Lawns are so commonplace that virtually every single-family home has one. They are fixtures of parks, universities, and golf courses.
Unfortunately, lawns require a lot of resources to maintain, or nature will quickly take over. This maintenance involves all sorts of toxic synthetic chemicals, from fertilizer to herbicides.
That, combined with heavy water usage and the elimination of natural habitats, makes lawns a huge environmental problem.
How did we come to normalize lawns? What are the dangers of lawn care products? And is there an eco-friendly way to maintain them?
A Brief History of Lawns
The word “lawn” comes from the French “launde,” which meant a wooded heath. In Europe, many gardens featured open areas of closely-cut grass. Such landscapes were a symbol of wealth, as they took quite a few servants to maintain.
President Thomas Jefferson appreciated the art of horticulture, and his Monticello estate replicated the European lawn. It wasn’t long before upper-class Americans began growing lawns to demonstrate their wealth.
As the country became more urbanized, more affluent families took up residence in semi-rural areas — what we now call suburbia. These neighborhoods standardized lawns as a means of setting houses back from the street.
By the mid-20th century, mowers had become affordable enough that the emerging middle class could maintain their lawns. Meanwhile, horticulturalists were domesticating grass species for better turf.
Today, lawns are the norm for suburban houses. One can also find them in urban spaces such as parks and public buildings. Many schools and universities have heavily-maintained “greens” as gathering spaces or event venues.
That’s a lot of grass. And because most grass species grow tall — and rapidly so — lawns require extraordinary amounts of maintenance.
Lawns’ Environmental Footprint
In the U.S., the most common turf species include Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), and Zoysia grasses. None of these are native to North America. So, they’re not always suited to local soil, and they’re easily taken over by indigenous species. This all means that lawns often require frequent watering, soil additives, fertilizers, and pesticides just to stay alive.
Bermudagrass and zoysia, along with bent grass, are preferred for golf courses. They require heavy irrigation to stay healthy. That adds up to an average of 312,000 gallons of water per day per course, according to Audubon International. As the U.S. is entering a water crisis, that’s an excessive amount to squander on lawns.
Golf courses aren’t the only ones committing water sins. Football, soccer, and baseball fields often use grass, and keeping that grass healthy is vital to players’ safety. Unfortunately, that means a lot of watering — up to 4 million gallons a month for some arenas.
While many groundskeepers are switching to reclaimed water for irrigation, the core problem remains. We use incredible amounts of water simply to maintain grasses that struggle to thrive in our soils.
Pesticides and Herbicides
As Ian Malcolm quipped in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.” That’s certainly the case for weeds, which include both native and invasive species that grow in lawns. These plants are typically faster-growing, hardier, and better-suited to the soil than the grass. So, they’ll take hold if left unchecked.
Pulling weeds by hand is time-consuming. Thus, many groundskeepers have turned to herbicides. Ingredients such as 2,4-Dioxin (aka 2,4-D) target broadleaf plants. Spraying it on lawns will kill the weeds but preserve the grass. However, we can’t say the same for our health. Like glyphosate, 2,4-D has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared 2,4-D to be a possible human carcinogen (PDF). It also disrupts thyroid activity and therefore fertility and child development.
Lawns are also home to a wide range of insects. They do what bugs do: eat the vegetation and burrow in the soil. Chinch bugs, weevils, and the larva of various beetles and moths snack on grass roots and blades. There are many toxic pesticides on the market to eliminate these species.
It’s worth noting that lawns displace natural habitats for birds, frogs, rodents, and other creatures that would eat these bugs. Worse, pesticides may poison these predators, as well as beneficial insects such as butterflies.
The less suited a grass species is to the soil, the more nutrients it needs. Lawn fertilizers typically include a mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and/or iron. The exact proportions depend on the type of turf.
For most of our agricultural history, we’ve used natural fertilizers. Everything from animal droppings to decaying vegetation releases nutrients into the soil.
But in the interest of faster, greener lawns, companies created synthetic fertilizers. These leach excess nitrogen into the groundwater, disrupting the pH of our waterways and contributing to algal blooms. Meanwhile, the soil becomes dependent on the fertilizer. Eventually, the grass won’t get the nutrients it needs without synthetic treatments.
What You Can Do
If you live in a house, you likely have a lawn. Here’s how you can reduce its environmental impact and avoid toxic chemicals.
Replace Your Lawn with a Garden
Check with your local ordinances and neighborhood guidelines to see if you can grow a garden instead. Front-yard vegetable gardens used to be commonplace before the rise of lawns!
If you’re not permitted or able to plant vegetables, add as many native species as possible, ideally pollinator plants. Reduce your turf area by installing raised flower beds or planting shrubbery.
Xeriscapes feature decorative stone, gravel, sand, and plants that require minimal watering. They can look absolutely spectacular with dramatic desert species such as agave.
If you own your home and are willing to invest some time and money, xeriscaping is an excellent option. You’ll have a beautiful yard that won’t require excessive irrigation.
In Florida, where the water crisis is increasingly concerning, about 64 percent of homes’ drinking water goes to irrigation. Xeriscaping is a popular solution.
Use Natural, Organic Pesticides and Fertilizers
Avoid synthetic fertilizer. You can buy organic fertilizer at garden stores, as well as cow manure! Of course, you could always start a compost heap, which will turn everything from kitchen scraps and old newspapers to fallen leaves into a nutrient-rich fertilizer.
To keep your turf healthy, aerate it regularly. You could even introduce earthworms to further aerate the soil and improve its quality.
Weed regularly — without chemicals. Regular weeding allows your grass to thrive. And the more often you do it, the fewer weeds you’ll even have to deal with.
As for those pesky grubs and weevils? Good news: they love damp soil, so by limiting your irrigation, you’ll also dry out the grubs. Encourage birds and bats to visit your yard, and they’ll take care of the rest.
Lawns can be beautiful displays of greenery, but sadly, they are anything but natural. Our chronic exposure to the pesticides and herbicides needed to maintain lawns is a threat to our health. Meanwhile, excessive water consumption and fertilizer runoff contribute to water pollution and shortages.
So while lawns likely aren’t going anywhere, you can take care of yours in a sustainable way. Better yet, replace it with a garden, pollinator landscape, or xeriscape!
This article is inspired by an interview with environmental activist Mackenzie Feldman, author of the Groundbakers cookbook.