Should the Traditional American Lawn be an Endangered Species?
In recent years, it has become clear that solving environmental problems requires everyone’s participation. Saving the earth is not a spectator sport! With spring in the air, there is no easier place to start than in your own yard.
Transforming a monoculture grass lawn into a mosaic of plants and habitats will in the long run save you time and money, and will create a more biologically diverse yard. Breaking from the constraints of traditional thinking by experimenting with a more nature-friendly lawn is an opportunity to express your own creativity. Building your own backyard nature sanctuary is fun and makes a great family activity. Most significant, however, is the potential of combining our individual efforts into “neighborhood backyard cooperatives” to restore significant amounts of local habitat for amphibians, birds, butterflies, reptiles and small mammals.
The Lawn: An American Love Story
Grass turf in the U.S. covers 45 million acres of athletic fields, cemeteries, corporate parks, golf courses, highway right-of-ways, lawns and other similar land uses. Residential lawns occupy about 75% of this total (52,734 sq miles), an area nearly the size of New York state. Land use experts estimate that lawns in the U.S. are expanding at up to one million acres per year. Considering the ever-growing amounts of lawn and shrinking natural habitats in the United States, is it time to re-think the American suburban lawn?
About 50 million American households tend their own patch of lawn, typically 1/3 to 3/4 acre in size. Lawns contain trees, shrubs, flower gardens, and recreational elements like patios and pools, but fields of domesticated grasses are the primary feature. Most property owners strive for three defining lawn characteristics for their grass: green, weed free and closely mowed.
In many American suburbs, lawns shape much of the local sense of place. Proper lawn care is considered a homeowner’s responsibility to the overall appearance of their neighborhood, and often is governed by rules aimed to create a desirable uniformity that protects home values. The reality is that maintaining the American lawn takes considerable time and money, and truth be told, matching the lawns of our neighbors is what motivates many of us to keep the mower running and fertilizer spreading on our precious days off.
Where did the idea of encircling our houses with grass originate? In the broadest sense, the origin of our lawns arose at the dawn of civilization as a security measure to clear brush away from dwellings to avoid direct contact with snakes, rodents, and predators. The idea of planting grass to separate our dwellings and us from nature emerged in France and England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Using grass in England made perfect sense, because it is a country of mild winters, moderate temperatures and high humidity — conditions favorable to grass. When the British colonized the New World, they brought with them the idea of using grass for both animal pastures and for lawns. They also brought their English grass seed, which is not adapted for drier American conditions without supplemental irrigation. Colonial town commons and village squares consisted of varying combinations of shared pastures for sheep and cows and lawns serving as public meeting, working and recreational spaces.
Until the mid-19th century, well-kept residential lawns and village squares were uncommon because of the difficulty of controlling weeds and mowing; grass cutting was left to domestic animals, wild deer, and human-swung scythes. So, when Edwin Budding invented the lawn mower in 1830 the stage was set for much easier lawn care. Within a few decades, the mechanical mowers coupled with the creation of zoning laws (e.g. with street setbacks, minimum lot size, residential only areas) and an exodus of relatively wealthy individuals seeking escape from the Industrial Revolution’s increasingly polluted cities sparked an explosive growth of American lawns. Prominent landscape and community designers like Frederick Law Olmsted championed the lawn as the symbol of suburbia and the modern, healthy community.
Once started, there seemed to be no stopping the invasion of the lawn across our country. As Americans settled all parts of the U.S. in the 20th century, they took their lawns with them, and a lawn care industry grew to ensure their success. New grass seeds were domesticated and sod farms launched to meet uniquely American environmental conditions, and fertilizers and pesticides were made readily available at reasonable prices. Improved mowers, some now self-propelled and riding, were produced in dozens of configurations. Marketing advertisements for lawn care products always focused on green, weed free and closely mowed. Post World War II suburban Americans loved their lawns at any cost. In many communities, the “natural habitat” of people became the lawn, freshly cut, of course.
Questioning Traditional Lawns
It is hard to know who first questioned our love affair with the grass lawn. It seems to have been about the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. In the past, there had been little assessment of the environmental impacts of our lawns. No one seemed to think about it: we were in love! Because of the many pesticides used to control grass diseases and grubs, maybe the first questioning of lawns was a response to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which warned of the many dangers of chemicals. Or maybe it was the growing concern over water pollution from too many fertilizers entering our waterways. I suspect the questioning started, however, not because of any one thing, but a realization of the dangerous cumulative impacts from our obsession to make our yards green, weed free and closely mowed.
Maintaining the ideal traditional lawn requires using large amounts of water, fertilizers, pesticides and gasoline. According to the Lawn Institute , “the 45 million acres of U.S. turf (900,000 acres of lawn in New York) could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, occupying three times more land than is devoted to irrigated corn. About 200 gallons of fresh water per person per day would be required to provide adequate water for the nation’s lawn surface area. Depending on the city, 30 to 60 percent of fresh water in urban areas is used to water lawns. Each year in the U.S., $5.2 billion is spent on fossil fuel-based lawn fertilizers; 67 million pounds of synthetic lawn pesticides are applied; and 580 million gallons of gasoline are used in lawnmowers.” For all of these reasons and more, a growing number of home owners are seeking alternatives to the traditional lawn.
New Lawns for Sustainable Living
Over the last decade or two, a new cadre of property owners have begun experimenting with new approaches to lawn design and care. The idea is to minimize the use of water, fertilizers, pesticides and gasoline in order to minimize overall environmental impacts of lawns – and at the same time increase biological diversity by providing more natural habitat on private property. The first step in this conversion is to reduce the amount of lawn in our yards and to increase yard complexity by adding native shrubs, trees, and other locally adapted plants. Also, important is to take the easy first steps of simply allowing the grass to grow higher and redefining the concept of “weed free.” Allowing lawns to include some level of dandelion, violet, bluet, chickweed, clover, plantain, etc., goes a long way in reducing the need for chemicals.
By joining the growing number of pioneers who are transforming their traditional lawns into ecolawns, you will help protect your regional environment, save money, and most importantly, you will symbolize to your children and neighbors that you believe in sustainable living. In many ways, the traditional lawn is a cultural mind-set that has outlived its usefulness. Our definition of what a beautiful yard is, and what our responsibility to our neighbors is, needs to be rethought as our understanding and appreciation for ecological health and the essential role of nature matures. Join the revolution – don’t cut your grass this weekend!
Note: A modified version of this article first appeared in Teatown Trails, Spring 2010 Newsletter.