Monday, June 1, 2015

The lawn cult

summer lawn by Rachel Pasch

Picture a typical summer and what comes to mind? The beach, surely. Ice cream cones and bike rides, perhaps. For the 80% of Americans who have a lawn, summer just isn't summer without a fantastic living green carpet to enjoy it on.

What's the deal with Americans and their lawns anyway? I mean on one hand, I get it. I'm as enamored with the idea of treating my tootsies to a walk across a cool, soft, perfectly manicured lawn as anyone. Or I was, at least, until I understood how much work goes into them.

There's the constant mowing, the twice-yearly (or more) fertilizing, applying pesticides to kill weeds, edging, weed-wacking, aerating, de-thatching. I didn't even know most of these were things existed before becoming a homeowner.

Collectively, we use 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides on our grass, not to mention all the watering we do to avoid the shame of having a brown lawn in say, July. Horrors. Let's not even mention the absurdity of all the water wasted watering lawns planted in desert communities, because that's just beyond stupid. With our present environmental woes, you would think we'd have moved on to something else by now.

Really, it's no wonder lawns were originally only owned by European aristocrats. With all the upkeep they require, maybe we should have left them there. Of course you can always hire someone else to do the work. Lawn care is a $40 billion-a-year industry in the U.S.

But it's not just the upkeep these non-native monolithic monocultures require that really gets me. It's that everyone is so darn obsessed with the idea of the perfect lawn that it's practically a competitive sport. Neighbors try different lawn care regimes to see whose can be the greenest and most lush. Let your grass grow too long? Too weedy? Shameful! A lackluster lawn is one of the worst embarrassments to my grandparents' and even parents' generation. My grandmother got sunstroke once because the lawn needed mowed and she simply couldn't wait for someone else to get to it. So she mowed midday, despite the fact that she was over 80 and it was in the 90s out with air quality index warnings. Heck, if you let the grass get really out of hand, you could receive a fine from your homeowners' association or a citation from your friendly local government.

During my marathon landscaping session Memorial Day weekend a neighbor from down the street stopped to commiserate with me about the state of my neighbors' lawn. They let it grow a good 8-12 inches long, so even I agreed it was looking pretty bad. But on the list of things we have to worry about, should the neighbors' lawn even get a mention?

I'm hardly the poster child for a great lawn. I fertilized the lawn exactly twice in the 10 years I've lived here. I applied corn gluten to try and kill the weeds just once. The grass regularly gets too long before we mow it and my parents used to scold me for it during every summer visit. It's just grass. I can't see postponing real plans to mow. Oh and the only times I've ever watered the lawn was when we planted grass seed. Our yard is proof that the grass can go dormant and live.

When is the last time you walked across the lawn barefoot anyway? Or played a game with the kids on it? For all the time that we spend primping our lawns, I don't see nearly as much time spent actually enjoying the darn thing. Which makes the whole thing even more ludicrous.

But despite my griping, I still don't know what the solution is. I'm not even close to ready to rip out all my grass and plant something else. In the long run that might save time, but can you imagine that project? Did I mention it took me 13 hours to get one little garden bed in good shape?

What about planting gardens instead? Um, I can't even keep up with weeding the three flower beds I do have. And while I may keep the lawn for now, I'd rather not add to its environmental sins by applying pesticides to the weed-filled backyard. So for now I seem destined to live in crappy, weed-filled lawn purgatory. Cause it kinds seems like you're dammed if you do or if you don't.

So what about you dear readers, are you pro- or anti-lawn? Has anyone ditched the grass for something more environmentally friendly?


  1. Oh... I am SOOOO totally with you on this one. Your post makes me thankful that I live in the barrio though - here nobody really notices or cares if your lawn sucks. And a few of my neighbors have tried the "just don't water" thing - and here in Denver at least, that tactic generally solves the lawn problem within a season or two, because those yards are nothing but dirt and weeds!

    Some people here have tried large sections of gravel or mulch, but that's an environmental disaster in its own right because they dump literally gallons of weed killer on it to keep the weeds out.

    Anyhow, my approach is to slowly dig up a bit of turf every year and replace it with something that doesn't need to be watered, fertilized or mowed. My xeriscape is not even close to what you might think of as a "nice garden" but it's socially acceptable and less wasteful than grass, so I call it a win.

    There are a few yards that I ride past regularly on my bike rides that I think have the right idea. They're landscaped with native plants and lots and LOTS of big rocks, so they sorta look like you're at a campsite or something. Still, I'm not sure how they keep the weeds out and the native plants in... there must be some trick to it!

    Here's an example of what I wish my yard looked like:

    1. I guess for now I'm sticking with the status quo.I admire people who just have gardens instead of grass, but the flowerbeds I do have also require a lot of maintenance.

  2. I have attempted to have lawn...but as we have chickens it was a bit of a non starter! I have bark chippings in that bit of the garden now.
    We have one small bit of grass which has not died off- this is kept short by putting our pet rabbit on it regularly! Our other bit of garden is my attempted veg patch....mostly runaway forget-me-nots at the moment!

    Anyway, I quite like a lawn- despite being entirely unsuccessful at growing one! They never seem to take that much maintenance, other than mowing- though perhaps that is because I am thinking of my parent's lawn, which looks very neat but has a high percentage of moss, daisies etc in. I imagine keeping a lawn pure grass is more effort.
    Lawns seem preferable to the alternatives here- paving over the garden (say hello to increased flood risk) or gravel with a weed suppressing membrane- which is what was here when we moved in. It took ages to remove said gravel so it was actually possible to grow things, and the soil STANK, as it was stifled by the membrane. Bleurgh!

    PS I did a bit of garden taming this week- it is now possible to walk down the path without ducking under the tree, yey!

    Not sure if this will be visible, but here is the nice tidy corner of the front garden:
    (The grass on the far side of the path is not mine, it's public space mowed by the local council).

    1. Oh, gravel IS the worst. The side yard is covered in it. I've gotten rid of enough to plant flowers in a few spots, but there's still a ton. And the grass and weeds grow right through it. No fun,

  3. I like EcoCatLayd's approach: "to slowly dig up a bit of turf every year and replace it with something that doesn't need to be watered, fertilized or mowed".

    Personally I've heard about seed packages with wildflowers, maybe you could get a hold of something like that, that suits your climate? Would be great for the bees. :)


  4. ...but seriously, I know nothing about gardens. Maybe wildflowers would attract nasty things aswell, like snakes. :S


  5. Not sure what the realistic, long-term solution is, but I agree. When we lived in a beautiful Virginia Beach neighborhood, it was a struggle for us to maintain our lawn (we never did, really) to the standards maintained by our neighbors. But I too quickly noticed that most of them had a lawn service and few of them used their beautiful lawns for anything at all. It was one of many issues which made us realize we were better suited to condo-style living with no lawn to maintain.

  6. Very much so. At one point we looked into buying a vacation home and the fact that everything in the town where we wanted to buy came with a yard kept us from doing it! No way we could upkeep a lawn when we're not there 90% of the time.

    1. Can't blame you. Maintaining a second home would be a major drawback to me, even if I did have the surplus funds. Worrying about one house is enough!

  7. Other than mowing the lawn every 2-3 weeks, we do zero maintenance. No watering, weeding, fertilizing, etc. As a result, we have a lovely mix of nettle, dandelions, crab grass, clover, and other random weeds - and I don't care! :)

    1. Sounds like the right attitude to me!


Comments make my day! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Note: Comments are moderated in order to keep this a spam/ad-free forum.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin