By Nicolas Ramkumar
As a child growing up in East Central Illinois, I loved to play in my family’s lawn. I spent hours running around the lush green grass, playing games like tag and capture the flag. When my family had barbecues, we set chairs and tables up on the lawn to enjoy our meals on warm summer evenings. I have myriad fond memories of times spent in our yard. On summer mornings, when it was cool out, my parents would ask my brother and I to go outside to pull out weeds and we grudgingly obliged. We removed dandelions, crab grass, clover, and anything else that was not the turf grass that we reseeded every spring. In the evenings, my mother set sprinklers out and let them soak the soil so that the grass could grow healthy and tall. But once it grew healthy and tall, my father took our lawn mower and cut the grass back down. All our work resulted in a pristine lawn, weedless, green, and evenly cut. Throughout this process, there was one important question that none of us asked: Why does our lawn need to look like this?
America’s largest irrigated crop is not corn, soy, or anything else you might find in the commodity marketplace. It’s turf grass: the crop that American homeowners grow in pursuit of the dream of a lush, green, manicured lawn. According to NASA, the United States has around 40 million acres of turf grass, which is an area roughly equivalent to that of the state of Wisconsin. This makes turf grass our largest irrigated crop and one that has replaced scores of diverse habitats for wildlife. Turf grass helps lawn-owners achieve a long-cherished suburban fantasy, but it does not produce food or anything else useful for the environment. In fact, the dream of a pristine lawn comes at a high cost, requiring excessive inputs like water, gas, and chemicals. What might it take to reimagine the American lawn?
Grass and Status
To understand how the modern American lawn came to be, it is helpful to look at the origins of lawns. The first lawns were created by 12th-century British and French nobility as status symbols. They were the only people with the resources to maintain large swaths of land not cultivated for food. These lawns were often made of a mix of turf grass and low growing herbs such as chamomile. The rise in the popularity of manicured turf grass lawns did not take off until the Victorian Era, over 700 years later. It was during this time that the standards of what makes an ideal lawn were set.
In the United States, lawns were first introduced by the wealthy landowners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to imitate the landscape architecture of the European elite. They were able to have pristine lawns because they owned slaves who would do the necessary labor to maintain them. However, for most Americans during this period, the most common landscaping practice was to leave the ground naturalized. The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent creation of the suburbs facilitated the transition of lawns into the mainstream, and the ideal aesthetic of manicured, green, weedless turf was baked into the American psyche. By the end of the 19th century, pristine lawns would become a symbol of status and prestige in American culture, much as they were in aristocratic Europe. In leaving the pollution of the city, suburbanites hoped that the green lawns they surrounded their homes with would create pockets of clean, healthy air for them to breathe. Ironically, those uniform green lawns have had the opposite effect.
Grass is Not Green
Much more than care goes into the average American lawn. Because many regions of the United States are not suitable for growing grass, lawns must be artificially engineered to sustain the green grass that conforms with social expectations. Lawn owners add a vast amount of natural and unnatural substances to maintain that uniform, green aesthetic: gasoline required to power lawn mowers, excess water to keep thirsty grass green, fertilizer to maintain that grass’s texture, and herbicides and pesticides to kill weeds and insects.
Every year, Americans use enough water on their lawns to fill the Chesapeake Bay. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about one-third of water used for residential purposes in America is for landscape irrigation, which totals about 3.2 trillion gallons per year. As much as half of this water is wasted due to inefficient watering systems, evaporation, and runoff. Lawns were designed to grow in the cool, temperate climate of Northwestern Europe. To grow lawns in arid desert conditions in places like California and Arizona, thousands of gallons of extra water need to be added. In the American Southwest, up to 60% of all residential water is used to keep lawns healthy and green. Considering that much of the Southwest is in the midst of a two-decade-long megadrought, using so much water purely for the sake of aesthetics is particularly wasteful.
To maintain a lawn with a lush, green, velvety surface, Americans douse 2.4 million metric tons of fertilizer on their grass. All this fertilizer requires a lot of energy to manufacture, and that manufacturing process produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. For similar reasons, 70 million pounds of pesticides are applied to lawns annually, according to the EPA. For perspective, in the state of Massachusetts, a typical lawn service company uses 5 to 7 pounds of pesticides per acre of lawn annually, which is twice the amount used on an acre of agricultural crops.
These chemicals frequently run off lawns and pollute our groundwater, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. This chemical runoff can even contaminate our drinking water. Fertilizer runoff can lead to harmful algal blooms, which can be toxic to humans and wildlife in addition to creating dead zones. Much of the fertilizer runoff in the eastern United States ends up flowing down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to a hypoxic dead zone the size of Massachusetts. Pesticides in waterways can poison aquatic animals and harm humans who recreate in them or eat contaminated seafood. These pesticides can kill valuable invertebrates like earthworms and soil microorganisms, disrupting subterranean ecosystems. They also impact terrestrial life and have had a devastating effect on insects and birds which eat food that has absorbed pesticides from the ground. Pesticide pollution is contributing to an “insect apocalypse” and precipitous declines in bird population. There is a growing body of knowledge about the harmful impact of pesticides on humans, including neurological, reproductive, and carcinogenic effects, with children often being the most vulnerable to these health risks.
Once a thick, verdant lawn has been established, lawn owners then ironically go to huge expense and environmental cost to remove grass through the regular lawn maintenance practice known as mowing. The United States uses upwards of 600 million gallons of gasoline per year mowing lawns. A typical lawn mower running for an hour produces about as much smog-forming hydrocarbons as an average car does driving between 100 and 200 miles, thus contributing to air pollution. Decreased air quality has a major impact on human health, causing increased respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and premature deaths. Additionally, these lawn care practices release greenhouse gasses, worsening climate change.
Lawn owners who pursue a pristine, weedless turf also contribute to a lack of biodiversity. Weeds, as it turns out, get a bad rap. According to May Berenbaum, Professor and Head of Entomology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “There is no biological definition of a weed. It’s a flower that you don’t want where it is. There have been a number of studies that show the two most frequently encountered weeds, dandelions and clover, are fabulous resources for pollinators. A weedy lawn is a better resource for pollinators than a sterile lawn with no flowers to provide nectar.” Turf grass lawns are monocultures, meaning they are the only crop grown in a given area. While they might look appealing, they are biodiversity deserts. Lawns provide little or no habitat for other plants, pollinators, and animals. Berenbaum likened an insect trying to survive solely on turf grass to a human trying to survive by eating only Brussels sprouts. Neither would get all the nutrients necessary for life from only eating one food and would therefore struggle to survive.
Given all the environmental costs of maintaining a lawn, it’s easy to demonize grass and lawn culture. But grassy lawns are deeply entrenched in American culture, and it is worth understanding what we might give up as we move to a more sustainable option. Lawns are part of our built environment, our cultural landscape, and even our memories, but it is time to rethink what the American lawn should look like. Given the urgency of climate change, the harmful health impacts of turf grass, and biodiversity loss, the time is right. We need to shift the paradigm of a manicured monoculture with resource-intensive maintenance to a landscape with polyculture that sustainably supports thriving ecosystems, human health, and well-being.
The idea of completely relandscaping one’s lawn might seem intimidating, but there are several fairly easy ways to reduce the harmful environmental impacts of grass lawns. Leaving a lawn alone for longer periods of time is one of the easiest approaches. By mowing less, watering less, and refraining from using synthetic chemicals, much of the most harmful effects of heavy resource consumption can be lessened. Opting for electric or human powered tools, rather than gas powered ones, will greatly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that lawn maintenance produces. Mowing less frequently, about once every two weeks instead of weekly, and mowing higher, no more than one third of the blade length at a time, promotes stronger and healthier grass. Longer grass blades, at least three inches above the ground, have greater photosynthetic surface, allowing for development of thicker, deeper-rooted turf that makes it more drought-, pest- and disease-tolerant. Watering slowly, deeply, and infrequently (ideally one inch each week) also trains the root system to grow deeper. This and letting the lawn dry out thoroughly in between makes the grass stronger and more resilient to drought. To further lower the lawn’s water footprint, use watering systems that mimic a slow, soaking rain and take steps to reduce evaporation, such as watering at dusk and dawn.
Turf grass, like all plants, requires nutrients to grow and thrive. Decreasing or eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers is an important step in sustainable lawn care practice. One of the simplest ways to fertilize grass in a safer way is to leave the grass clippings on the lawn after mowing; those clippings are rich in nutrients. Adding a thin layer, 1/4 to 1/2 inch, of organic matter like compost will also add nutrients and improve soil quality. Use of organic fertilizers made from plant or animal byproducts should supplant synthetic fertilizers. If synthetic fertilizers are used, this should be done sparingly based on soil sample analysis and only supplement what nutrients are lacking.
More ambitious lawn owners might consider joining the growing movement toward diverse, polyculture lawns. A more diverse lawn contains a greater variety of insects and other organisms, many of which are beneficial and maintain ecological balance. This can be considered an example of integrated pest management, which involves the use of biologic and cultural practices and chemicals. Chemicals, preferably natural products, when used should be kept to an absolute minimum and in a targeted manner to control “weeds.” Many plants that are commonly considered weeds such as dandelions, violets, and clover are tremendously beneficial for soil health and pollinators. The aesthetic of having these plants coexist in lawns should be the new norm. Additionally, we should consider groundcover such as creeping perennials, moss, and low-growing herbs as alternatives to turf. For instance, creeping thyme and chamomile are becoming increasingly popular as substitutes for turf in low foot-traffic areas. The lawn care industry is starting to wake up to these changes, and more companies are offering eco-friendly, organic lawn care services to meet the increased demand.
Another step in the paradigm shift of lawn aesthetics is the No-Mow movement. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, no-mow yards fall into four categories. The first is turf that has been left unmowed and allowed to grow wild. The second is lawns with grasses that grow low and need little maintenance. The third incorporates native plants that are suited for the lawn’s environment. Finally, in the fourth category, parts of turf grass are replaced with edible fruits and vegetables. This movement has huge potential for restoring native habitat and building resilience against climate change. There are states and local governments that offer incentives to convert traditional lawns to diverse, sustainable ones. For example, California incentivizes property owners to convert turf lawns to xeriscapes, lawns that use drought-resistant native plants as ground cover. Another example is Minnesota, which has a Lawns to Legume program to help homeowners install pollinator-friendly native plantings in residential lawns. My hometown of Champaign, Ill., has a Pollinator Pocket program to encourage landowners to plant pollinator-friendly gardens.
Given the dire situation of habitat loss, fragmentation and ecosystem collapse, these strategies mentioned above play an important role in reversing damage. It’s time to reimagine our built environment. In our cities and suburbs, we need more no-mow, low-mow, chemical-free areas in public spaces. Public spaces such as school yards could be home to community vegetable gardens that serve as a living teaching laboratory for students and grow produce for the community. Public parks and lawns should reflect the native flora and a more naturalized, polyculture aesthetic to lead by example in shifting the public’s perception of what constitutes an attractive lawn. Ordinances, rules, and regulations that govern lawns need to be revised to facilitate more eco-friendly, biodiverse, and sustainable landscapes.
Over the years, my family’s lawn has changed substantially. Instead of a monoculture of green turf with every blade cut the exact same length that it once was, it is now a variety of different plants, all with different colors, heights, and textures. When I look out the window, I can see the white heads of clover flowers peeking above the grass, insects buzzing around the dandelions, and wild strawberry ground cover that we no longer spend time and energy removing. The violets and purslane that now grow throughout the yard present no problem for my two dogs as they run around and play. We mow less frequently and allow the grass to go dormant in the hottest parts of the summer, knowing that the brown patches will spring back to green in the cooler fall months. We are still able to enjoy the lawn while coexisting with nature. Those backyard barbecues that I enjoyed as a child are still just as fun with this polyculture, input-free lawn.
Picture a generation of children playing in lawns that don’t harm their health or destroy biodiversity, but instead support thriving ecosystems and capture carbon and water. Picture public lands that are naturalized with native plants, shrubs, and trees to create pollinator habitats, biodiversity corridors, and food forests. Picture these nature-based solutions as part of the strategy to combat climate change and build resilience in sustainable communities. This is the reimagined American lawn.
About the Author …
Nicolas Ramkumar is a sophomore from Champaign, Ill. He is double-majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability and Economics. He is also pursuing a minor through iSEE’s Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Fellows Program.
This article was submitted to the 2020 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest.