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American Lawns: Point of Pride or Ecological Disaster?

Now an established aspect of American culture and iconography, the grass lawn is a symbol of status, wealth, and leisure — to have one, you must have space, time, and money.  Although lawns are not typical for many people in urban areas, NASA reported in 2005 that approximately 128,000 square kilometers of land in the United States are covered by residential and commercial lawns.  Since their earliest establishment in America in the early 18th century, grass lawns have gone from a low-cost method of easily feeding farm animals to the most irrigated plant in the country.

Grass lawns were first popularized in the U.S. in the late 1700s when George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both loved European architecture and landscape design, brought the idea of a sprawling lawn to Mount Vernon and Monticello, respectively.  The lawn was extremely popular in England before then. In 1830, a British clothing mill mechanic invented the lawn mower, which allowed those around the world who did not use lawns for feeding ruminants to reduce the amount of time and manpower required for maintaining a lawn.  Further inventions, such as the sprinkler and chemical fertilizer, have established the lawn as an item of leisure and something to take pride in.

Despite its popularity, lawn culture in the United States has a detrimental effect on the environment and nearby ecosystems.  Estimates suggest that over 600 million gallons of gasoline are used each year to mow and trim lawns in America.  This figure does not include the engine oil required by most pull-start and/or two-stroke lawnmowers, nor the fuel required to pump water to people’s homes for irrigation.  Additionally, the process of manufacturing one 40-pound bag of synthetic fertilizer manufactured for lawns requires the equivalent of 2.5 gallons of gasoline – enough to cover the average american lawn just once.  Often, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are not fully absorbed by the plants and end up contaminating the groundwater or surface water through runoff from rain or by seeping in through the soil.  Nearby animals then drink this water, and can be poisoned by the high concentration of chemicals. 

Regardless of all of this, lawns have persisted over the last 150 years.  Their place in society has been so indoctrinated that multiple towns around the U.S. have ordinance laws about them.  For example, the city of Elroy, Wisconsin has a “Regulation of Length of Lawn and Grasses,” which states that privately-owned lawns may not exceed 6 inches in height.  The ordinance text cites supposed public health inconveniences due to pollen and “other discomforting bits of plants” which may be emitted.  These ordinances are enforced through fines, and are relatively common in the United States, which furthers the culture of having a perfectly manicured lawn by any means necessary.  By reinforcing these actions, we encourage people with lawns to continue harming the environment for the sake of social status and aesthetics.

Many horticulturists have discussed measures that a person can take to create a healthier, more environmentally-friendly lawn.  Peter Del Tredici, a botanist at the Arnold Arboretum, notes that while the “soft carpet” of a traditional lawn may not be recreated with natural substitutes, he suggests that the best thing a person can do is to sow a variety of species and allow the plants to sort themselves out based on the features of the soil and the topography that work best for each one.  Even in a flat lawn, two different places may be very different, so attempting to plant one species and forcing it to grow everywhere likely requires a very careful maintenance plan, or else a strong hand with irrigation and fertilizer. The former plan is very time-intensive, the latter very resource-dependent.  However, for the average homeowner local botanists, gardeners, and lawn care professionals across the country can serve as a wealth of knowledge for homeowners who want to learn more about caring for their lawns. For example, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management recommends species like American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata), Beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus), or Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) as grass options for people living on the coast who want to incorporate native flora into their landscaping.  By reaching out to people in their region, one can easily and quickly learn about species that are native, sustainable, and easy to grow in the soil they have.  Additionally, to keep the use of petroleum-based gasses down, lawnowners can commit to mowing less frequently and at the highest possible setting on their mower, stopping the practice of irrigating their lawns, and discussing safe, organic fertilizers with local professionals if so desired.

Sources:

Botti, D. (2019, November 8). The great American lawn: How the dream was manufactured. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/09/video/lawn-grass-environment-history.html

Brown, N.P. (2001 March-April). When grass isn’t greener. Harvard Magazine. https://harvardmagazine.com/2011/03/when-grass-isnt-greener

City of Elroy. (n.d.). Regulations on length of lawn and grasses.  City of Elroy Ordinances.  https://www.elroywi.com/index.asp?SEC=F306A06A-BDE2-481F-8067-8E49C20670FB&DE=4BCFE006-6A8A-4DB1-AFE9-AA3E2F2A7525

Earth Observatory. (2005, November 8). More lawns than irrigated corn. National Aeronautic and Space Administration. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/Lawn/lawn2.php

HomeAdvisor. (n.d.). The United States, ranked by yard size. HomeAdvisor. https://www.homeadvisor.com/r/average-yard-size-by-state/

Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. (n.d.). Coastal landscaping in Massachusetts – grasses and perennials. Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  https://www.mass.gov/info-details/coastal-landscaping-in-massachusetts-grasses-and-perennials#overview—grasses-and-perennials-

Perry, L. (n.d.). Fuel-efficient lawns and landscapes. University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science. https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/fuels.html

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