In terms of sustainability in the landscape, there is no other example, greater that illustrates unsustainable practice then the American lawn. We have made the lawn almost a staple of the American landscape and doing so at the decline of our ecosystems.
As ecologically unfounded as it is, suburban developments and in particular homeowner’s associations regulations require certain lawn heights. Some people have been fined, received nasty letters, looked at in a harsh way by neighbors and are socially ostracized. And for a free country to have mandates within their community, such that every homeowner needs to have a lawn looking exactly the same depletes the idea of individuality, the same concept in which our nation was founded.
Lawns are Monocultures: A biological desert. Simple ecosystems, like monoculture lawns support very few species. In fact, lawns are called biological deserts because of their lack of support of other species and because of their lack of sustainability. They are prone to disease, insect outbreaks and other invasive species. When clippings are bagged and removed from mowing, nutrients are also removed and lost. Lawns then require enormous amounts of chemicals in order to sustain a healthy appearance. This requires constant attention and a lot of your hard-earned dollars and resources.
Lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the United States. Recent satellite pictures are showing lawns now occupy 45.6 million acres, or 23% of urbanized land, which is 3 times the size of the state of New Jersey. This is a terrible fact in terms of our use of our most delicate and needed natural resource, water. Studies show that trends in development from urban to suburban areas give reason to suggest that these numbers will grow. This means that the American lawn has a larger footprint then corn. And is now the largest irrigated crop in our country. This is outrageously wasteful and is not something the media covers - but should.
Conventional construction practices in this country supply homes solely with potable drinking water and in many areas water is in very short supply. Lawn irrigation on the east coast of the united States accounts for 30% of water use, while the west coast uses over 60% of available water. It’s truly an issue that needs to be addressed not only in the media, but by professionals in the landscape industry. While there is money to be made in the lawn growing, install and maintenance industries, savings could be a part of the equation for homeowners, commercial property owners, and golf course managers and owners by simply reducing the lawn areas on their properties.
Developers, engineers, municipalities and most people involved in the development industry have used lawns to control storm water run-off. This design / engineering concept is a huge misconception. There is no difference from lawns and the compaction of the soils beneath them as concrete areas in terms of water not being able to infiltrate the soils. Instead, water hits the hard ground covered by lawn, runs off into some local piping and sent off into our waterways, streams, rivers, lakes and eventually our drinking water reservoirs. After construction, lawns are compacted from mowing, walking and being played on, which creates this imperviable surface and increases the pollution of our local waters. This also causes flooding in some areas of the country which can be devastating for those communities for months or even years. The turfgrasses that are commonly used, have shallow root systems. Therefore, the soils beneath are not opened allowing water to infiltrate. Rainwater as a result, has nowhere to go but to run off and is thus lost to the system.
A study out of the University of Florida has estimated that one gas mower produces more air pollution than 43 new cars driving 12,000 miles each. These estimates show that gas-powered lawn equipment produces as much as one tenth of the smog-forming pollutants as all mobile sources, and that Americans use 800 billion gallons of gasoline every year in lawn maintenance activities. What’s even worse is the spilling of gas each year while filling lawn equipment. More gas has been spilled then the entire Exxon-Valdez oil spill. This gasoline runs off during storms and into our waterways, contributing to pollution and killing fish and other wildlife.
Lawn care requires many toxic chemicals, pollutants and toxins. The American lawn care industry is a 32 billion dollar a year profit making machine. The industry has made this money because they’ve convinced us that we are less than perfect if our lawns are not as green or weed-free as our neighbors. So, we either hire a “professional” lawn care company or we go out and buy weed-n-feed, herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides. We drag our bags and containers of poisons and spray and spread our way to harmony with our neighbors.
We are indefinitely putting far more of these chemicals into the environment than are necessary. This “more is better” mentality, according to the National Audubon Society, means that an estimated 70 million pounds of pesticides are applied to lawns each year. This amount is ten times more then agricultural crops. Sales of lawn care pesticides in the United States account for one third of total world expenditure on pesticides.
The second problem stems from rainwater run-off. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40-60% of fertilizer applied to lawns ends up in surface and groundwater, contaminating them with excess nutrients. These excess nutrients lead to algal blooms, low dissolved oxygen, and impaired ecological health in our rivers, lakes ponds and coastal waters.
This crisis is especially evident every spring and summer when a dead zone larger then the state of New Jersey forms in the Gulf of Mexico. As spring rains flow down the Mississippi River, excess fertilizer is washed into the gulf. This adds to lack of oxygen and massive die-offs of shrimp and fish, crucial residence of the gulf coast.
There is yet another crisis due to this pollution. And that is the decline of songbirds as well as raptors. This alarm was first sounded by Rachel Carson in 1962 in her best-selling book, “Silent Spring.” Even though the harmful chemical DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, other countries around the world still use it. Despite the banning of DDT for sale in the United States, other chemicals with toxic effects are still being used in this country. If you read the labels of chemicals bought in garden centers, most of them contain warnings to wear protective clothing, goggles, gloves, and respiratory protection. If you need to wear such protective gear to apply it, how safe is it for wildlife?
Lawn fertilizers and weed control chemicals are hurting trees. Applying lawn fertilizer that contains weed killer is often dangerous for your trees and applying it to the lawn above the tree's root system could seriously harm or kill the tree. Weed and feed often contains chemicals to kill broadleaf weeds. The problem is many deciduous trees have the same characteristics as broadleaf plants. Broadleaf herbicides can cause tree leaf discoloring or curling, branch death or complete tree death.
The worst time to spread weed and feed on your lawn is in the Spring. This is when trees are working overtime to put out new shoots. Growth is easily stalled and reversed in the spring. If you wait until summer heat takes over, it might not affect your tree as greatly.
Try to spot treat or pull weeds instead. Some roots extend 30-40 feet from the trunk. You can also use nontoxic, organic weed killing products that doesn't have the same damaging effect due to it's lack of broadleaf herbicides. In an effort to create the perfect lawn, don't neglect the health of your trees. Once the trees are damaged, it can take years to reverse. If you've been spreading lawn fertilizer to the detriment of your trees, the first thing you should do is thoroughly water the soil surrounding the tree.
I’m not suggesting we eliminate lawns entirely. I’m suggesting looking at our functionality and over all purpose of why we use lawns. My goal is to encourage you to reduce the amount of lawn space, especially space that you don’t use and to re-think your gardening priorities. For example, why not have more plants to attract butterfly’s, songbirds, hummingbirds, non-aggressive bees? Landscapes can me made so beautiful with the right design and the right guidance without an over abondance of useless and ecologically harmful lawn areas. Using artificial turf is actually a better alternative for some areas. In particular those yards with higher levels of activity.
Most importantly, if you can’t afford a large landscape project, mulch is a much better alternative to reducing the carbon footprint then lawns. I also encourage you to use native plants. If you have problems with deer eating your plants, there are some great alternatives as well. Please visit our website for more about native plants and plants deer rarely browse at: www.danieleginton.com/native-plants. And please think about reducing the amount of lawn space in your yard and adding beautiful plants instead.