Monday, July 22, 2013

Suicidal Lawns

I live in a young suburban development, and most of the houses have nothing but lawn right up to the foundation walls. A few homes have thin planting beds filled with the following overused, non-native, big box junk plants: barberry, hosta, spiraea, boxwood, rose (that's right, I went there), japanese maple (good luck in zone 5), and a host of others. These plants do very little to nothing for native wildlife.

I have a neighbor who just yesterday essentially scalped his lawn, making the burned areas more burned looking as we face five weeks without rain and temps in the 90s. Another neighbor mows 3 times a week no matter the weather. Sprinkler zones run 20 short minutes at a time around 4pm in the hottest and windiest part of the day, clouds of mist wafting on to the street to evaporate. But any passing pedestrians do get a nice pick me up.

Lawns aren't completely stupid -- if you have younger kids that need a play space, go for it. Lawns also provide negative space in landscape design, a place for the eye to rest. But lawns are ecological dead zones. Lawns are helping us destroy our planet. Lawns don't create a positive environmental impact (please, shut up before you talk about lawns aiding carbon sequestration or cooling -- stop trying to defend your antiquated thinking and comparing a lawn to prairie or woodland).

An entrance to a local park -- a mile or two in is some prairie.
Doug Tallamy notes bird species are down 50% in the last few decades, primarily as their habitat -- and habitat for the insects they eat -- is eroded by our blind insanity. Further:

"We’ve come to see plants as decorations,” adds Tallamy. Turf is one of those plants. Lots with lawns don’t clean water, don’t provide clean air, and don’t support wildlife. Developed spaces are trying to borrow ecosystems services from elsewhere, but there is no “other place” where these ecosystem services are produced. “Our yards support very little biodiversity because they were not designed to do that,” says Tallamy. “We can save nature if we learn to live with nature." (full article here)

Last night I saw a promo on the local news -- 5 steps you can take to help the environment. You know what it sounded like? Like being environmentally aware is equivalent to holding a door for someone, volunteering at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, a hobby that makes you feel better -- a craft project. I'll tell you what helping the environment really is: 5 steps to not kill your kids.

Our current great monoculuture is lawn. Slathered in chemicals we absorb and that lead to birth defects, developmental disorders, cognitive disorders, cancer.... The CDC tested 1,000 people for some 20 common pesticides and found 13 in their systems. That's not just lawn, of course, that's what we eat. I always wonder what we drag into our house on the bottom of our shoes -- what babies then crawl through.What pets roll in.

Acreages near Lincoln. AKA deadzone-ville.
Lawn does not help biodiversity. Lawn does not filter ground water (like a prairie does). Lawn is us exerting our will on the planet and being sheep -- but oh, if only we ate our grass like good sheep instead of spewing out toxic mower exhaust that leads to lung diesease and hypertension and hearing loss. One hour of mowing is equivalent to driving a car 100 miles when it comes to exhaust emissions; I've heard estimates several times that, though.

Last year's drought decimated pollinating insects -- and if you don't garden for pollinating insects, you don't garden right. Period. They are the base of the food chain for most life. Honeybee colonies are vanishing to a point where we can't keep up with food production, and now we must turn to native bee populations which are many times more efficient, pollinating a greater diversity of flowers and more of them. But native bee populations are also being decimated.

"I just wish there were more incentives for people — not just farmers — to plant a more diversified landscape that provides nutritional resources for all kinds of pollinators," says the UIUC Entomology Department chair. "Plant more flowers! And be a little more tolerant of the weeds in the garden." And not just in the garden, but in agricultural fields where prairie strips heal the soil and create better yields -- same could happen in your landscape if you have veg and cut out as much lawn as you can.

Tax dollars hard at work -- and look at those CO2 emissions.
Less lawn. Less plants that are more like statues, and more plants that are like fireworks displays or supernovas -- shooting off fragments of life, creating life, having a purpose beyond ourselves. Lawns aren't REALLY places for kids to play since there's nothing there: no fireflies (need leaf litter for them), no butterflies, no flowers, no sticks, no trees, no places to hide, no places to explore, no places to develop an imagination that makes kids smarter, more confident, and healthier. And beyond that, every school, k-12, should have a large garden space where kids in every subject area work: art, music (if we haven't cut those programs), math, science, history. We're creating a population that relies on drugs instead of nature to heal our mental, emotional, and physical ills. It's insane!

Being environmentally conscious (by having less lawn) is not a hobby -- it's a way to stave off suicide. It's a way to protect your kid's future. It's a way to live more fully. Walk across a lawn, then walk through a meadow -- the difference is emotionally palpable. When explorers first came into the Great Plains prairies there were two reactions: one seeing it as a desert, one seeing it as an eden. Lewis and Clark counted hundreds of fish species when they tossed out a single net into the Missouri river, and hundreds of wildflower species on the banks, with deer and antelope bounding across the plain. Others saw the vast horizon of monotonous grass as having nothing, no value, no life -- but in actuality this is the American lawn, our simplified, knock-off version of English aristocracy that has killed America. It's also not a space that creates a park-like feel in suburbia, or brings humans together like 19th century landscape architects professed; lawn separates us from the earth and ultimately from the ones we hold most dear. Lawn is a gentle, slow suicide.

Yup, that's my lawn. And my 1,500' non-spray-anything garden.
*I want to point out I have lawn -- 2/3 of my backyard is lawn. If I had an extra $500 I'd till it up and seed it in prairie. If local ordinances allowed anything above 6" the front yard would be gone, too. But I tell you this: I don't water lawn in the middle of the day. I don't even fertilize it. I let it burn up in August and watch it green up like moss in fall and spring. I mow once a month, if that. You can tell me I have no right to criticize lawns when I have plenty of it, but it doesn't make what I said above any less true. Why is Los Angeles paying residents $2 a square foot to rip out their lawn? Because lawns shouldn't be in arid LA -- just as they shouldn't be in great portions of North America (like Nebraska). And they certainly shouldn't be maintained with petrochemicals that poison us, our kids, our pets, with fertilizers that emit greenhouse gases as they sit in the lawn and as they are produced with oil and water. Lawns are as sustainable as a flamethrower-armed zombie apocalypse. Without greater diversity in our landscapes we are all doomed, doomed I tell you -- physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.


James Golden said...

I agree. I'm fortunate enough to have no lawn.

Benjamin Vogt said...

James--Did anyone on your tour mention you might want some lawn for negative space? To rest the eye?

Gaia Gardener: said...

Great rant! I especially like (and agree with, wholeheartedly) your statement, "I'll tell you what helping the environment really is: 5 steps to not kill your kids." Too few people realize that saving the Earth is saving the Earth so that humans can live on it! Almost no matter what we do to the planet, the cockroaches will probably be just fine. Keep it up - you're doing great work.

Jenny Peterson said...

A great alternative is for people to find out if there is a native grass that does well in their area -- in central Texas where I live, the Wildflower Center developed a native seed mix with the University of Texas. It's drought tolerant and does not need fertilizing like more traditional lawns, so there is an alternative for those people who really like to have that grassy experience in their yard.

David C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David C. said...

When an ex-coworker and another peer spoke of resting eyes on lawn, I knew they needed me more than I needed or wanted either. Or maybe just deck them:-) Others at the 1st big firm saw the difference. No matter the ecoregion, defaulting to lawn (or gravel mulch) is not a sign of one being in the right field. Keep up the good fight, Prof. Prairie.

Your images stir up so much for me on possibilities. I can see each as prairie, not blahgrass or fescue ghettos.

RE: comment to James' tour, only the visitors from OK and NE were freaked out at my old place's various design elements. But at 4 tours in 2 years, most loved lawnless, colored hardscape, and desert natives.

Anonymous said...

I love your line - lawns aren't really places to play' so true.
My son's don't like our lawn - too prickly. It will be gone soon enough.

They'd even prefer mud or dirt over grass. Places to EXPLORE and discover. Thanks for your wonderful blog it gives me hope!! Coming from suburban NJ and now in California.

Anonymous said...

Agreed! Children in my neighborhood love visiting my turf-free garden to enjoy the color and textures of the plants, search for tadpoles and fish in the pond, discover insects and help water the newly planted (native) plants rather than play on their own front lawns! We all enjoy together the nature we have attempted to imitate in my suburban garden. Who needs lawn?!

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