As it turns out, grass lawns aren't all that good for the planet
Rattle off a list of things that make up a house and it will probably sound something like this: bedrooms, bathrooms, a roof, kitchen, garage and a backyard.
Grass-carpeted front and backyards are part and parcel to the Canadian homeowner dream. The size of your yard and the condition of your lawn say a lot about you (whether accurate, or not) to passersby. Is it neat and manicured? Long and unkempt? Is your grass thick and vibrant? Or parched with bald spots? Are you a good neighbour?
The ideal lawn is a uniform sea of neatly-clipped, verdant green turf—or at least that was the status quo until recently.
A neighbourly debate
Photo by visnu deva on UnsplashIn the early- and mid-2010s, a wave of news clips featuring rebellious homeowners and their unkempt yards began making national headlines. Residents were being hit with municipal infractions—and sometimes hefty fines—because they were flouting bylaws that limit the height of tall grass. The homeowners argued their biodiverse yards were benefiting bees and other pollinators whose critical plight was gaining international attention. Others in the community did not see it the same way, lodging complaints with their municipalities about unsightly homes.
Thankfully, since then, homeowners who shirk their lawncare duties in lieu of plant-positive practices have been buoyed by the rewilding movement and events like No Mow May. However, that is not to say biodiverse yards have become mainstream. Most standalone homes have grass, are sold with grass lawns and strata corporations have a particular affinity for uniform landscaping. Armed with a little bit of know-how and rationale, changemakers can make positive progress in challenging the convention and tradition of the great North American lawn.
But first, it’s helpful (and interesting) to explore how we got here in order to better understand why lawns are so hard to quit.
How did North Americans become lawn-obsessed in the first place?
Suburb | Photo by Blake Wheeler on Unsplash By all accounts, cultivating residential lawns is a relatively recent trend, dating back to sixteenth-century France and England. According to Planet Natural, “lawns” at this time were not carpeted with blades of grass; more likely, herbs like thyme or chamomile.
Closely cropped lawns emerged a century later in England and would have required an incredible amount of manual labour to upkeep, meaning they were indulgences only the aristocracy and upper-class could afford.
Much later, American cities were characterized by crowding and industrialization. City-dwellers craved spaces of respite, which marked the advent of public parks. (Prior to this, people sometimes picnicked in cemeteries because “the tombstone-laden fields were the closest things, then, to modern-day public parks.”) Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s pre-eminent landscape architect, was pivotal to the beautification of cities, “[conceiving] of entire systems of parks and interconnecting parkways.”
But it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the lawn became standard with purchase.
“Until the mid-nineteenth century, most houses in America were built close to the street with a small, closed garden in the back of the house. This design reflected the emphasis on privacy that had been handed down from European residential design…”
What changed? With the proliferation of car ownership came the ability to commute, meaning people no longer needed to live in direct proximity to cities. In 1951, a man named Abraham Levitt engineered and completed the first master-planned community on Long Island, not too far from New York City. It was the first time that (white) homeowners would take possession of homes that already had lawns uniformly installed atop their front and backyards.
Levittown, PA circa 1959 | Public Domain, WikipediaAccording to PlanetNatural.com, “the importance of a neat, weed-free, closely-shorn lawn was promoted intensely in the newsletters that went out to all homeowners in these subdivisions, along with lawn-care advice on how to reach this ideal.”
The homes in Levitt’s communities were an instant hit. They attracted a swell of World War II veterans—and their growing families. They also offered residents a fragile sense of security during the uncertainty of the Cold War. Levitt would construct two additional suburbs and his sprawling planned communities would become the model for the modern suburb. The lifestyle was eventually replicated across North America and the lawn became something of a cultural aspiration.
Fast-forward to today and we still perceive the lawn as a lifestyle; parents want to provide grassy backyard childhoods to their kids; dog owners appreciate fenced backyards for Fido’s well-being; and large swathes of manicured turf are allocated to leisure sports. How vast? According to this study, 1.9 percent of all land in the continental United States is blanketed with turf grasses, “an area three times larger than that of any irrigated crop.”
How do grass yards affect the planet?
