Now that May is here, perhaps you're looking out at your lawn and thinking
it needs mowing. Instead, you might want to think about whether you need that
lawn at all.
The problem isn't grass. Humans first lived on the grasslands of Africa, and
until not so long ago, grasslands covered far greater swaths of North America
than they do now.
But landscapes like those bear little resemblance to the classic American lawn
-- an industrial, shocking-green carpet whose very survival depends on our polluting
the environment and disturbing the peace.
Other kinds of home landscapes can grow pollution-free. A natural-yard movement
is showing that combinations of rugged plants, including grasses, can be far
more interesting than a standard lawn while requiring little mowing, no spraying
or fertilizing, and even no irrigation.
By contrast, the “perfect” lawn is a monotony of color and texture,
yields no useful harvest, and may rarely even be trod upon. But for growing
the lawn-care industry a crop of hard cash, the synthetic grasslands of suburbia
are fertile ground indeed. To replace all of that high-maintenance turf with
something more resilient -- to stow all that equipment and dispose of all those
chemicals -- would cause a
$35 billion industry to wither.
Among the industry’s ever-proliferating lines of new-and-improved products,
the most visible -- and audible -- are those that replace muscle power with
fossil-fuel power. The lawn mower has undergone what is probably the most astounding
metamorphosis, the larger commercial versions now resembling a hybrid between
lunar rover and La-Z-Boy recliner.
Despite tightened regulations, mowers are still serious polluters. On average,
2006 lawnmower engines contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions per gallon
of fuel than do this year’s cars, according to the California Air Resources
Board. For homeowners, a little electric mower may seem clean, but its cord
likely leads back to a coal-fired power plant that belches global-warming carbon
And other gas and electric contraptions, like leaf blowers and string trimmers,
have joined mowers to make Saturday afternoon in suburbia sound more like Monday
morning in a sawmill.
Meanwhile, the nearly universal creed for weed and pest control has
become “Let us spray.”
The Environmental Protection Agency says pesticide use in the home-and-garden
sector, once in decline, has grown by more than
25 percent since 1995. Herbicide use almost doubled between 1982 and 2001,
and continues to grow.
Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 29 are toxic to birds, fish,
amphibians and/or bees (pdf).
Environmental groups have raised the biggest clamor over the herbicide 2,4-D,
which a growing number of studies show to be a possible contributor to non-Hodgkins
lymphoma and other cancers.
Whether or not they use pesticides, homeowners know the only way to get a lawn
as deep-green and uniform as a pool table is to pour on fertilizer and water.
Much of that fertilizer washes right past the shallow roots of lawn grasses
and into storm drains.
One Minnesota study
showed that "lush lawns are more of a water quality problem than poorer
turf lawns," because of phosphorus runoff. Some states and communities
have restricted fertilizer use, and many others are considering it.
In a 2003 look at the lawn industry (pdf),
Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp of Ohio State University cited studies showing
that to homeowners, "property values are clearly associated with high-input
green-lawn maintenance and use," so many Americans have "associated
moral character and social responsibility with the condition of the lawn."
How can a patch of ground that delivers fertilizer-laden pollution
into streams, greenhouse gases and a terrible racket into the atmosphere, and
pesticide residues into the neighbor's dog -- and probably the neighbor -- come
to embody "moral character and social responsibility"?
Last summer, my family and I removed our front lawn and replaced it with an
landscape" of fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs and other plants as
part of a project by our local art center and Los Angeles artist/architect Fritz
We've been asked plenty of questions about this move, the two most common being,
"What do your neighbors say?" and "Has the city fined you?"
Our answers: "They like it" and "No."
But fears like these still keep Americans from ditching their lawns.
Stan Cox, a plant
breeder and senior scientist at the Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, wrote this
for the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle.