The Problem of Lawns
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.
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.
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.
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?
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