The Problem of Lawns

by |June 4, 2010

One of many vivid impressions I have from childhood visits to Cyprus, where my father grew up, is that no one there had a lawn. In retrospect I can see, of course, that in the hyper-arid, drought-prone climate of a place like Cyprus, widespread use of lawns would have seemed an absurdly extravagant use of scarce resources.

Did the cousins I played with on my visits suffer appreciably from lack of green? Not that I could tell. When we were there we played soccer on dirt lots and hide-and-seek between houses, and no one I know is worse for the wear. (As compensation, the children of Cyprus eat the best watermelon and drink the best fresh lemonade in the entire world).

Still, my reaction and surprise was telling. In the United States, lawns are so ubiquitous that to my young eye (and many others) they seemed to be almost a basic human right. That’s a serious problem, given the enormous resources that our North American lawn-fetish consumes.

Historically, lawns first became popular among the gentry of Western Europe, where they were managed either as pasture or by labor-intensive hand sheering or scything. The modern lawn seems to be a deprecated form of the highly manicured English landscape gardens which became popular among the nobility in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. But wasn’t until the 19th century with the invention and mass production of the lawnmower that lawns really took off in North America.

Classic English Landscape Garden. Source: BethM527 on Flickr.

Classic English Landscape Garden. Source: BethM527 on Flickr.

Today, American lawns occupy some 30-40 million acres of land. Lawnmowers to maintain them account for some 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution – probably more in urban areas. Each year more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment—more than the oil that the Exxon Valdez spilled.

Homeowners spend billions of dollars and typically use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops; the majority of these chemicals are wasted due to inappropriate timing and application. These chemicals then runoff and become a major source of water pollution.Last but not least, 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns. Most of this water is also wasted due to poor timing and application.

From Dvaires on Flickr

Source: Dvaires on Flickr.

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to conventional lawn care. The lawn care center at Purdue University suggests two paths: “evolutionary” and “revolutionary”. In the “evolutionary” approach, the homeowner makes some small, modest changes for a big effect. Such changes include getting an electric or hand lawnmower, planning for more efficient watering and applying less fertilizer and pesticide at more appropriate times. Of course organic fertilizer is preferable. The revolutionary approach includes changing the type of grass, interplanting with clover, native landscaping or xeriscaping.

Xeriscape. Source: MontanaRaven on Flickr

Xeriscape. Source: MontanaRaven on Flickr

Actually, once you get over the idea of high-maintenance lawn-for-lawn-sake, a whole world of low-maintenance landscaping possibilities opens up–from beautiful, low-maintenance groudcovers like creeping thyme, to trees, shrubs, native grasses, wildflowers or even patios and stone paths. Or—even more radically, why not grow some food?

Intensive Vegetable Garden. Source: Pip Wilson from Flickr.

Intensive Vegetable Garden. Source: Pip Wilson from Flickr.

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11 thoughts on “The Problem of Lawns

  1. Peter says:

    I grew up in America, and the few times I visited my family in Greece as a youth, I always missed green grass — it has always felt like a luxury to me!

    That said, I think it’s important to consider climate here as well; I live in the Pacific Northwest now, a maritime climate quite similar to England. It would be hard to get grass not to grow out here as this climate is made for green leafy growth; if you were so inclined, you could skip watering July / August, and have a nice, totally un-irrigated lawn, something that could never happen in Greece, or most of America for that matter.

    In the end,I believe that Americans won’t take care to conserve water unless it becomes very expensive, or hits their communities hard — even in arid places like Colorado, places with increasing water scarcity issues — most families keep a lawn.

  2. lakispolycarpou says:

    Hi Peter,

    Of course you have a point about climate. But in even in wet climates Americans put tremendous resources into their carefully manicured lawns.

    A lot of people go to tremendous effort to kill off beneficial plants like clover and dandelion (nitrogen fixer and dynamic nutrient accumulator, respectively) and then dump fertilizer to make the grass grow. Meanwhile, clippings are sent off to the landfill, removing nutrients, which then must be replaced by . . . fertilizer.

    It doesn’t have to be that way — my mother-in-law lives on two acres in the woods in Pennsylvania. She keeps some of her land as meadow — mowed occasionally, but never watered and without pesticide and fertilizer.

  3. I think green grass and open space is beautiful. Home-grown vegetables are delicious! I also think that converting at least a portion of a yard to a patio or planting ground cover and trees is a great idea. My only concern with this idea is that people are only going to find more and more ways to use fertilizers on all the plants that they incorporate into their landscapes. And, of course, everything but the patio will still need to be watered.

  4. lakispolycarpou says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    You have good points — it won’t help much if people just dump as much fertilizer and waste as much water on their landscaping as they did on their lawn.

    Nature, though, doesn’t need watering and fertilizing! It seems to me that if we can strive to design our landscapes with the beneficial relationships of nature in mind, we should be able, at the very least, to be far more efficient in our resource consumption.

  5. lisa lemon says:

    Your article says, “30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns.” This is incorrect.

    According to the EPA site, “about 30 percent [of average household water]…is devoted to outdoor uses. More than half of that outdoor water is used for watering lawns and gardens.”

    Thirty percent is used outdoors. HALF of that is used for lawns.
    That’s more like 15-20%.

    Here’s a link to the EPA site (your link to it is broken):

  6. Shari Due says:

    lisa lemon, in Denver, Colorado 55% of water goes toward outdoor use, including lawns, as of 2012. Assumptions about the Eastern U.S., Midwest or Pacific Northwest, do not apply to the arid American West.

  7. Shari Due says:

    Lisa Lemon, that is 55% of urban fresh water, more than 1/2 of each residential household’s use. Agricultural land in Colorado still accounts for the highest water use. It takes a lot of water to grow food, including beef, even with modern rain sensors, smart phone irrigation technology, drip systems, and center pivot irrigation. Still, agricultural land in Colorado is being returned to native grasslands at an alarming rate as growing municipalities purchase water supplies from agricultural land. And yes, more than 1/2 then goes to water city lawns.

  8. Tired of mowing says:

    Does it hurt anything to have lawns? Do lawns provide some benefit? Seems like a big waste to me.

  9. grow veggies not grass says:

    i removed grass , tilted soil up and planted beneficial flowers , herbs on my front yard after we bought the house. i don’t like to waste water on useless grass. i don’t use chemicals either. for weeds such as thistles,i pull them by hands . then i got complaints by neighbors that my front yard isn’t green -.-“ neighbors around me love to have green grass which i see them dump tons of water and chemicals on . As for my backyard, i have chickens that loves dandelions and literally destroy all the grass for me. ^.^ i wish more people acknowledge how toxic herbicides are even witj the organic ones. located in CO and we have shortage of water this year.

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