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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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