The Obsession with Lawns
It’s lawn mowing season! And with that, let’s look at the obsession with lawns.
I lived in Santa Cruz, CA at one time, and it was while living there that I discovered that a lot of people did something very different with their lawns: instead of a grass lawn, their yards were vegetable gardens.
Lots of people were growing corn in their front yards, along with squash, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, berries, and all kinds of edibles.
Now I live in upstate NY, in – egads! – suburbia. And here, it’s the typical obsession with the lawn. Cut it, fertilize it, herbicide it, water it, Chemlawn it.
My neighbor mows his lawn three times a week. I mow my lawn every 10 days to 2 weeks.
My neighbor has a spotless lawn, with no weeds and nary a dandelion in sight.
My lawn has all kinds of things growing in it: crabgrass, clover, dandelions, plantain, and all kinds of other vegetation.
I used to live next to a guy who was out mowing his lawn every Sunday morning at 8am. So much for a quiet Sunday morning.
I was once staying in a town in Germany for a few weeks, and that town had an ordinance that you couldn’t mow your lawn on a Sunday. Besides that, all the townsfolk’s lawns looked like either the lawns I saw in Santa Cruz, CA – filled with vegetables – or my current lawn – a ragtag grassy space that would not win any awards from Better Homes and Gardens.
So, what’s the deal with lawns?
People have had lawns for a long time. Before the invention of the lawn mower, people let their animals graze on their lawn, and the grass grew along with the weeds. Many people also planted chamomile, thyme and vegetables in their lawn.
Toward the end of the 19th century in the U.S., suburbs appeared on the scene, along with the sprinkler, greatly improved lawn mowers, new ideas about landscaping and a shorter working week.
And thus was born the modern lawn.
Lawns are a standard feature of ornamental private and public gardens and landscapes in much of the world today. Lawns are created for aesthetic use in gardens, and for recreational use, including sports. They are typically planted near homes, often as part of gardens, and are also used in other ornamental landscapes and gardens.
Many different species of grass are used, often depending on the intended use of the lawn, with vigorous, coarse grasses used where active sports are played, and much finer, softer grasses on ornamental lawns.
There is often heavy social pressure to mow one’s lawn regularly and to keep all appearances tidy. Local municipal ordinances commonly require homeowners to keep grass cut.
But this obsession with lawns is killing the environment.
That’s because a hefty portion of the 100 million pounds of household pesticides and herbicides U.S. consumers buy every year goes straight to lawns.
But it doesn’t all stay there. Some of these chemicals leach into the groundwater, pollute the air, and get onto the skin and into the mouths of children, pets, and other creatures that come into contact with the treated grass.
To make matters worse, the tons of chemical fertilizers added go directly to the soil, and some of it runs off into waterways. Those nutrients that turn your grass green can cause vast algae blooms that kill fish and other aquatic creatures.
Research has found that cutting grass for an hour with a gas-powered lawnmower produces about as much air pollution as a 100-mile drive in a car.
Lawns are also contributing to the mysterious crisis of the disappearing bees. Bees are dying and disappearing at alarming numbers, so much so that the crisis now has a name: Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.
Bees need biodiversity, a wealth of different flowers to eat pollen from in order to thrive and have a healthy immune system. Lawns lack in biodiversity, being just one thing: grass, and mainly one or two types of grass seeds.
As National Bee Expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the state apiarist of Pennsylvania, said, “it’s astonishing how we decided that this green, flat lawn is a beautiful thing, when really it’s a sterile desert.”
Another thing about biodiversity and lawns: they usually are composed primarily of plants not local to the area, which can further decrease local biodiversity.
There is also the water question. Maintaining a green lawn can require large amounts of water. In more arid regions of the world, such as the U.S. Southwest and Australia, lawn care has crimped already scarce water resources, requiring larger, more environmentally invasive water supply systems. And even in areas of the world that are not usually arid, there can be times when there are droughts.
There is now the reality that there will come a time when we reach peak water, and overuse of water to maintain lawns is contributing to the problem.
Grass typically goes dormant during cold, winter months, and turns brown during hot, dry summer months, thereby reducing its demand for water. Many property owners consider this “dead” appearance unacceptable and therefore increase watering during the summer months.
For those who still like the aesthetics of having a lawn, there are alternatives. You can use organic lawn care methods. You can replace your lawn with ground creepers such as Creeping Jenny. You can use regionally appropriate species of low growing or mowable plants in lawn areas such as clover, creeping Charley, or sedum instead of high-maintenance turf grass.
There are also many alternatives to lawns including meadows, butterfly gardens, rain gardens, and kitchen gardens. Planting trees and shrubs in naturalistic arrangements can help restore habitat for birds and wildlife.