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LONG BEACH, Calif. — The spray-paint nozzle was aimed carefully at the edge as the painter stood back a few inches from the flat metal shovel meant to protect other surfaces. After laying down a couple of thin coats, he stepped back to admire his work.
The patch of grass had gone from a flat, yellowing green to a Wizard of Oz shade of emerald.
There are few people who see an upside to the record-setting drought in California, but Drew McClellan sees a path to business. Earlier this summer, when a friend began complaining about his browning front lawn, Mr. McClellan thought back to his childhood in Florida, where he often spotted golf courses using sprays to dye their greens. When a brief Internet search failed to show any local business offering a similar service, Mr. McClellan decided it was a prime opportunity.
And since he opened up shop in July, Mr. McClellan has been taking requests faster than he can keep up.
“No matter how weird people might think it is, everyone is getting to the point of considering something drastic,” Mr. McClellan said, taking a break from his other job working as a hair stylist at a retro-style barbershop. As he and his wife sprayed down the lawn of Tony Felipe, who has lived in Long Beach for nearly 20 years, Mr. Felipe looked on with nods of approval. For less than $400 — not much more than a regular water bill these days — he could see his lawn instantly turn green.
Credit David Walter Banks for The New York Times
Mr. Felipe hardly considers himself an environmentalist. Apart from slightly shorter showers, he said, his behavior has hardly changed amid the drought. But as he watched his water bill climb well into the triple digits, he started looking for any way to cut back on water without losing his lawn.
“We started with the front lawn, and everyone who drove or walked by gave us strange looks,” Mr. Felipe said. “But two weeks later, it looks so good, of course we want to do the backyard.”
He did not mind at all when his small, white dog trampled through the still-wet lawn, giving his paws a tinge of green. Mr. McClellan promised the dye would come off the dog within days.
Throughout California, hundreds of thousands of homeowners have transformed once-grassy lawns into intricate landscapes of rocks and planters. Several cities have taken to running public service announcements declaring that “brown is the new green” and showing dormant grass alongside a lush lawn. Most water districts have by now put in place rationing, limiting the number of days and times that residents are permitted to water their lawns or wash their cars, with a $500 fine for violators.
But even as browning grass or drought-resistant plants are popping up in front of ever more houses, few things are as alluring as a California green lawn, long a symbol of wealth and vitality.
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In California, much of the use of lawn paint began during the housing crash, said Shawn Sahbari, a Bay Area technology entrepreneur who began manufacturing and applying his paint formula when he was helping a property management company with foreclosed homes several years ago.
“Letting it go dead and brown might be an option for some people, but let’s face it, nobody really thinks brown is the new green,” Mr. Sahbari said. “This lets you cut down on watering and still have a lawn that looks great.”
According to most manufacturers of lawn paint, the pigment also contains fertilizers, which can help cut down on weekly watering while keeping the grass from dying completely. Mr. Sahbari said he now has many repeat customers who paint their lawn four times a year. “It’s an integral part of their landscape management system now,” he said.
But there is little doubt that there is a kind of psychological hurdle involved.
“I see it as a cultural paradigm shift that we are just starting to make,” said Jim Power, a manager for LawnLift, a San Diego lawn paint manufacturer whose business has tripled in the last year. “It’s very hard to find a yard that doesn’t have a problem — this is a quick fix, instant gratification that does not make you feel guilty.”
Interactive Feature: Mapping the Spread of Drought Across the U.S.
Few in the industry see it as a limited market; they point to the proliferation of lawn mowers and even artificial turf as a potential model.
Already, there are dozens of lawn paint options available, from longer-lasting formulas typically used on high-traffic turf such as ballparks and golf courses, to naturally derived products that rely on a highly concentrated pigment. Some formulas tend to have a blue-tinged hue, a telltale sign of the unnatural that most homeowners avoid.
“Beauty, though, really is in the eye of the beholder,” said James Baird, a botany and plant sciences professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has done extensive research on lawn paints, including trying several of them on his own backyard. “What I call the fake Christmas tree look, that is by far the most popular hue in our research. When you put it on turf that is already brown, it can come out a lot more blue than green, but some people love it.”
Still, Mr. Baird said, aside from skeptical looks from neighbors, there is little to lose from trying. Spray-painting the lawn of an average-size home in Southern California costs less than $300 — and if the owner hates it, the paint will fade and be gradually mowed off within three months.
For many lawn owners, the love affair with paint started off with a heavy dose of skepticism and the simple desire to not be embarrassed by brown spots. Some homeowner associations have been known to fine up to $500 if a resident’s front yard is deemed insufficiently tended.
After Cy Bodden and his wife had a baby last year, they opted to paint their lawn to make it look nicer to relatives coming to visit.
“When you’ve spent all this money on something over the years and you look and it’s yellow, it’s really kind of depressing,” said Mr. Bodden, who lives in San Diego.
And at first, none of Mr. Bodden’s relatives raised an eyebrow at the forest-green grass. Then one of his nephews stepped on it and was dismayed to find that the green grass felt rough and crunchy beneath his feet. But Mr. Bodden was hardly chagrined. “The only people who really think it’s weird are people who aren’t from California,” he said