The Guardian (UK) reports that many U.S. homeowners are removing their “chemically-treated” manicured lawns and adding organic vegetable and fruit gardens, native plants, and other natural landscapes in their place. The movement is growing because eco-conscious consumers are learning more about the negative environmental impacts of conventional lawns. “Groups as diverse as urban garden clubs, environmental groups and wildlife protection groups are spreading the word that a big, lush lawn harms biodiversity and is an eco- disaster.”
U.S. lawns are grown from non-native grasses that use lots of water, pesticides and fertilizers. That even dark green color prized by so many actually requires the use of lots of chemicals. The use of these fossil-fuel-based derivatives are unhealthy for lots of reasons, but their production also creates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Steven Saffer, Audubon Society’s At Home program, said: “Lawns contribute to climate change. The fossil fuels used in fertiliser and pesticide production add CO2 to the environment.”
As has been noted by the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the first rating system for sustainable landscapes, the total surface area of U.S. lawns is larger than any other irrigated crop. The Lawn Institute, which represents the $35 billion turf industry, estimates that there are now some 25 million acres of lawn, which have replaced ecosystems that once provided a range of local ecosystem services. Saffier said: “The nutrient, hydrology and nitrogen cycles that happen naturally in biodiverse ecosystems are completely absent in lawns.” Additionally, wildlife like birds and many insects don’t get much out of lawns — there is no natural habitat there.
According to The Guardian, almost all birds rely on insects for their food source. These insects rely on just two-to-three types of native plants. Audubon says one fourth of all U.S. bird species are in decline. “Populations of meadow larks and other grassland species in the mid-western U.S. have plummeted 60 percent, while interior forest birds, like scarlet tanagers, have also seen a precipitous decline.”
Birds may be declining because they can’t find insects to eat, but they are also negatively impacted by all the 90 million pounds of chemicals used to treat lawns each year. “Of the 30 most common pesticides used on lawns, more than half are toxic to birds and fish, and linked to cancer and birth defects in humans, according to the environmental group, Beyond Pesticides. Eleven of the 30 are endocrine disrupters, chemicals that interfere with reproductive and other hormones in humans and animals.” All those chemicals also filter off lawns into groundwater.
While lawns remain a status symbol in many places, some communities are helping to end the long reign of turf. Food Not Lawns, one organization, encourages homeowners to rip out lawns and add “fruit and nut trees, like pecans, walnuts and almonds, as well as vegetables.” Fritz Lang’s Edible Estates has also helped popularize the yard as farm movement (see earlier post). In fact, in many urban areas, small-plot lawns have already been turned into productive garden landscapes despite the many obstacles. For instance, in many local counties, zoning rules ban front-yard vegetable gardens out of fear that they will attract rodents or be visually unappealing and decrease property values (see an earlier post for a full discussion on urban agriculture).
Also, check out an example of one restrictive lawn-related zoning call that makes sense. A few wayward homeowners have been ripping out lawns and replacing them with fake plastic versions in an attempt to create the appearance of lush, verdant dark green lawns. The Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California reports that “today’s fake grass is made from polyethylene, a popular plastic, which is cut into ribbons. The ribbons can be custom trimmed into a variety of shapes and colors.” Local planning commissions in California are now limiting the use of synthetic turf.
Image credit: American Consumer News