Lawns Are an Ecological Disaster
Neil Tyson often conjectures that maybe aliens have concluded humans aren’t intelligent enough to contact. He’s probably referring to our capacity for war, but lawns may display our talent for fruitless carnage even better.
Americans devote 70 hours, annually, to pushing petrol-powered spinning death blades over aggressively pointless green carpets to meet an embarrassingly destructive beauty standard based on specious homogeneity. We marvel at how verdant we manage to make our overwatered, chemical-soaked, ecologically-sterile backyards. That’s just biblically, nay, God-of-War-ishly violent.
To understand the sheer inanity of devoting 40 million acres, nearly half as much land as we set aside for our biggest crops, to an inedible carpet, we need to back up—beyond the modern lawn’s origins with a real estate family peddling the “American Dream” as Whites-only cookie-cutter suburbs—to the evolution of grass.
Most plants grow from the top, according to Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Director Steve Windhager. “Grasses, on the other hand, always grow from the base,” he told Earther. From the plant’s perspective, this was a great strategy for dealing with grazers who’d randomly hit the same patch every few months. But Americans, true to form, are more gluttonous.
We mow our lawns every few weeks. This coaxes our grass into growing its roots outwards, rather than down, spawning more sprawling shoots, in hopes of enabling any one blade to avoid overzealous grazers. However, the $47.8 billion to $82 billion we spend annually on overcutting and landscaping (FYI: we spend $49.47 billion in foreign aid) effectively amounts to trying to kill the grass while offering it life support. We trap it in prepubescence—too young to reseed, racing desperately ever-outward to find reproductive refuges that doesn’t exist.
We cut ourselves equally: Thirty-five thousand people, 4,800 of which are children, are treated annually for mower-related injuries—resulting in 600 youth amputations. The Royal Statistical Society even awarded the fact that nearly eight times more Americans are killed by lawnmowers than Islamic terrorists International Statistic Of The Year.
And yet, Windhager himself participated in a study that found by switching to a mix of native grasses, reducing waterings, and eliminating fertilization, we could slow lawn growth and only need to mow around every two months.
Influential native gardening writer Sara Stein perhaps best summed up the absurdity best: “Continual amputation is a critical part of lawn care. Cutting grass regularly—preventing it from reaching up and flowering — forces it to sprout still more blades, more rhizomes, more roots, to become an ever more impenetrable mat until it is what its owner has worked so hard or paid so much to have: the perfect lawn, the perfect sealant through which nothing else can grow—and the perfect antithesis of an ecological system.”
According to University of Florida ecology and conservation professor Mark Hostetler, that’s no hyperbole: Producing no seeds, nectar, or fruit, few creatures can use can use lawns as habitat. Biodiversity-wise “it’s almost like concrete,” he told Earther.
Up until the 1940s, we at least left odd flowers like clovers—which actually add nitrogen back to soil—alone. Then we figured out how to turn petrochemicals into fertilizer, Windhager said. “The new goal became to have a full monoculture.”
One study found that in urban areas, weeds were the most popular food sources for pollinators. Weeds and native plants are especially helpful for native pollinators—which contribute, even by the most conservative estimates, $3.44 billion dollars to our economy, and which are vastly more threatened than honeybees. A study conducted in southeastern Pennsylvania found that native plants also increased butterfly and bird populations in urban areas by around four and eightfold, respectively.
In exiling animals, lawns cost us, too. “Today’s children, growing up on lawns,” Stein once wrote “will not even have nostalgia to guide them, and soon the animals will be not only missing, but forgotten.”
“I’ve heard lawns compared to a biological desert. That’s really unfair, because deserts can be very diverse places.”
Native grasslands are a mix of cool-weather, shade-hugging so-called C3 grasses, and warm-weather, drought and fire-resistant C4 grasses. Of course, our baking lawns are mainly C3 grasses that grow aggressively with our life support — making some of them, like Bermuda grass, notes Windhager, virulent weeds. As they spread beyond our yards, studies are beginning to find that biodiversity declines.
But hey, turf grasses are still plants, though. Surely they do that one thing that no plant can fuck up, storing carbon?
Hostetler? “When you add everything up, [lawns are] definitely causing a lot more issue with climate change than preventing it.”
Native grasses with deeper roots, Windhager said, likely store more carbon underground than shallow-rooted turf. According to the EPA, we use 580million gallons of gas each year, in lawnmowers that emit as much pollution in one hour as 40 automobiles driving— accounting for roughly 10 to 18 percent of non-road gasoline emissions.
We also dump roughly 10 times more fertilizer on our lawns than on crops, notes Columbia’s Earth Institute. These fertilizers and the 67 millionpounds of pesticides with which we drench our lawns ever year degrade, releasing compounds like nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2. Potential damages from agricultural fertilizer runoff alonewere estimated by one study to cost $157 billion annually.
We’ve managed to make grass do the opposite of what photosynthesis is supposed to accomplish. A recent study out of Appalachian State University pegs our lawns’ carbon footprint at around 25 million tons annually.
A man records sprinklers watering the lawn of a house in Beverly Hills, California, at the height of the drought in 2015.
It gets better. All America’s farmland consumes 88.5 million acre feet of water a year. Lawns, with a fraction of the land, drink an estimated two-thirds as much. Most municipalities use 30-60 percent of drinkable water on lawns.
California is special. If you thought Trump tweets made no sense, LA, prior to the big drought, 70 percent of your water loss came courtesy of lawns. Water use throughout California seems to be rebounding to pre-drought levels. Lawns are soaked once more.
So, how can we unfuck lawns?
“First, let’s limit lawns to those areas where we actually need it,” Windhager said, referring to sporting fields and play areas.
To start, you can reduce your mowing and fertilizing. Better yet, switch to native grasses. Let them reseed themselves. Let the clover live. To avoid annoying the local Homeowner Association, make your native lawn look manicured. For example, “If you just maintain a circle of mowed area around a taller grass area, it makes it clear this was an intentional design state,” Windhager said.
In a few states, such as Texas and Florida, HOAs can’t fine you for not maintaining your lawn the stupid way, provided you do so to save water. Others, like California, offer programs that pay replace your lawn with native plants. And by switching to native plants or xeriscaping (desert-style landscaping), we could put quite the dent in the estimated 9 billion gallons of water we use on our yards every day.
Want to tell your HOA to sit on their sprinkler and spin? Many state have a more obscure program: Replace your yard with all native plants. Certify it through your local Department of Natural Resources branch as wildlife habitat. Get a property tax exemption.
For more information, search for your county Extension (departments devoted to assisting and educating people on ecological matters) or DNR office — or local chapters of native landscaping organizations, such as Wild Ones.
“I’ve heard lawns compared to a biological desert,” Windhager said. “That’s really unfair, because deserts can be very diverse places.”
Start searching now, because soon as you start mowing, you’re paying for green concrete.