Ahh spring! After a long, cold winter it’s finally getting nice enough to venture out of our houses without the coat, gloves, hat, scarf ensembles that many of us know all too well.
Spring is a time for walks, picnics, and outdoor sports, and for many Americans, it’s also time to break out the grass seed, fertilizer, weed killer, and lawn mower. Growing a lush green lawn takes work.
There are over 40 million acresopens PDF file of manicured turf grass in the United States, the majority of which can be found in suburban yards. A well maintained, nicely mowed green lawn looks really pleasing and feels nice to lie on, but aside from these two perks, it doesn’t really serve any functional purpose, and it actually has a lot of downsides.
Let’s start with energy use.
Maintaining a healthy-looking lawn requires weekly or bi-weekly mowing and most lawn-owners perform this ritual with a gas-powered lawn mower. These machines are incredibly inefficient (one hour of lawn mower use emits 11 timesopens PDF file the amount of pollution of a new car) and guzzle around 200 million gallonsopens PDF file of gasoline per year in the U.S.
Cutting down on this largely unnecessary use of energy is a great way to save energy at home.
Lawns are also incredibly wasteful. According to a paperopens PDF file commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 2016, national landscape irrigation for turf grass totaled nearly 9 billion gallons of water per day, and national lawn-related pesticide use totaled over 70 million pounds (which can and does create harmful runoff that contaminates lakes and rivers).
Lawn care also creates a lot of plastic waste from bags of seed and fertilizer. Cutting down on your lawn-related material and resource use is a great way to reduce waste at home.
Large swaths of monocrop lawns drenched in pesticides may also be a causal factor in the decline of local insect and wildlife populations, including bees.
The U.S. bee population has taken a nose dive in recent years, largely due to the three P’s, poor nutrition, pesticides, and parasites. Bees, like humans, need a varied diet to live healthy lives, but a rich variety of flowers and other pollen sources are much harder for bees to find in our growing suburban, lawn obsessed sprawl.
Furthermore, many common pesticides, including glyphosate, the main compound in Roundup (Monsanto’s popular residential pesticide) have been shown to kill bees.
A standard turf grass lawn is also harmful to local water systems. Along with the pesticide run off that manicured turf grass lawns create, they don’t hold or filter water that has been contaminated from other sources.
According to groundwater.org, “Every time it rains, water runs off impermeable surfaces, such as roofs or driveways, collecting pollutants such as particles of dirt, fertilizer, chemicals, oil, garbage, and bacteria along the way. The pollutant-laden water enters storm drains untreated and flows directly to nearby streams and ponds. The US EPA estimates that pollutants carried by rainwater runoff account for 70% of all water pollution.”
Water pollution and runoff are big problems in many suburban landscapes, and turf grass lawns only exacerbate the issues.
A History of Lawns
So, if turf grass lawns cause so much harm to wildlife and the environment and don’t really serve any function or purpose beyond aesthetics why is turf grass a fixture in most suburban yards? Where does this obsession come from?
Professor and historian Yuval Noah Harari offers us a potential answer by looking at the history of the lawn in his 2015 book, Homo Deus.
According to Harari, “The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late middle ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark for nobility.
Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass.
Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious time or land on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to the chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake.
Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth. No wonder that in the nineteenth century the rising bourgeoisie enthusiastically adopted the lawn.”
Which brings us to today. An age where waste, emissions, and energy use are major concerns in many parts of the country, yet we still spend time, resources, and $47.8 billion per year growing and manicuring lush, green status symbols.
Barriers to Change
Other people around the country have also noticed the environmental effects of maintaining a nice lawn, but many members of this growing “no mow” movement have run into a pretty big barrier when trying to change their domestic landscapes.
Many states and counties have laws that regulate how homeowners can manage their yards, and many of these laws severely restrict any landscape that isn’t well maintained turf grass.
According to the NRDC paperopens PDF file , “Throughout the United States, most municipalities regulate a maximum height of turf grass somewhere between eight and twelve inches under their nuisance laws.”
