"You Don't Have to" Series, Design, Gardening

You Don’t Have to: Have a Lawn

Let’s just say this post has been brewing for a while. Some may have already sat through my verbal rants on this ecological pet peeve, but the time has come to gather up my thoughts in a tidy blog post package.

The latest installment in my ‘You Don’t Have to‘ series discusses what I deem to be one of modern human’s biggest urban blunders: the private grass lawn. The reason I specify ‘private’ is that I have no issue with community spaces like soccer fields or parks. Hundreds of people are able to enjoy these shared areas through activities and relaxation. No, no, today is about that well-trimmed front lawn of Kentucky bluegrass poised for all to see in the typical suburban single family neighborhood.

Wow it’s….breathtaking.

Before we begin however, why the heck do we even have lawn? How did those little trimmed grasses become the norm in the first place? It seems somewhat intuitive in the backyard where kids and pets can roam and play. However, that space in front of the home, typically void of any activity save for a few carefully planted perennials, really stumps me.

So why do we even have lawns?

To solve this mystery, I did a bit of research and it turns out that the history of the lawn is quite fascinating. It all started in the 16th and 17th century, when France and Britain cut down the trees around their castles to be able to see incoming enemies. Naturally grasses grew in these spaces and were kept short by grazing livestock. Over the next couple hundred years the grass lawn became a sort of status symbol.

“My tiny grasses doth nicer than your tiny grasses!”

The wealthy and aristocrats started purposely growing and trimming these grass lawns which at the time required a lot of manual labor…that is until the modern lawn mower was invented. Then all of a sudden every middle class family could have their own castle complete with their tidy green paradise.

So what’s the problem?

Well personally, I find lawn to be the ‘beige’ of the landscaping world, a hugely unnatural and bland terrain that has no personal charm. They also are hugely contradictory: we water and fertilize lawn, then when it grows, we plow it all down with our loud gas-guzzling mowers. I also don’t understand the desire to have your own lawn when a paid employee maintains numerous parks all over every city, for free.

But I digress. Personal opinion aside, there are some considerable issues associated with our lawns:

  • Turf yards can require up to 5 feet of water per year, which represents up to 70% of total residential water use in some dry regions. This makes it the most water intensive crop in the U.S. (more than corn, soy, alfalfa, and orchards combined)
  • Adding up all the gasoline spilled filling lawn-mowers results in more volume than the Exxon-Valdez spill (over 17 million gallons) each year!
  • The enormous amount of pesticides and fertilizers used to green-ify lawns runs off in to streams and gutters, causing excess algae growth in lakes and significant health problems for wildlife.
  • About 3 billion man-hours are spent each year in the U.S. alone mowing lawns, which works out to roughly the same number of hours that were spent working to put a man on the moon.

The fate of the dandelion

In the words of Bill Mcdonough, “And woe to the small yellow flower that rears its head!” Dandelions are in fact a sign of an unhealthy soil, as they are trying to fix the nitrogen and repair the damage. I remember as a kid having this stick with a canister on the end containing pesticide that my sister and I would go around and prod all the dandelions to bring their slow demise. Then we’d roll around and play on the grass.

What should we use instead of lawn?

From the guy living in Vancouver, B.C. where one square foot of residential land sells for over $200, I think that slice of turf could be used much more wisely. In terms of front yards, I don’t think they should exist in nearly the size they do, and ideally we could instead use that seldom visited space to build density which would increase affordability in the city.

But if that’s not possible, one could at least plant some drought-tolerant plants, add some rock gardens, or have a go at some permaculture garden practices. In a world of industrial food production, and GMO’s created by supposedly evil corporations, why not use some of the estimated 40 million acres of United States’ turf lawn to grow some healthy, local food?

The good news is individuals and groups are already doing this and understand the tremendous value in growing fruits and veggies rather than energy, chemical and time intensive turf. I can only hope the trend continues to build, and we see more of this!:

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