Why the Great American Lawn is Not Sustainable

(The third in my Sustainability series.) 

It was our envy of the British and their lawns combined with the advent of golf that formed the seed for the great American lawn.  Then the Haber-Bosch process brought us synthetic fertilizers.  After 150 years our green lawn expectation has made the lawn care industry a $62 billion dollar industry (a 2005 figure).  It’s also given us lots of lawn.   In places like Alpharetta, Georgia, where middle class is upper middle class and HOA’s dictate how yards should look, the great American lawn is as green as ever.  Not having a proper lawn is not only seen as negligent of house and home but is also quite literally a fineable offense by many local HOA’s.

Let’s take a closer look at this fineable offense and what it takes to have the perfect lawn.  Though it is true that a luscious sweep of uniform, green grass is aesthetically pleasing, it is at the expense of some things, maybe many things.  First, it is at the expense of native plants.  Lawns, with their focus on grasses only, have removed the Joe-pye weed and coneflowers and sunflowers and butterfly weed that naturally grow at the forest edge and in meadows and by roadsides.  But even the grasses themselves that populate our lawns are non-native.  The only grass native to north America is buffalo grass – a grass that doesn’t grow well in Georgia, being native to the Great Plains.   Other grasses like zoysia, bermuda, and Kentucky bluegrass are from Africa and Europe.  The enthusiasm for native plants is rampant right now and though it is over-expressed and not a panacea for everything that ails us, it certainly is ironic that the most non-native plant we grow is literally everywhere.  Our lawns are non-native plants.  But this is perhaps neither here nor there.

What is here and there, however, is the price of having a mono-cultured, perfect lawn.  A perfect lawn requires a chemical or two, for instance 2,4-D.  As a professional horticulturist, I’m a licensed pesticide applicator and as such I read the labels  on everything I use and I use chemicals properly.  There are times when 2,4-D is a good and quick solution.  But to the tune of 46 million pounds a year?  That is one estimate of what is used on American lawns and golf courses each year.  The chemical 2,4-D has a half-life that has to be respected and it is a chemical that must be used within parameters.  And yet, even with our best efforts, run-off occurs and these chemicals get into our streams and groundwaters causing harm to wildlife and maybe us.

The other thing our perfect lawns eat and drink like gluttons are fertilizers.  These fertilizers are synthetic and are meant to give a quick, green boost to your lawn, emphasis quick.  This is why they have to be re-applied many times during the year.  The problem is that fertilizers are often applied incorrectly, and even when applied correctly, still get  into streams and ultimately contribute to algal bloom.

The combination of all of the above – growing lawns instead of native plants, using pesticides and chemicals on these lawns – may be contributing to the decline of our pollinators.  As of right now, we don’t known exactly why our pollinators are in decline or why bats are declining, but we suspect that it relates to fewer native flowering species, as well as the excessive use of chemicals and herbicides.

Even if you bah humbug me on all of the above, one fact remains:  the perfect lawn requires water and in some states and at certain times of the year, lots of it.  Water is the most precious natural resource of all.  Humans must drink it, bathe with it, cook with it.  Plants cannot photosynthesize without it.  And yet, drinkable, “potable”  water is finite.  How much of this precious resource are we willing to give up to our lawns?

And yet, we are willing to let an HOA fine us if we don’t want to use 2,4D, fertilizers and excessive water?

What is the alternative to the fine American lawn?  To figure this out we begin with common sense and a sense of balance.  Great, green lawns DO grow fairly well in one part of our country – the northeast.  In some places, they grow with little help.   And no one wants golf courses to go away, nor should American golf courses all begin resembling the Scottish courses.  But, the fact remains that the perfect, green sweep of lawn is a perfectly unnatural landscape in much of the country and one that is not sustainable in the average American front yard.  What is sustainable is something that doesn’t include the problems listed above.

Does the alternative include organic lawn care?  I recently scoured the website of a company that bills itself as “organic” lawn care.  I was looking to see what exactly they are using and doing.  I was finally able to ascertain that they are spraying lawns with a “compost tea” and aerating.  The problem is, compost tea isn’t a single recipe with known efficacy except that there is some research to support that  some batches of it can provide microbes to the soil.  Compost itself is known to improve soil structure, however, nowhere did I read that this company was actually adding compost to lawns.  I finally decided that the one thing this organic lawn company is doing right and what is probably keeping them in business is that they include aeration in their lawn care regimen – something that doesn’t justify the prices they are charging for their services.

To find a sustainable alternative we have to change our paradigm.  To begin, we have to use the very same argument that HOA’s are using to demand uniform lawns, to demand that we cannot be fined for not having uniform lawns.  If your HOA is trying to make the argument that your un-perfect lawn impacts all your neighbors negatively, then remind your HOA that 2,4D and synthetic fertilizer runoff and excessive water use ALSO impacts your neighbors negatively.

But what do we do in place of that great expanse of mono-cultured, green lawn?  There are more solutions than you think.  Hardscape more of it.  Grow more trees. Have more gardens.  Add more edible plants.  Learn to love pine straw. Grow ground covers like Mondo grass, Liriope, prostrate Juniper.  Grow clover.  Allow lawns to be less than perfect.

All of the above doesn’t even mention the noise and air pollution from lawn mowers.

As for me, in a spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you my own actions.  I do mow the lawn and happen to enjoy mowing the lawn very much (with hearing protection, of course).  My lawn is a mix of what was there when I bought my home:  some pasture bermuda, lots of crabgrass and other weeds, patches of white clover.  Kudzu tries to creep in, but I beat it back every year.  I’m grateful to have the lawn I have since I have 3 dogs.  Lawns do hold soil in place and prevent erosion, something my dogs just don’t seem to understand.  Ideally, every year I will do a little of what I’ve done already which is to add flower gardens, ground covers and trees until I ultimately have less lawn to manage.  I never use chemicals on my lawn – not even fertilizers.

Copyright © 2016 Julie A. Hogg
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4 Replies to “Why the Great American Lawn is Not Sustainable”

  1. Excellent post! I would prefer to not spend so much effort on grass myself — I’m a real tree enthusiast, though!

    As for Buffalo grass being the only native North American grass, many sources say that Kentucky Bluegrass and Saint Augustine are native.

    1. As always, thanks for your comment.
      Kentucky blue is native to Europe, Asia, Algeria, Morocco. St. Augustine is native to Gulf of Mexico regions (which could include several U.S. states), West Indies and West Africa.
      So says Aggie Horticulture (Texas A & M University).

  2. I’d love to repost this on Facebook to get the message out. We took out 1/4 of our yard for fruit trees and another section for 2 small vegtable gardens. Our HOA doesn’t allow for vegtable gardens, but we haven’t been caught yet. I hate having to spray my yard. I hope your article starts a revolution.

    1. Good for you. I hate it that you have to spray your yard. In fact, I almost believe it should be illegal for an HOA or any organization or person for “force” you to spray your yard. You may post the article on FB, of course. Feel free and thank you for reading.

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