Revolutionize Your Lawn

Lawnscape with sprinkler system wasting water in the hot part of the day. (The mule deer are just passing through.)

Lawnscape with sprinkler system wasting water in the hot part of the day. (The mule deer are just passing through.)

With much of the Southwestern US, including the valley where I live, in drought–a historic, multi-year, drought showing no signs of breaking–I’ve been thinking about lawns.

Americans are in love with our turf grass monocultures, so much so that we cultivate an estimated 46 million acres of lawn around our homes, schools, and parks–an area about equal to the size of New England. That immense acreage of turf makes lawn grasses our largest “crop.”

Which of course no one eats–not bird, not butterfly, not sheep or horse or cow, and of course not human. The only creatures that consume our lawns are “pests” like Japanese grubs, which we kill with poisons that may be dangerous to children, pets, and other living beings.

A western tiger swallowtail butterfly, whose caterpillars are vulnerable to lawn-care insecticides.

A western tiger swallowtail butterfly, whose caterpillars are vulnerable to lawn-care insecticides.

Lawns are in fact some of our unhealthiest habitat: In order to keep them monotonously green we douse them with more pesticides and chemical fertilizers per acre than the average farm. Sadly, pesticide use in America has grown since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published just over 50 years ago. It now exceeds one billion pounds each year, about 8 percent of which is applied to yards and gardens–mainly lawns. (Any wonder that pesticides show up in the bodies of most American children, and may be linked to food allergies through their effect on our gut microbes?)

Suddenly, lawns don’t sound very much like family-friendly places to play and live.

We love our tidy, poison-sterilized lawns so much that we burn 580 million gallons of gas annually to cut, aerate, blow, edge and mulch them. (For reference, that’s around three times the total amount of oil released in the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.) Of course, burning all that gas adds CO2 to the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change.

Lawns are water-hogs too: Here in the arid West, where not enough rain falls to keep Kentucky bluegrass and other traditional turf grasses alive, lawn watering accounts for about 60 percent of domestic water use. (Treated water, which requires chemicals for purification and more energy in the form of electricity and gas to pump, filter, clean and deliver it to the lawn.)

Yet we’re stuck on them as a landscaping aesthetic. And we have been since near the time of the American Revolution, when colonists from the British Isles exported the fashion for large expanses of sheep-nibbled turf from the great estates of their day. (The craze for expanses of turf has survived, but not the sheep. Too bad. At least if we used sheep to maintain our baronial lawns, we’d be saving fossil fuels and producing fiber and food.)

My "un-lawn" in bloom on the evening of summer solstice.

My “un-lawn” in bloom on the evening of summer solstice.

It’s possible to have a healthy and beautiful yard without a turf-grass lawn. My own yard, a formerly degraded industrial site, grows a restored dryland meadow of native grasses and wildflowers.

I “mow” by hand once a year, cutting back the seed heads in spring. I water it once a month in extended droughts, and have never applied any fertilizer or pesticides. Yet my “un-lawn” is beautiful year-round, boasting waves of wildflowers from spring through fall, dancing with hummingbirds and butterflies in summer, architectural in winter with its palette of weathered hues and spare forms.

A rufous hummingbird perched on the gate to my kitchen garden.

A rufous hummingbird perched on the gate to my kitchen garden.

I have no back lawn: Out the kitchen door is my raised-bed organic kitchen garden, which in summer bursts with tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, lettuces and other greens, beets, strawberries, asparagus, summer and winter squashes, broccoli, carrots, herbs, and flowers to attract pollinators.

Imagine if we turned half the area of lawn in this country into equal-parts native meadow or woodland, and kitchen garden. That would be over 10 million acres of habitat right at home where we can delight in hummingbirds, beetles, and butterflies. And ten million more acres for growing healthy, fresh food, ripe for the picking.

The fall "un-lawn" with granite butterfly drinking basin.

The fall “un-lawn” with granite butterfly drinking basin.

Seems to me it’s time for a counter-lawn revolution: Overthrow the oppressive turf grasses! Rip out the sterile monocultures! Reclaim our yards for wildlife habitat, food production, and for healthy and diverse color, life, and flavor!

_______

For ideas on what to do with your post-revolution lawn, browse this blog, including these posts: Meadow Talk, Being the Wildlife Garden, Wildlife Gardens by Example – Wolf Trap, Wildscape – 1, Lawn – 0, and The Meadow Garden.

 

© 2013, Susan J. Tweit. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for a beautiful and timely article Susan! I “revolutionalized” my lawn beginning in 1995 and have been battling City Hall since it took up the cause of new lawn-loving neighbours a decade ago. Not surprisingly, most who watched the transformation accepted and, especially in the case of children, embraced the new style…but what do you do with people who won’t give up on the Ozzie and Harriet look? In 2007 they actually cut my front yard 200+ native species meadow to the ground and are now threatening a repeat as biodiversity is regained. I am also calling for a revolution of how we treat the pieces of the planet of which we have been allowed care. I hope that you and your readers will help — if not to draw a line in the soil, to at least scatter some seed. http://www.GreenEvolutionSite.com
    Deborah Dale recently posted..Nature is Scary — Holding Back the Invasive Green Tide

    • says

      Deborah, Do you know Catherine Zimmerman’s work with The Meadow Project? I see that you’re in Ontario, and she’s in the states, but her work might be a useful resource for you in your effort to change the lawn culture in your town. https://themeadowproject.com Take heart–we’re with you in spirit, each working in our own place!

    • Robert Vaiden says

      Hang in there! I’m sure we all will win in the long run! I’m admittedly in a better locale…many people around here have non-grass yards, and wildflower sales are popular events! A local organization “Grand Prairie Friends” (and others) provide information, support, and access to plants. My own yard has about 150 native species, and only limited remaining lawn.

      • says

        Thank you both for your well wishes. It can be lonely fighting City Hall. Today I participated in a “Seed In” at City Hall organized by Occupy Gardens in Toronto and launched “Grow Up! Toronto” to help bring together the hundreds of others facing similar charges. Transforming attitudes here in Canada’s largest City (the 4th largest in North America) is terribly important since so many smaller municipalities tend to copy its bylaws and enforcement attitudes in the mistaken belief that Toronto must have taken the time to research the legality of their actions. Strangely enough, Toronto used to promote this grass(less)roots movement, but seems recently to have developed the attitude that nature is far too precious to be left to the populace, and must be allowed to grow only under the guidance of the corporation on public lands not private gardens.

        • says

          Deborah, It can be lonely. It sounds like Toronto has gone backwards in the city’s attitudes toward lawn-less yards. The “Seed In” and “Grow Up! Toronto” sound like healthy responses though, with great potential to (ehem) grow the lawn revolution there. Do you know Miriam Goldberger and Wildflower Farm? Miriam’s a native plant person and one of Canada’s pioneers in alternatives to lawns. http://www.wildflowerfarm.com
          Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Garden surprise

          • says

            Hi Susan,
            Fortunately as past-President of the North America Native Plant Society, I’ve met a great many of the key players in the revolution and their ranks (and gardens) are growing. Less fortunate is the increasingly controlling and provincial attitude of Toronto’s bylaw enforcement staff who appear to have a hard time comprehending that lawnlessness is not unlawful. It seems that the more culturally diverse we become the less biodiversity is tolerated. Meadows (and vegetable gardens) don’t seem to fit into their view of Toronto’s “Clean and Beautiful” program (although personally I find them to be both). I’ve taken the liberty of linking your post on the home page of http://www.GreenEvolutionSite.com (which has an ‘R’ dropping in front of “evolution”). Vive le jardin libre. Vive la revolution!

            • says

              Viva la revolution indeed, Deborah! I’m very interested in your idea that cultural diversity equals less tolerance of biodiversity. That’s a nut to chew on. I hope that Toronto’s government has a huge change of aesthetic and embraces lawn-lessness (love that word, even if the spell-checker doesn’t). In my small town here in the south-central Rockies of the US, I find attitudes toward native grass/wildflower lawns and front-yard vegetable gardens have shifted in a very positive way as (1) we’ve had to contend with deepening drought and (2) the locavore movement has taken hold. But perhaps it’s easier to be tolerant in small towns where everyone (seemingly) knows everyone else.
              Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Garden surprise

  2. says

    Thank you for this, Susan. I’ve never owned a lawnmower and don’t plan to. I follow a wonderful blog by Pam Penick from Austin, TX, and she’s just published a book called Lawn Gone. I just ordered it for myself. Her blog is called Digging and has been so helpful to me in my endeavors.

    • says

      Chris, Your Hill Country landscape is a beautiful example of designing a liveable space around the house that honors and adds its own beauty to the site. I think what saddens me most about lawns is that they’re generic. Our yards should allude to where we are, and what makes each place special. Yours does that! I’ll look at Pam Penick’s “Digging” blog, and check out her book too. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • says

      J. Paul, A moss lawn sounds gorgeous–and good for you for featuring Tennessee natives in your landscape. As I said to Chris, I think our yards should allude to the place where we are, and what makes it unique. That’s our everyday grace, the gift of beauty that comes to use from the community of the land. Just as an aside, I can’t imagine having enough precipitation to grow a moss lawn–in the high desert where I live ten inches is a good year….

  3. Robert Vaiden says

    I still can’t understand the utter addiction to ‘European weed grass’ (“Kentucky” blue grass). SOME lawn is fine (I still have some), but it SO dead and sterile. Why sterilize our beautiful land? Everyone should be sure to read Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home” for an eye-opening look at the real world!

    I’ve been removing our lawn for years… these pictures cover most of our 1 acre yard:

    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.100954069926800.2037.100000366236872&type=3

    • says

      Robert, I agree. Some lawn is fine, but less is better than more, and weaning turf off of pesticides and excess watering is necessary. Doug Tallamy’s book is inspiring, no doubt about that. Great photos (and I’m glad it’s you, not me, maintaining that one-acre yard)! You might want to look at Benjamin Vogt’s post (one of the ones at the end of my post) for inspiration from Nebraska.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Lawns are in fact some of our unhealthiest habitat: In order to keep them monotonously green we douse them with more pesticides and chemical fertilizers per acre than the average farm. Sadly, pesticide use in America has grown since Rachel Carson’s Silent Springwas published just over 50 years ago. It now exceeds one billion pounds each year, about 8 percent of which is applied to yards and gardens–mainly lawns. (Any wonder that pesticides show up in the bodies of most American children, and may be linked to food allergies through their effect on our gut microbes?) Suddenly, lawns don’t sound very much like family-friendly places to play and live. We love our tidy, poison-sterilized lawns so much that we burn 580 million gallons of gas annually to cut, aerate, blow, edge and mulch them. (For reference, that’s around three times the total amount of oil released in the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.) Of course, burning all that gas adds CO2 to the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. Lawns are water-hogs too: Here in the arid West, where not enough rain falls to keep Kentucky bluegrass and other traditional turf grasses alive, lawn watering accounts for about 60 percent of domestic water use. (Treated water, which requires chemicals for purification and more energy in the form of electricity and gas to pump, filter, clean and deliver it to the lawn.)  [...]

  2. […] help in locating native plants. She had decided her lawn was deader than a dodo and she wanted to plant something that didn’t need constant chemical applications, something that would support local birds and butterflies. When she got in touch with a local […]

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