Why you should care
Manicured green spaces are a waste of time, taxes and pollinators. It’s time they become where the wild things grow.
At the edge of my high school football field in Homewood, Illinois, lived a nice woman named Gina Mensone. Fed up by her Homeowner Association’s (HOA) lawn maintenance fees, she decided to fight back. Gina replaced her lawn with low-maintenance native grasses and plants and had the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) certify her yard as a wildlife habitat. This gave her a property tax exemption that meant HOA couldn’t touch her.
Soon, foxes denned under her deck, and her yard became home to songbirds and owls. This worried some neighbors, especially the ones who had never seen foxes in the area before. After generations of subscribing to America’s fanatic devotion to culturing a barren green carpet of non-native grasses, they had no idea that foxes were native to the area.
The idea of a healthy lawn is nothing more than creative marketing. Grasses, when cut, signal to their roots to grow outward, rather than down. It’s a desperate gambit: Anchored more shallowly, the grass receives less water and fewer nutrients, making it less resistant to drought or fire. With more blades, however, some might survive long enough to reseed. But we, the mowing public, spend between $47.8 billion and $82 billion a year, according to market research hub IbisWorld, to ensure they don’t. We lock turf grass in prepubescent sterility, wondering why our sod never takes root, and force it to depend on life support: a three-part cocktail of water, fertilizer and pesticides. And for what?
Because lawns across America mix chemicals, it’s hard to gauge what exact health and ecological dangers our cocktail poses.
Our fertilizer-saturated soils release nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent than CO2. Short-rooted turf grasses typically have less potential to sequester carbon underground than native deep-rooted grasses. And to sever all their expensive growth, we pour gas into lawn mowers that emit CO2.
Companies tout lawns as carbon-capturing, but as Diane Pataki, a biology professor at the University of Utah, says, “You can’t really talk about soil [carbon] sequestration without doing full greenhouse gas accounting. Once you do that, lawns don’t pencil out very well.” Conservative estimates peg U.S. lawns as exhaling 25 million tons of CO2, according to Chuanhui Gu, an assistant geology professor at Appalachian State University.
American landscaping consumes more pesticides, herbicides and fungicides than agriculture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and with none of the regulation. Some of these pesticides, such as Chlorpyrifos, can pose health risks to humans and are extremely dangerous to fish, birds and beneficial insects. Because lawns across America mix chemicals, it’s hard to gauge what exact health and ecological dangers these cocktails pose. We know many pesticides are noted endocrine disrupters or can become disrupters when mixed, which threatens invertebrates, reptiles, fish, birds and mammals. Studies have also shown that lawn pesticides (“organic” ones included) harm pollinators. The herbicides we use to kill weeds such as clover, which actually adds nitrogen to soil, kills the best food that pollinators like bees and butterflies could find amid our barren lawns. And the granular pesticides often recommended to avoid harming pollinators are instead ingested by birds.
In fact, many of our turf grasses are also weeds, says Pataki. “[Because these] weedy grasses tend to be warm season … it’s likely that climate change will bring us more of these weeds.” So while keeping up with the Joneses, we’re unknowingly ruining the food and shelter needed for groundhogs, cottontails, moles, skunks and geese, while also starving the birds and butterflies. And when we overwater? We create nasty breeding pools for mosquitoes.
More importantly, says Mark Hostetler, an ecology professor at the University of Florida, lawn care — by prioritizing quick, often chemical fixes to pests over ecological ones — teaches us to abandon our connection to the ecology of gardening.
The good news? There is a simple solution: You can start over by growing native plants. Several states offer programs that pay people to replace lawns with more water-conscious landscapes. Others have made it illegal for HOAs to fine people for not neutering their barren carpets. You could even pull a Gina and have the DNR certify your yard as a wildlife habitat and potentially even get a tax exemption.
And next Saturday, while your neighbors are firing up their Lawnboys or writing checks to expensive landscaping services, you can relax and enjoy your new, native, low-maintenance lawn.