapt to the changing scenery or find a new source of income.

Velasquez is relying on his faith.

Lawns “are drying out and there is nothing we can do about that. I’m just going to keep on doing this and see what plans God has for us,” he said.

Others, like Omar Briones, see the new type of drought-friendly landscape as an economic opportunity.

“We’ve had to increase the price and just charge more for what we do with these new yards,” said Briones, who does maintenance work in Malibu and San Fernando Valley.

“This is not just mowing a lawn. You can’t do drastic pruning with rocks and some plants. It requires more knowledge, time and effort,” he added.

For Alex Salazar, 30, turf removal boom has been profitable. He says business at his family’s landscape firm has risen about 30 percent since last year.

“When the drought first hit California, many people started to let their lawns die. We did lose some accounts because people didn’t need [maintenance] anymore,” he said.

After the water district authorities began offering cash for grass rebates, his company has been removing turf, designing and planting the new California friendly landscapes in different areas of Los Angeles County.

“We actually started doing drought-tolerant landscaping about four years ago, but it wasn’t as many as it is today,” he said. “At first, it was customers … really interested in having a sustainable landscape, as opposed to now – when customers get them more than anything to save water.”

His firm, Salazar Gardening, was started by his father Javier in 1982. “The company is not big, currently we have 10 employees in total and much of our resources are used in building new landscapes.”

It helps that he is a licensed contractor and therefore an approved vendor with the Southern California water works program that can process applications for the grass-for-cash rebates.

Another advantage he has is the ability to install and maintain drought-tolerant landscapes.

“A lot of people that come into gardening don’t know the trade so well and they are not familiar with new irrigation systems required for the changes happening now,” Salazar said while supervising the transformation of a San Fernando Valley yard.

In one home, the new landscape is comprised of a large stabilized decomposed granite area and tires used as steps, California Native plants fed by sub-surface drip irrigation and topped with shredded mulch. Rubber mulch has been added in the kids playing area.

Salazar believes that Latino gardeners need to learn new skills that will enable them to meet the demand for more drought-friendly landscapes.

“As Latinos we need to make ourselves responsible to really know what we are doing and know more about how to install new irrigation systems,” he added. “Latino gardeners, we have always kept Southern California beautiful. Now we have the responsibility to keep it beautiful in a drought setting. It’s good that people trust us.”