When we think about problems with the way land is treated, we normally turn to industrial agriculture of food and fibres. However, there’s another area we may want to think about too, one which is much closer to home. And that is the lawns outside our homes.
Lawns first began in Europe, designed as a way for the wealthy to bring nature closer to home. They were initially cultivated with more useful plants, but the trend moved to closely cropped grasses over time. Initially, these were maintained by grazing sheep, then men with scythes, and eventually the picture we see today: homeowners with mowers and trimmers.
Nowadays, in America alone, turf grass lawns cover 40 million acres of land, nearly half as much land used for their biggest crops. This makes it the single largest irrigated crop in the country, requiring more labour, fuel, toxins, and equipment than industrial farming.
The main issue is that this scale of cropped grass, alongside the deluge of cutting and dousing it in chemicals, in no way mimics nature. Meadows and prairies have similar ecosystem structures, but are more diverse and aren’t developed in the same way as lawn monocultures.
Lawns can provide some ecosystem services that are better than surfaces like cement and asphalt. But their upkeep requires a lot of resources including water, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, and lawnmowers that run on fossil fuels. Plus, many countries aren’t equipped to naturally support lawns, especially in dry environments.
That’s a lot of work and money spent to destroy natural biodiversity and increase emissions.
The main issues with lawns
Resources & pollution
Every year across the USA lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about a third of all public water is used to water grass, with most municipalities using 30-60% of drinkable water on lawns. And if you’re in an area without substantial rainfall, you likely need to take water stored in depleting aquifers to maintain the grass. As droughts increase across the world, this creates further strain on precious resources.
With her simulation’s findings, Milesi was able to figure out how much water the US would need to keep lawns looking good. She estimated that 200 gallons of fresh water, suitable for drinking, per person per day would be required to upkeep lawns. That’s equivalent to about 400 water bottles per person per day just for lawns.
Lawnmowers run on oil, a fossil fuel that releases emissions. They emit as much pollution in one hour as 40 automobiles driving, accounting for roughly 10-18% of non-road gasoline emissions in the USA.
In a paper for the Journal of Environmental Management, he and his co-authors said they had found that a hectare of lawn in Nashville, Tennessee, produced greenhouse gases equivalent to 697 to 2,443kg of carbon dioxide a year. The higher figure is equivalent to a flight more than halfway around the world.
When it comes to chemicals, the US uses 67 million pounds of pesticides annually on lawns and uses 10 times more fertiliser on lawns than cropland. These chemicals (containing large concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous) release compounds like nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2. They also wash off, entering waterways where they poison animals, contaminate drinking water, or create algal blooms. Potential damages from fertiliser runoff alone were estimated to cost $157 billion annually, and it’s estimated that fertiliser production consumes approximately 1.2% of the world’s energy and is responsible for 1.2% of emissions.
Herbicides and pesticides also harm humans and wildlife alike, not just the pests gardeners intend to kill. Scientists have linked pesticides to the decline of frog, bat, and bee populations, threatening pollinators who are key to the survival of a huge number of crops.
Lawns also represent vast amounts of monocultures that harm ecosystems. Gardeners fight weeds, unaware that this is nature trying to repair itself with pioneering species. Lawns provide virtually no habitat for pollinators or other animals and plants that make up the healthy and diverse ecosystems the planet needs.
Up until the 1940s, we at least left odd flowers like clovers—which actually add nitrogen back to soil—alone. Then we figured out how to turn petrochemicals into fertilizer, Windhager said. “The new goal became to have a full monoculture.”
One study found that in urban areas, weeds were the most popular food sources for pollinators.
Most suburban lawns are completely artificially constructed environments that replace the natural flora and fauna of an area that would’ve been there and would return if left to its own devices. If the only thing in a garden is grass, the area isn’t likely to attract varied insect species. The insistence of having lawns over productive gardens or revitalised natural landscapes wastes resources and harms biodiversity at every level.
What are the alternatives?
Firstly, you could simply reduce how often you mow and fertilise your lawn, which improves the diversity and abundance of pollinators by providing more habitat. Even better, switch to native grasses and let them reseed.
You can also grow clover, which requires minimal water and herbicides while naturally adding nitrogen to soil. Habitat gardening can be used to attract wildlife, while planting wildflower meadows will attract pollinators. An increasingly popular alternative is known as xeriscaping or xerigardening. This refers to replacing lawns with native plants and mulch to limit the amount of water and maintenance needed in a garden.
In the UK, Plantlife runs a campaign called No Mow May, encouraging gardeners (as well as councils in charge of parks and road verges) to cut nothing for May, allowing wildflowers to bloom and provide nectar for pollinators. At the end of the month, a nationwide “Every Flower Counts” survey then discovers how many bees the UK’s lawns can feed. You can join in for May, or take the concept further. Homeowners could think about specific areas in their gardens that can be converted to more diverse and sustainable landscapes long term. The No-Mow Movement encourages lawn-owners to leave native grasses to their own devices, growing tall and wild to eliminate the environmental cost of watering and mowing, and allowing a more natural landscape to take over.
A no-mow garden can fall into four general categories:
- naturalised or unmowed turf grass that is left to grow wild
- low-growing turf grasses that require little grooming
- native or naturalised landscapes where turf is replaced with native plants as well as noninvasive, climate-friendly ones that can thrive in local conditions
- yards where plants grown for food replace a portion of turf grass
How to get involved
So you want to move away from a lawn monoculture?
If you decide to convert your lawn to naturalised landscapes:
- Get advice: talk to experts with experience with lawn conversions, who can advise removing existing grass and replacing with native plants. Depending on water and weather, a low-growing turf lawn will appear about two weeks after seeding. If you choose to grow a wildflower garden, choose a seed mix that fits your climate. After the seeds germinate and the flowers bloom, they won’t require watering unless there’s a drought.
- Restart your lawn: Before transitioning to a native lawn, you’ll need to remove your existing grass to make room for native plants and no-mow zones. Methods can include the no-till option of layering newspaper over a section of grass and covering it with a few inches of soil. The newspaper will decay over time and provide a fresh start for a new lawn.
- Check for incentives: In the USA states in drought such as California launched a turf replacement initiative that offers rebates for homeowners who convert turf lawns to xeriscaping. Simultaneously Surfriders Foundation has helped transform turf lawns in Southern California parks into ocean-friendly gardens.
- Create a plan: to replace grass with low-maintenance plants will attract wildlife and pollinators. In urban areas, clover, dandelion, and other weeds are some of the most important food sources for bees, and flowers like columbine, monarda, asters, and holly provide a good habitat for birds. Find what’s native to your area and go from there.
- Bugs can be helpful: beneficial bugs include ladybirds (who can eat as many as 5,000 aphids in their lifetime), spiders and ground beetles, who feed on caterpillars and slugs. Welcome insects back into your garden through native plants and ditching pesticides. Learn what beneficial bugs live in your area, and the best ways to attract them, so you can identify the signs of a healthy garden.
- Replace fertiliser: plant nitrogen-rich crops like clover, use compost to add organic nutrients, and allow organic material to decompose on the soil as alternative options.
- Learn more: if you want to grow your own food, check out the Food Not Lawns movement to get started.