Ending the Reign of Lawns

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).

Read the article

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

6 thoughts on “Ending the Reign of Lawns

  1. R. Gus Drum 06/30/2010 / 12:48 pm

    As my past letter to the editor of LAM (“In Defense of Poa Pratensis”) noted, some of us more rural residents are besieged by a variety of forest creatures who would ravage any vegetable or fruit tree garden that we could plant in place of a lawn. Our resident herd of 8 deer frequently bed down on our front lawn at night and eat grass when other options aren’t available in the winter. Our lawn is surrounded by and dotted with perennials, shrubs and trees of several varieties that provide many ecological services for the native wildlife in the area and has been the site of many spontaneous games of “tag” and “whiffle ball” (try that in your vegetable garden). I support the move to reduce the acres of suburban lawns by encouraging more use of indgenous plant materials, but caring for a quarter acre of garden is much more time consuming than mowing the lawn once a week and walking through the garden soil barefoot doesn’t compare with the feeling of strolling through kentucky blue. When will we begin to strip the golf courses too?

  2. Emerson Schwartzkopf 06/30/2010 / 1:11 pm

    Somehow, I didn’t see any statistics on this movement, as in the amount of turf being torn out of U.S. neighborhoods annually, or conversion of parks from lawns to other vegetation. Is this a real movement, or more of Wishful Thinking reporting?

    The Guardian article is notably bereft of any comment from anyone who might actually like — no, tolerate — lawns. It’s a piece that is thorough, but definitely more advocacy journalism than straight reporting. And, it’s not really even a Guardian-reported effort, but something from the Inter Press Service (IPS), which defines itself as an informational NGO that some might see as a bit more into the message in offering the details.

  3. Damonator 07/01/2010 / 4:01 pm

    I have also wondered what the carbon emissions are per square meter of turf for mowing and general management. I reckon this would be a substantial impact that the article does not address. When turf is absolutely necessary we should be selecting slow growing species that require less frequent mowing. Has anyone seen any carbon based calculations on this?

  4. susan harris 07/07/2010 / 6:47 pm

    Well, come on over to lawnreform.org to see what’s happening in the US on this important subject. Also, feature coming this month from Adrian Higgins about lawnless front gardens. Susan

  5. Stephanie 07/12/2010 / 12:21 pm

    If you mow with a real mower, use organic gardening and no pesticides, and use eco-lawn grass that is drought resistant and only requires to be cut a handful of times a year, there are no carbon emissions and you can still have a lawn to play and walk on. End the obsession of a lawn that looks like an indoor carpet – back to nature!

  6. Pieter 12/03/2010 / 11:04 am

    The City of Flagstaff has been working an incentive with homeowners to remove lawns and replacing them with drought tolerant landscape using low water use plants, hardscape. A collaborative effort was formed between The City of Flagstaff, The Arboretum of Flagstaff and the landscape design/build company of Schaafsma Design to initiate the first project. A residential landscape was chosen what had over 1000 square feet of lawn. Schaafsma Design created a landscape that included redesigning the front driveway and entrance to the house that included French drains that directed water from the roof of the house and fed a planter and a new landscape. The front landscape was turned into a wildflower and native grass meadow that tilted slightly back toward the house to create a privacy screen for the front entrance. This project won the Flagstaff Xeriscape Council’s award for Professionally Installed Landscape for 2006.

    Another project designed and built for the City of Flagstaff by this same team was The Flagstaff Xeriscape Demonstration Garden where a lawn was removed and replaced with an public urban garden. These projects can be reviewed on the website: http://www.schaafsmadesign.com. Look at the Lembke Residence and The Flagstaff Xeriscape Demonstration Garden.

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