According to NASA’s latest satellite pictures, the United States currently boasts 49,000 square miles of lawn area. That’s larger than the entire state of Mississippi and the nation’s single-most irrigated “crop.” It’s also one of the most expensive, costing Americans roughly 76 billion dollars a year and 14 hours a week to maintain. But, where did this obsession with a lush, green lawn originate?
Americans haven’t always coveted a home in the suburbs surrounded by perfect lawns. In fact, their obsessions with perfect lawns can be traced back to a subtle (and sometimes a not so subtle) movement to establish a home in the suburbs graced by lush, green lawns as a cultural norm and a measure of the fulfillment of the American dream.
Many feel that Frederick Law Olmstead, who is known as the father of American landscape design, started the push in 1913 when he began designing American suburbs. His plans, which included a green lawn for each individual home, provided those escaping from the highly industrialized and dirty cities a perception of being immediately immersed in nature.
The lure of the suburbs continued to grow and along with it, the expectation of a home with an existing, healthy lawn. In 1948, Abraham Levitt, the creator of wildly successful American suburbs and an avid gardener, wrote that ”No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.” (Steinberg, New York Times Op-ed article: How Green Was My Suburb)
The American Garden Club also actively championed the importance of beautiful, well-kept lawns. They instilled the idea of lawn maintenance as a “civic duty” through local and national publicity campaigns and contests and even provided a definition of a “good lawn.” According to the American Garden Club, good lawns were “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.”
By the 1950s and 60s, well-manicured lawns had become the norm and the quest for the perfect, lush and weed-free lawn began in earnest. Seed companies continued to develop seed combinations more appropriate for homeowners while an entirely new industry of chemical based lawn care sprang into life.
Until recently, the perception of what makes the perfect front lawn had not changed. Lush, green lawns remained a status symbol as well as a measure of both community and personal pride. However, as concerns about our environment have grown, a movement to completely eliminate these large swathes of turfgrass has sprung up.
It’s easy to be influenced by new trends – after all, that’s how we became obsessed with lush lawns to begin with – but perhaps we all need to take a step back and objectively examine the pros and the cons of turfgrass. We might be surprised at what we learn.
- Turfgrass improves the quality of the air we breathe. Annually it traps over 12 million tons of dust, dirt and pollen that are released into the air.
- Grass takes up carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. 2500 square feet of lawn area produces enough oxygen for a family of four to breathe.
- Lawns help cool the air temperature through evapotranspiration, or water evaporating off of plants. Studies have shown temperature reductions from turfgrass range from 7 to 14 degrees F.
- Turfgrass reduces noise pollution. Sound bounces off of hard surfaces like concrete, but areas planted with grass effectively absorb annoying traffic noise.
- Lawns with strong root systems help prevent erosion and runoff from hard rains, especially on hillsides.
- Lawns with strong root systems improve soil structure by keeping soil pores open, which allows water to penetrate deep into the soil.
- Grass clippings left on the grass help improve soil quality. Clippings eventually filter down to the soil where they break down, increasing microbial activity.
- Lawn areas provide safe spaces for children and pets to run and play. Unlike concrete play spaces, falls are cushioned by thick, grassy areas.
- Each year, in excess of nine billion gallons of water are used just for turf irrigation. Almost half is lost to evaporation and useless runoff.
- While turfgrass does remove some carbon dioxide from the air, greenhouse gas emissions associated with lawn care is four times greater than the amount of carbon trapped by lawns.
- Weed free lawns do not flower, which means that pollinators are denied a food source. Native bees are particularly at risk.
- Gas powered lawn maintenance equipment uses over 800 million gallons of gasoline each year. An additional 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled.
- The same gas powered lawn equipment releases 26.7 tons of pollutants into the atmosphere each year. (Consumer grade gas leaf blowers release more hydrocarbons than a pickup truck.)
- Over 3 million tons of nitrogen based fertilizers are dumped on lawns each year. Nitrogen not needed by the lawn is turned into nitrous oxide gas by soil microbes. Nitrous oxide gas has 300 times the heat trapping ability as carbon dioxide.
- 50% - 60% of applied nitrogen becomes runoff in groundwater.
- 80 million pounds of pesticides are applied to lawns each year. The compounds used in Weed ‘n Feed mixtures are one of the toxins found in the infamous Agent Orange.
Very few issues in life are completely black or white; most have shades of gray inherent in them. The question of keeping or removing a lawn is the perfect example. After doing my due diligence, (and against my personal environmentalist leanings), I can honestly say that there is no absolute answer. There really are valid reasons for keeping a perfectly lush and manicured lawn. They do provide some important, and often overlooked, benefits both to the individual and to the community.
On the flip side however, there are also compelling reasons to eliminate traditional lawns entirely. Lawns, especially given the mind-boggling acreage we are talking about, are known to have a negative environmental impact on our planet.
I’ve decided that, for me, the best answer to this conundrum is to have it both ways – a bit of lawn and a bit of wild. If you’re on the fence about the issue, perhaps that will work for you too.