Homeowner associations (HOAs) also play a big role in restricting yard diversity in this country. Some groups estimate that up to 20% of homesopens PDF file belong to homeowner associations, and many of these associations have strict landscaping rules that only allow for manicured turf grass.
These laws and HOA rules are a real issue for people like Sarah Baker of Alexandria, Ohio who stopped mowing and manicuring her acre of lawn in an effort to reestablish a place for native plants, insects, and animals.
“Three months earlier, I had stopped mowing my nearly one acre of country land outside of a rural Ohio town.” Wrote Baker in a Washington Post story about her yard. “A potpourri of plants began to flourish, and a rich assortment of insects and animals followed. I had essentially grown a working ecosystem, one that had been waiting for the chance to emerge.”
For all of her hard work restoring a patch of land to a natural ecosystem, Baker received an official written warning from the trustee board of her township threatening a fine of $1,000 if she didn’t mow her grass.
This experience has been shared by too many people trying to make a positive environmental change on their property.
Luckily, not all municipalities are this strict with their land use laws, and some cities and towns in drier states even have programs that offer stipends for homeowners who are looking to make their yards less wasteful.
Many people all around the country have started to push back against restrictive land use laws, and have found creative and interesting ways to make their yards less wasteful and more environmentally friendly.
Many of these solutions are also great ways to reduce your energy use and waste footprint.
Another great way to reduce resource and pesticide use in your yard is to simply stop mowing and otherwise maintaining it. This will allow your yard to return to a wild, natural state that is great for local wildlife and pollinators!
Letting your lawn, or even just parts of your lawn, grow wild also reduces or eliminates water and pesticide use as well as emissions from gas powered lawn mowers.
Along with the many other benefits listed above, rain gardens, xeriscapes, and no mow yards are all also great ways to reduce waste an energy use at home. All of these yard alternatives require minimal maintenance, which reduces the need for lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other gas-powered yard equipment.
Yards that require minimal maintenance also reduce dependence on frequent application of pesticides, new grass seed, and lawn feed, which often come packaged in plastic.
As referenced above, Americans spend a whopping $47.8 billion per year on growing grass in their yards. Imagine all of the delicious, nutritious local food we could have grown if we had instead directed those funds towards growing vegetables!
Growing a vegetable garden is resource intensive and also may require some pesticide use, but if you’re already planning on spending money and resources on your yard, why not at least get some value from it?
Locally grown and harvested vegetables taste better than store bought ones that were bred for shelf life and are often shipped in from other states and countries. Additionally, using your yard resources to grow food can also lower your carbon footprint by replacing supermarket food with your own.
If you do choose to grow vegetables, it’s also a great time to start composting to make them grow more successfully.
Not to mention that gardening encourages you to eat more vegetables, has proven psychological benefits, and is a great way to get some exercise!
Organic lawns are a good option for people who still want to keep the basic look and feel of a traditional lawn, or may only be interested in making small changes to their land use habits. This option may also be especially appealing to those who have kids who like to play ball in the yard, or people who don’t live near a park or common green area.
It is actually surprisingly easy to have a nice lawn without using pesticides. There are even some local organizations in the northeast, like the Connecticut River Stormwater Committee and the Perfect Earth Project, that offer guidance documents on how to transition your lawn to organic.
Another way to make your lawn even more eco-friendly is to use a manual lawn mower. These handy machines will cut your grass without guzzling gas and are a great way to help cut down on your energy use!
Building a rain garden on your property is a great way to prevent runoff and reduce local water pollution, especially if you live near the ocean. They are also very hands off once built, and don’t require a lot of resources to build or maintain!
Check out the EPA’s guide for more tips on how to adapt your rain garden to your local ecosystem.
Xeriscaping is a form of landscaping that strives to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation. Xeriscapes are especially popular in dry western states, but they can be built in any region or climate.
Learn more about the 7 principles of xeriscaping here!