Lawn painters bring the green in California drought

Brown lawns, begone.

Thanks to California’s chronic drought and watering restrictions, there’s no shortage of dry, dusty-brown lawns. And that’s led to a growth in business for a remedy that doesn’t involve wasting water or risking fines: lawn painting.

Using nontoxic, emerald-hued paints, lawn painters can transform even completely dead lawns to look about as lush as a golf green.

On a recent July afternoon, David Bartlett, owner of Xtreme Green Grass, stood on the yellowing grass of a Folsom home, a backpack sprayer on his back, walking slowly back and forth dousing the grass in a natural, pigment-based paint.

Bartlett started painting lawns three years ago, but this summer business has tripled, he said. What used to be 10 yards a month has increased to a couple a day.

“People that have brown yards are obviously concerned about water, or they are afraid to get a $500 ticket, otherwise they would water their yard,” Bartlett said. “I’m cheaper than a ticket.”

Bartlett, 36, paints lawns for homeowners who are tired of brown yards as well as people who are selling their home and want to increase its curb appeal, he said. Based in Sacramento, Bartlett said he gets lawn-painting jobs from customers as far away as San Francisco and Redding.

Lawn painting, of course, isn’t new, having been used for years by golf courses, hotel resorts and athletic fields.

But the drought has created more demand among homeowners and even building owners. Alan Sherman, a real estate agent in Folsom, was motivated to start his own lawn-painting business this year, partly to spiff up homes he was selling.

“I’m not going to make millions, but it is a solution to a big problem in California,” said Sherman, owner of Fresh and Green Lawns.com. He’s done about 15 residential yards this summer and recently completed a 30,000-square-foot lawn at a corporate office park in Folsom. “They wanted it to look fresh,” he said.

Sherman, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent in Folsom for 14 years, says the two businesses – real estate and lawn painting – are compatible because he can spray a home’s dead lawn before putting the house on the market. A healthy-looking lawn out front goes a long way in making a good impression, said Sherman, noting that he always tells potential buyers that a lawn has been painted.

At 15 to 20 cents a square foot, a typical yard-painting job costs between $150 and $200. Lawn paint, touted as safe for humans, pets and the environment, generally lasts three to six months. It usually takes about an hour to dry and doesn’t rub off on shoes or bare feet, even when watered or mowed, according to turf professionals.

If a yard is completely dead when sprayed, it lasts longer because it is not being mowed.

“It’s just like hair dye; as your hair grows, the roots are going to come up,” said Bartlett, who markets his company online, through Craigslist ads, and by leaving his signs in a customer’s front yard after completing a job. His startup costs were minimal: the sprayer and gallons of eco-friendly lawn paint.

While drab, dreary lawns are unsightly, they aren’t necessarily a sign that a lawn is dead. During a drought or the cold seasons, “It’s a natural process for grass to go into dormancy,” said Jim Novak, spokesman for The Lawn Institute, a research arm of the Turfgrass Producers International in East Dundee, Ill. “When a lawn goes brown, it’s basically going to sleep; it’s a very natural cycle. When it gets irrigated again, it will rejuvenate.”

But until then, for homeowners who are “concerned about the cosmetic color of their grass,” hiring a professional lawn painter is perfectly fine, Novak said, as long as it’s not “some fly-by-night operation that’s doing something detrimental to the grass or the environment.”

There also are plenty of do-it-yourself options. Lawn paint and sprayers are sold online or at stores like some Home Depot outlets, under names like LawnLift, Natural Green Grass Patch and Get It Green! A 16-ounce bottle of LawnLift liquid concentrate, for instance, costs about $26 and says it covers 300 square feet to 500 square feet of lawn.

While the lawn-painting business has become more popular during the drought, it is far from new, said Dan Wright, owner of Liquid Landscape Services in Carmichael, who’s been doing lawn-painting jobs for 20 years. Although it’s only a small part of his landscaping business, Wright said he’s painted grass green for lawn touch-ups, backyard weddings, Little League infields and corporate landscapes.

“I’m more focused on helping clients keep their lawns alive, but (lawn painting) gives instant results,” said Wright, who charges $200 for the first 1,000 square feet of grass.

For homeowners who can’t bear the brown, lawn painting offers a temporary solution. Folsom homeowner Todd Sternzon has hired Xtreme Green Grass several times to paint his front yard grass.

“I’ve tried to maintain my lawn as best I can with the two days of water a week that we’ve been allotted here in Folsom, but it’s definitely taken a toll. You get some brown spots and patchy spots,” he said.

For about $120 every four months, painting his lawn costs less than a fertilizer service, Sternzon said, and the results are immediate.

“It doesn’t have a fake look,” Sternzon said, “but you can tell something’s been done because it is so green overnight. The neighbors keep teasing me that I’m going to get a fine from the water company just because my lawn looks so good.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee