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Dr. Dirt
September 2014

Part 1 of 3
The Lawn Ethic: A Belief Whose Time
Has Come and Gone

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."  – Aldo Leopold

The quote from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac encapsulates his concept of a “land ethic.” It was written almost seventy years ago. The bulk of human activity since then has been, in this light, wrong. In terms of landscape design, construction and maintenance, a clear case of ecological wrongness is the prominence of the lawn across the continent. This thought is not news, but does seem worth re-visiting.

This first in three articles on the lawn will take a look at why this is a poor ecological choice and highly unsustainable, at least on the scale at which it is used: US lawns now cover an area the size of New York state, approximately 50,000 square miles (32 million acres), with another 600 square miles added each year. The second article will focus on reducing turf areas and consider alternatives to lawns. And the third article will take a look at how to create and maintain a more sustainable lawn area, when a bit of lawn is called for.

I hear cries of “But I like my lawn!” Yes, in their favor and for more than half the year, lawns are nice to look at; they unify neighborhoods; they invite bare feet and picnics and lazy summer afternoon snoozes; they are great for many types of outdoor play, from croquet and kids’ games to serious sports events held on turfgrass; and they seem safe, as opposed to the deep dark treacherous woods.  And, as green plants, they do breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, all to the good of the planet.

Lawns are also engraved in most of our minds as a fundamental aesthetic, as the way the landscape is supposed to look. There is, in the US, a true “lawn ethic.” We believe that lawns, with some added decoration from trees, shrubs and perennials, are the landscape. Design-wise, the lawn is largely a theft from England and the country estate garden: the manse, the greensward (with bucolic cows), and a distant copse of trees. This, without the cows, is the essential American landscape today. It got a boost with the invention of the lawn mower in 1830 in England, but well into the Twentieth Century, people were still growing vegetables and fruits in their front yards, as well as perennials for flowers, food and medicinals, and a lot of chickens and pigs, even in urban settings.

The wholesale dominance of what has been called the “Industrial Lawn” in the US is a more recent phenomenon, primarily post-Second World War. A boom in families and in new housing allowed most Americans to have a family mini-manse with a small greensward, and these proliferated in planned suburbs, which exploded in the post-war years. The monocultured, over-maintained lawn took hold in earnest in the 1950s, and in no small part as a result of brilliant promotional campaigns by fertilizer and chemical companies (which continue in force today). The ideal household of 4.6 was floating on an ocean of monocultural grass. Unfortunately, this manse-with-greensward model spread not just across New England, where the cool, moist climate was at least conducive to typical turfgrass species, but also across the continental US, and often in drier and/or hotter climatic regimes, not conducive to turfgrass.

Add to the climate difficulties the problem that lawns (even in New England) can only be supported by a barrage of chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, rodenticides), pH adjustment, irrigation, dethatching, overseeding, and weekly mowing.

So why is this so bad? There are many reasons why lawns are not good landscape solutions:

  • biodiversity is at an absolute low in turf monocultures; in general, low biological diversity makes a system less stable and less resilient to impacts, there are far fewer natural checks and balances and far less redundancy; and therefore, as a natural system becomes more sterile, the more outside inputs are required to support it and help stabilize it (artificial fertilizers, artificial pest control, etc.);
  • the chemicals (particularly fertilizers and pesticides) needed to maintain Industrial Lawns are petroleum-based, adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide; such chemicals are often detected in runoff water and in groundwater, over-nutrifying or adding toxic compounds to downstream systems; most pesticides are generalists and not target-specific, so they kill not only the pests but also beneficial organisms which otherwise help stabilize the system; pesticides are usually  toxic at some level to humans, too, and the people who get the highest levels of exposure are those who mix the high-concentration chemicals and who use them frequently;
  • recommended pH for turfgrass is higher than most other plants prefer (in New England in particular), so that raising pH for the lawn creates nutrient-access difficulties for other plantings in the area; lawns also compete seriously with trees and shrubs for water and nutrients;
  • most “industrial” turf is irrigated, and typically this is done with fresh potable water and done on a timer, irrespective of rainfall; the source of this water is often the local municipal supply, which is increasingly endangered: up to sixty percent of fresh water usage in the US is for lawns, especially in the West;
  • heavier rainfall landing on turfgrass typically runs off rather than soaking in; surface runoff on lawns can approach that of asphalt: lawn has been described as “green concrete;” this runoff will include fertilizers and pesticides that have been applied;
  • lawn maintenance  is polluting: an hour’s operation of a lawn mower has been calculated to be the air pollution equivalent of driving a standard car 350 miles.

So the lawn is an ecological disaster. Moreover, to perform the above maintenance regime successfully requires a large arsenal of highly specialized equipment:  mowers of course, but also rototillers, sodcutters, seeders, edgers, trimmers, dethatchers, overseeders, spreaders, sprayers, pumps, irrigation systems, and so on. And most of this equipment is powered by petroleum products (=greenhouse gas increase), and most of it has a fairly high life-cycle cost (mining, refining, manufacture, distribution, maintenance, disposal).

Finally, maintaining turf is extremely labor-intensive. It takes a lot of time to mow, fertilize, water, dethatch, etc., a lawn the size of the state of New York. This has resulted in a massive lawn care industry in the US, almost all of it developing in the last fifty years. At one end of the spectrum is the company consisting of one worker with a pickup truck and a mower. These folks tic up during times of higher unemployment, and tend to low-ball their way into jobs. Their customers get what they pay for. At the other end of the spectrum is the company running multiple mowing crews, bidding on condo, business, and corporate jobs, with hundreds or thousands of acres on their weekly to-do lists, and annual billings into six and seven figures. In the middle are a lot of mid-size companies, some of whom include maintenance in their portfolio and many who do lawn care almost exclusively. Over forty billion dollars are spent annually on lawns in the US.

Am I suggesting putting all these people out of business? Not exactly, but I am pointing out that the omnipresent lawn is basically a fad or style that will be coming to an end soon, a design element that has run its course. The next two decades will see a wholesale reduction in intensive lawn maintenance: Lawns are going to be more and more expensive as petroleum gets ever scarcer, and as mandatory controls become ever-stricter on carbon dioxide production, water use, and chemical use and pollution.

So what are those in the lawn business to do? In my opinion, as lawn acreage decreases, landscape maintenance work will remain robust, but different. Designs will be more ecological and more in tune with climate, soils, water regimes, and the host of environmental variables that impinge on a site. Local/individual vegetable, fruit and protein production will increase, displacing lawns. More areas will revert to naturalized and less intensively maintained landscapes. Through management of natural successional processes at a later stage beyond the lawn (for example, meadow, or fruiting shrubs, or permaculture’s forest gardens), the high maintenance costs of turf will be eliminated. Contractors who continue to focus on lawns will also be eliminated, but there are plenty of alternative approaches that could keep them in business. More on this next month.

To sum up, the ecological footprint of a lawn is high. The lawn is not ecologically sustainable, focused as it is on countering, at great cost, the implacable successional push of nature. It is time to move on to more sustainable landscapes, and landscapes with higher aesthetic and ecological values. It is time for the “lawn ethic” to become a “land ethic.”

— Dr. Dirt was informed by John Hart, Emeritus Professor of Horticultural Technology at the Thompson School, UNH, Durham, that the concepts expressed here are covered in much more detail, with citations from the scientific literature, in Redesigning the American Lawn: a Search for Environmental Harmony, 2nd ed. (2001), by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press).



Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart