Should We Lose the Lawn?
The lawn is the dominant feature of the modern landscape. Should we cut it out altogether?
The lawn had become the ubiquitous fingerprint of man's dominance of his environment. In the US there are over 40 million acres given over to this single crop. That is three times as much land as is devoted to corn. Throughout the world, it is accepted that our outdoor spaces should primarily be devoted to a single grass that then needs to be mowed, fed, treated for pests and, of course, watered. We see them so often, and they have become such an integral part of the landscape, that we now seldom even think about them. And yet these swathes of green are something of an environmental nightmare.
They may be nice to look at, comfortable to walk on and above all familiar, but the lawn is no island of environmental paradise. Few, if any, other plants are able to compete with the carefully nurtured lawn, without the presence of flowering plants, there is little to attract or support any fauna. Any insect that dares make an appearance on our swathes of verdant green is usually swiftly eradicated through the use of pesticides.
The US uses 67 billion pounds of pesticide on lawn maintenance each year and ten times as much fertilizer goes onto our lawns as goes onto our edible crops. America spends more money tending its lawns than it does on foreign aid.
Despite these rather horrifying statistics, the lawn’s dominance of the landscape has so far gone virtually unchallenged. It has just hidden there in plain sight. Some would suggest that our lawns have turned vast tracts of land into deserts but that is an unfair comparison. Where the desert supports a myriad of life forms the lawn offers as much protection as a field of concrete. A teaspoon of normal soil should contain more living organisms than there are people on earth and yet the constant cycle of mowing, feeding and weed treatment mean that most of the soil beneath an average lawn is severely depleted. Were it not for the constant addition of chemical feeds, the lawn itself would not be able to survive. To put things bluntly, the lawn is on life support.
In recent years we have been forced to confront the fact that water management is going to become an issue in many places throughout the world. In the US, 30 to 60 percent of water is used on the lawn.
Nearly all of that water has been captured, purified and piped to our homes only to be poured onto a plant that provides no edible or financial benefit. Perhaps the time has come when we should be looking at replacing the lawn with alternatives that offer a little more in return both for ourselves and the environment.
Much of our attachment to the lawn is purely psychological. The concept of lawns was something that we copied from wealthy aristocrats in Europe. They were blessed with abundant rainfall and plenty of almost free labor, so copying them might not have been the brightest idea America ever imported. With the average American spending seventy hours per year just on mowing, the motivation to look at alternatives must surely exist. Reducing the size of the lawn and increasing the size of the beds is one option. The benefits of this would be increased if native flowering plants were used in the beds. Other options include using native ground covers, gravel or even moss in shaded areas.
Perhaps the most radical option would be to turn your lawn into a vegetable patch. This might sound like the crazed thinking of an environmental fundamentalist, but the fact is, the ‘food not lawns movement’ is both a thing, and a growing one at that.
Turning your sterile monoculture lawn into something that is both good for the gardener and the environment is out of the box thinking that brings with it numerous advantages.
Having homegrown produce to put on the table is the obvious one, but in areas where this movement is becoming established other spin-offs are emerging. Vegetable gardens are a great way of bringing communities together. As you spin around on your drive-on mower you might occasionally find a second to cast a quick wave at your neighbor, but when you are both experimenting with different crops you will find that an exchange of information quickly becomes the norm. Vegetable gardening is something that might just motivate younger members of the family to tear their eyes away from the screen from time to time, whereas offering them the chance to do a bit of mowing is always going to be a hard sell.
Finally, there is the biodiversity aspect. Vegetable gardens offer scope for flora and fauna to thrive. Soil becomes conditioned instead of poisoned and that once uninhabitable strip of green suddenly becomes a place where nature and man can coexist. For the diehard lawn fanatic, this concept may be a step too far. The fact of the matter is, we are entering an era where out of the box thinking and breaking with accepted norms is turning into a necessity rather than just an eccentric dream.