The American ideal of the house with a white picket fence usually includes a nice green lawn. Now, that ideal has become a part of law in many communities; many zoning rules and homeowner codes mandate grass in front of our houses. Suburban environments are looking more and more the same, all across the country.
Kimberly Bois in New Hampshire is just one example; she decided to plant flowers in her small front yard and was eventually sued by her condo association. They reportedly told Kimberly that they “just want[ed] all the units to look the same.” Similarly, thanks to its lawns, suburban Phoenix now looks in many ways more like a northeastern suburb than the desert a mile outside of town. But Phoenix is a desert–should it really look the same as Connecticut or Oregon?
Covering yards across the United States in grass requires a lot of resources:
Water – Many home irrigation systems are wasteful; they spray sidewalks or over water, leading to water running right off into the drain. While it is impossible to know the exact amount of water used on lawns on a daily basis across the entire country, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 30% of the average household’s water use is outdoors, and half of that is to water lawn. If you live somewhere hot and dry, grass species like zoysia may be a better option.
Fertilizer and Chemicals – An awful lot of fertilizer and chemicals get used to keep lawns looking lush and green. The US EPA states that on average, Americans buy 70 million pounds of fertilizer per year. The National Gardening Association estimates that homeowners use over 125 million pounds of pesticides to kill grubs, ants, and other insects, and herbicides to kill those pesky dandelions, per year. These chemicals not only harm the things you’re after, they can be toxic to people and other animals.
Money – Lawn care products and companies are big business in the US. According to Bloomberg News, at least 6 billion dollars per year is spent on lawns.
That perfectly green lawn can hurt:
Biodiversity – To a bird or a bee, flying over a swath of suburban lawn must be like trudging through a vast desert, no food or water in sight. By making the environment the same all across the country, people are pushing out native plants and animals. Simple things like replacing just a part of your lawn with native wildflowers or shrubs can make a big difference. The Honeybee Conservancy can show you how to make your yard a friendlier place for pollinators, and Plant Native has information about biodiverse alternatives to traditional lawn.
Environmental Quality – The fertilizer and chemicals applied to lawns often wash off and end up in local streams, rivers, and ponds. Fertilizer can lead to algae blooms in local ponds, while chemicals can harm fish and the animals that eat them. This guide in Popular Mechanics is a starting place to learn about how and when to fertilize lawn that you decide to keep. And the EPA has good advice, too–on watering, pesticides, and fertilizer.
So is it a waste?
Lawn takes up a lot of space on our land, but unless you’re playing baseball in your front yard every day, it usually sits empty.
Imagine instead, some of that space filled with beautiful flowers and other plants that provide variety and diverse habitat for animal species, and don’t need constant watering, fertilizing, or chemicals.
This spring, think about pulling up some of that grass, especially along the sides of your home and in the front yard. Keep the lawn for the places where it gets the most use, and you’ll have more time to enjoy picnics and play baseball on that small patch of green.
For in-depth research:
Robbins, Paul, Sharp, Julie T. “Producing and Consuming Chemicals: The Moral Economy of the American lawn.” Economic Geography (2003) Vol. 79 No. 4.
Robbins, Paul, Sharp, Julie. “The Lawn-Chemical Economy and its discontents.” Antipode (2003): 955-979.