To start, grass is a monoculture. Without a diversity of native grasses, buttercups, wildflowers, ground cover and clover, grass yards become food deserts for pollinators and other species. Worse yet, the problem is compounded the more people mow their lawns. A study published by researchers from the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres purports the frequency of mowing is linked with a decrease in the number of invertebrates, lower plant diversity and an increase in pests and invasive species.
“Even a modest reduction in lawn mowing frequency can bring a host of environmental benefits: increased pollinators, increased plant diversity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dr Chris Watson, lead author of the study. “At the same time, a longer, healthier lawn makes it more resistant to pests, weeds, and drought events.”
Pexels on PixabayOther prevailing issues relate to the sheer amount of effort it takes to maintain a lawn. In 2016, The Washington Post truth-bombed the world with a blunt headline: Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them.
According to Greenpeace.org, Canadians spend an average of 20 hours on lawn care between mid-May and mid-October. Our American neighbours log a startling 70 hours per year, according to the 2020 American Time Use Survey.
Not only are lawns an expensive hobby in terms of time and money, lawns soak up an inordinate amount of fresh drinking water. Data is less widely available for Canadians but in America, it’s about nine billion gallons a day, according to the EPA. On a per-household basis, that’s 53 gallons per day.
The pursuit of flawless turf also means pesticides are heavily marketed to homeowners. According to Grand View Research, the global demand for home and garden pesticides was valued at USD $7.36 billion in 2020. The use of pesticides in home gardens runs the risk of leaching chemical cocktails into local water systems causing contamination. They also don’t discriminate. Pesticides can be toxic to children, pets and other (helpful) critters in the ecosystem, like frogs, spiders and worms. And then of course, many homeowners use power mowers which burn gasoline.
Better alternatives to grass lawns
Photo by Aaron Burden on UnsplashHappily, achieving a biodiverse yard requires less effort, less resources and less time than maintaining a manicured lawn.
Diversify your yard. In lieu of turf grass, plant a variety of plants, flowers, grasses, herbs, trees and bushes. This can even be achieved with raised container beds or patio gardens. Perform a little research to learn which species are native to your area. When you create a “permaculture,” the plants and critters thrive alongside each other, creating nitrogen-rich soil which requires very minimal interference.
Plant ground cover alternatives. Channel early European gardens by planting low-profile ground cover like thyme and chamomile.
Dabble in “xeriscaping.” According to West Coast Seeds, xeriscaping is “a system of landscaping with water conservation as the priority.” There are five pillars: plant selection, grouping, grading, mulching and efficient irrigation. This would see grass lawns replaced with low-maintenance flora (like succulents or warm climate grasses) that require very little watering and weeding, and are drought-resistant.
Be a “Lazy Lawn Mower.” If you are not in a position to rewild your grass lawn, declare yourself to be a Lazy Lawn Mower. Print this sign and then put your feet up and relax; mow every two weeks. Bonus points to those who use an electric or push-mower. Oh, and leave those clippings on the lawn.
Before charging ahead, be mindful of:
- Just because you can extoll the virtues of rewilding your yard, doesn’t mean your efforts won’t attract attention from your municipality. Be especially mindful of any landscaping you do in close proximity to sidewalks and boulevards, which cities are responsible for. Learn from this homeowner.
- If you live in a strata-managed community, it is prudent to thoroughly read the bylaws before charging ahead with any DIY landscaping on shared property. What’s more, stratas typically contract a landscaping company to maintain green spaces. Joining the strata council is the most productive way to affect change.
- It’s worth noting that some flowers better attract bees than others. Here’s a round-up of pollinator-friendly flora.
- While installing artificial turf lawns does reduce the volume of water and pesticides related to maintaining a lawn, they can contribute to “heat islands.” Experiments with “self-cooling” artificial turf are happening in The Netherlands but still represent an opportunity cost for living, biodiverse green spaces.
- A little education goes a long way. This homeowner installed a placard on his front lawn, explaining his rewilding efforts to passersby.
The more we see biodiverse lawns, the more mainstream they become. Starting conversations with neighbours, swapping knowledge and observing the return of birds and butterflies will generate positive momentum for a rewilding of the iconic family lawn.