Ungardening your lawn: Why your grass might not be as green as you think it is

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The vast expanses of uniform lawn opposed to the dynamic and diverse possibilities that could exist in their place//magazine photo on paper, 2018

There are just over 49,400 square miles of lawn in the United States; that’s larger than the entire state of Mississippi, a mere 48,430. An estimated 23% of urban space is lawn. Why do we devote so much space (and time, and money) to lawns? Undeniably, they have some social benefits – they are an open space that can be used for almost innumerable activities. But more often than not, rather than serving as a functional, multi-use space, they exist in an entirely passive state. Take a drive down any highly peopled area – a neighborhood, business center, university – and take note of the lawns. Most serve primarily to fill the negative space in and around human structures: forming greens, surrounding buildings, flanking roads. Very few are used for any kind of activity that would require the utilitarian space that they provide. Instead they serve as a default; as what should exist when there’s no need or desire for something more complex.

But there’s no inherent reason why lawns should be the default, and it didn’t happen by accident. Lawns have existed in many times and places throughout history, and they have often been tied to the wealthy, or the leisure class, but the American lawn as we know it today arose shortly after World War Two. Many things about the social climate of postwar America helped to contribute to the popularity of the lawn, but two factors drove its spread. First was the suburbanization of America, which quickly created a large number of middle class landowners with small yards and lots of neighbors. Second was conversion of chemical companies from wartime to peacetime production. These companies had increased ammonia production to meet the wartime explosives demand, and they now sought for a way to maintain production. Since nitrogen fertilizer can be made from ammonia as easily as explosives, they found this demand in the home lawn care market. Newly created suburbs were the perfect setting for a campaign of fertilizer, pesticide, and work intensive landscaping. In the following decades, many chemical companies, notably DuPont, worked alongside the home garden industry to promote the idea of a lush, uniform lawn – an ideal only possible with substantial chemical inputs and specially formulated seed mixes, not to mention elaborate care regimes and irrigation systems. The perfectly manicured yard quickly became an inseparable part of the American suburban ideal, and it has remained dominant ever since, only losing stride in the western states in the last decade because of the unprecedented drought.

Despite its incredible popularity, the lawn did not remain an unquestioned good for long. By the late 1950s, home lawn care was already being linked to eutrophication, blooms of plant and algae productivity, in lakes and ponds. Eutrophication occurs when excess nutrient-rich chemicals (fertilizer and sewage are two common sources) are washed into bodies of water, in a process called surface runoff.  Once in the water, the excess nutrients act just like fertilizer, ramping up plant production. While a bloom of productivity may sound beneficial, any benefits are soon outweighed. When the blooming organisms start to die, a second bloom begins. This second wave of productivity is the decomposers, which consume the algae and plants, using up nearly all of the oxygen in the water in the process. This can eventually lead to an anoxic dead zone where nothing can survive. Lawn care is only one source of contaminated runoff, but it is substantial, and it is one of the most substantial sources that most people are in any position to do anything about!

To make a disappointing story even worse, that contaminated runoff often contains a lot of lawn amendments other than just fertilizer. Any chemical put on the ground is most likely eventually going to wind up in runoff, and while you might not want mushrooms and bugs in your lawn, they are a vital part of natural systems. Although it is nearly impossible to quantify how much pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide are used by homeowners, the breadth of products available at any home improvement store or garden center are a sure sign of a thriving industry. In addition to their label uses, these synthetic chemicals run the risk of bioaccumulating in organisms; meaning that chemicals present in fairly small amounts can become concentrated in the bodies of predatory animals as they consume contaminated organisms lower down in the food web. Since the 1960s and 1970s, alternatives to chemical intensive lawn care have become more and more common, but they still remain in the minority, and the lawn has continued to entrench itself as a necessary part of the American landscape. In fact, in many neighborhoods and communities across the country you can be fined, or even jailed, for refusing to maintain a “proper” lawn. (An aside: the podcast 99% Invisible did a great episode about lawn law and related issues: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/lawn-order/)

Not only are lawns problematic with regard to the amendments they require, most lawns are comprised primarily of non-native species. Many of the common grass varieties used in lawns – tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, Bermuda grass, timothy, creeping bentgrass, to name a few – are not native to the United States. In a well maintained lawn, grass plants should rarely go to seed, but this always a risk, and many grasses can spread aggressively through their roots. In many parts of the world, introduced grasses have become pest species; both when I worked in a Duke University research forest in North Carolina and an Indiana University research forest in Indiana, we had to contend with patches of invasive Japanese stiltgrass (Microstigium vimineum). The risks of invasive species in gardening and landscaping are multifaceted and deserve their own post, but there is another impact of using non-native species that is often overlooked.

Introduced grasses work together with lawn amendments like herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides to create a shell of an ecosystem. They occupy space in the natural world, but they hold it in a sort of limbo. They take the place of what could be a functioning part of the environment and instead attempt to domesticate it. By their very design, lawns are not natural environments, and just by existing they occupy land that would otherwise host much more life. But nature is persistent, and our yards are never fully under our control. A lawn is a commitment to engage in a struggle for domination that will never come to an end. And for what? Yes, mown backyards are awesome places for kids to play, but so many lawns serve no such redeemable purpose. The vast majority of lawns are completely unnecessary.

Consider your own yard: are there areas that you maintain as lawn that you rarely use? What would happen if you restored that area to a native ecosystem? Would you miss your turfgrass, or would you enjoy the new plants that grew there and the birds they attracted? With the right effort, and depending on the topography and microclimate of your yard, any natural ecosystem could be encouraged to take the place of a lawn. However, in Connecticut, and much of the northeast, we have a deficit of grasslands and other early successional habitats. Currently, Connecticut has somewhere between 4-6% grassland, much of it fragmented by human development. Most estimates figure that precolonial Connecticut had a much higher proportion of grassland, somewhere around 15-20%. This dramatic reduction in grassland areas is not only the result of development, but also the return of farmland to forest as the center of food production moved further west. As a result, many of the species most at danger of extinction in Connecticut are grassland plants and animals, especially birds like the eastern meadowlark and the grasshopper sparrow. Since the early 2000s, grassland conservation has been a major goal of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, supported by research from the Connecticut Audubon Society. A special concern of conservation in the eastern part of the US, however, is the high proportion of privately owned land, and the fragmentation of that land. But even a small plot of native meadow can support far more wildlife than a managed lawn, and it can serve as a stepping stone to connect other, larger areas of meadow, building a healthier and stronger ecosystem not only in the meadow itself, but also in the greater environment!

By ungardening an area of your yard, that is, introducing native plants and allowing them to interact and compete freely with each other, you are laying out the welcome mat for grassland dwelling birds, butterflies, bees, and more! As these visitors come to your meadow, they may bring with them other seeds, or even the spores of mushrooms and ferns! Unlike lawns, which require continual maintenance, native meadows can be left to develop nearly on their own to become even more complex and vibrant ecosystems. A native grassland meadow is a way to dismantle the idea we exist as separate from our environments. Instead it acknowledges that we can work alongside the plants and animals we share our world with. By turning a lawn into a meadow you are choosing to live with the environment, not on it; choosing to work with nature, not against it. And you might even get to see some cool birds!

 

Sources:

https://clear.uconn.edu/tools/habitats/grasslands.htm

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/lawn2.php

Covell, Darrel. “Chapter 1: Introduction” Managing Grasslands, Shrublands, and Young Forest Habitats for Wildlife: A Guide for the Northeast. 2006. pp. 1-6. The Northeast Upland Habitat Technical Committee. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/habitat/grassland_shrubland_management/Ch01_Introduction.pdf

Ignatieva, Maria et al. “Lawn as a cultural and ecological phenomenon: A framework for transdisciplinary research” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, vol 14. no. 2, 2015, pp. 383-387. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2015.04.003

McCarthy, Gina. “Grassland Habitat Conservation Initiative” 2006. Connecticut  Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nongame/grasshaboct06.pdf

Whitney, Kristoffer. “Living Lawns, Dying Waters: The Suburban Boom, Nitrogenous Fertilizers, and the Nonpoint Source Pollution Dilemma.” Technology and Culture, vol. 51, no. 3, 2010, pp. 652–674. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40927990.

 

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