Lose The Lawn
"Lose the Lawn"

by Airie Middlebrook

We believe an attractive lawn earns us the approval of our neighbors. Dave Barry, the syndicated columnist said, “ The average American home owner would rather live next to a pervert, heroin addict or communist pornographer than someone with an un kempt lawn.” But how large a price will we continue to pay for our manicured green carpets?

As Americans we spend $27 billion per year caring for our turf and lawns- that’s ten times more than is spent on school textbooks! But it smells so good when it’s cut, it’s so pleasant to look at, it’s fun to roll and run on, it’s alive, it’s green and natural. Botanically speaking, a lawn is far from natural. Turf grass is a monoculture, developed to suppress, and out-compete all other species that would normally germinate in its place. If you choose to plant and maintain turf grass, you are essentially eliminating diversity in your home garden.

I recently took a drive through an established neighborhood and observed lawn after manicured lawn- no weeds and very few birds, and pollinators. In fact the only birds seen in most neighborhoods are English sparrows, English starlings and pigeons- all introduced from Europe. The Audubon Society reports that America has lost 30% of its songbirds. Other critters who are very scarce these days are toads and frogs. When was the last time you heard a frog croak in your neighborhood or observed a toad hopping along a path in your garden? Amphibians are especially susceptible to pesticides and herbicides, which turf management services routinely apply to keep grass free of weeds and bugs. Without the bugs, there’s no food for the toads. Bye! Bye!

In the West, most homeowners pour up to 60% of their household water on their lawns, trees and shrubs. In San Jose, California- where I work- we receive less than 12 inches of rain per year, but the landscapes we chose to plant in San Jose require 50-60 inches of rain to stay green! Did you know that a 25’ x 40’ lawn needs 10,000 gallons of water each summer? Many water districts in the west pay homeowners not to plant a lawn.

At most Home Depot stores, nearly 25% of aisle space is devoted to lawn care products. Rows of chemicals with the word “dead” in its myriad forms appears on the packaging. Rows of lawn mowers and other lawn care gas powered devices abound. On the weekends, otherwise quiet neighborhoods are filled with the rancor of power mowers, edgers, power pruners and leaf blowers. A 21” lawn mower spews out 20 times the amount of pollution than the average car on the road today. There has been little federal or state regulation of small engine emissions in use today. Breathing fumes from these small engines is unhealthy and degrading for those making their living in the turf and lawn industry, let alone the weekend gardener.

The lawn monoculture cannot survive without an elaborate life-support system, which is deadly. Phosphate based fertilizers, garden pesticides and herbicides have been showing up increasingly in our streams and bays, carried there by over watering and storm run off.

Particularly offensive are lawns that are planted next to curbs and in parking strips as all the run-off from these areas flow to storm drains and eventually to the rivers and bays. Herbicides can also be blamed for contaminating ground water and poisoning fish, bees, and birds.

The bird lover who puts out a bird feeder and then sprays his or her lawn with chemicals might as well sit outside and take pot shots at birds that come to feed. If you use chemicals on your lawn, you have them in your carpet. Once inside, they can be present for up to a
year. According to data supplied by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the NIH (The National Institute of Health) of the 18 most commonly used herbicides, seven (7) cause cancer, six (6) cause reproductive defects, eight (8) are neuro-toxic, nine (9) are damaging to the kidneys and liver, and 14 are irritants. Americans use 4.5 billion pounds of toxic pesticides a year in home gardens, more per acre than is used in agriculture.

Today I visited a client who wants to replace her lawn with native plants. As I entered her housing development, I drove past lawn after lawn – each one as well groomed as the next. Homeowners willingly pay for yard work and the extra water that it costs each month to keep the grass green. Over a ten-year period the cost of maintaining a typical lawn is $10,000. How do we attach a number to the cost of environmental degradation or the wasting of hundreds of gallons of water? When prices are determined for fresh water, for phosphate fertilizers, for harmful pesticides and herbicides, are chemical companies calculating the social and environmental costs when they determine the price of the commodity they’re selling to the public? And who is going to pay for this shortfall in the future?

Lawns are TMT – Too Much Trouble: they waste water we don’t have, they create yard waste- which must be disposed of, they cost thousands of dollars to maintain, and they require poisons to stay green!

But what can be done? The lawn care industry employs thousands of laborers. Homeowners have more leisure time and it’s easy to write the gardener’s check each month. No one wants to put someone out of a job. People resist change. That’s where this article started. We believe we have the approval of our neighbors. We don’t want to stand out, we want to fit in! But looking at the bigger picture, we also hope to survive as a species too and pass on our genes to our grandchildren, so gardening and environmental responsibility go hand in hand.

Did ou know that a monocultured lawn can be replaced with native plants, and that once these plants are established they require no water, no pesticides, no fertilizer and minimal care?

A cost benefit analysis comparing natives to a conventional lawn after 20 years reflected an 80% savings in labor costs. Not to mention water savings or benefits to the environment, which were not quantified in the study.

How much is it worth to a neighborhood of families to have songbirds and bees and frogs and toads once again in the yards of young children? Let’s bury the lawn aesthetic once and for all and instead use nature without abusing her. We can learn how native plants evolved as an ecological system through the process of natural selection without any input from human beings, and by employing principles of design and science; we can create a garden that is inspired by nature and fits in beautifully in our neighborhood. How about a woodland garden, a garden that attracts birds and butterflies, or frogs and toads or a wild flower meadow full of riotous color in the spring and quiet bunch grasses in the winter? When designed and built properly, any of these gardens can be beautiful, inexpensive and easy to maintain solutions to the TMT lawn.

In future articles, I’ll discuss the specifics of how you can design and build beautiful gardens according to the natural plant community where your home is found.

In short, you will learn to garden with plants that naturally grow where you live and you’ll be free of the TMT syndrome as well as the money it requires. But perhaps, more importantly you’ll be gardening with mother-nature, not against her.