The lawn as we know it is a fairly recent invention. You can find its origins in the manicured estates of the European aristocracy. Devoting acres of land to high maintenance turf was a way to flaunt your wealth. It meant you had so much land that you could take some out of crop production and devote it entirely to being decorative. And further, that you had the staff to maintain it to exacting standards.
The standard suburban turf grass lawn — green, neat, tidy — is still a status symbol. It implies that the owner is comfortably middle class or higher. It still requires staff to maintain it too: many a weekend is devoted to trimming, weeding, rolling, spraying, aerating, raking, watering, and fertilizing. If you are especially wealthy, you can afford specialized equipment for the job, or you can have a service in to all this work for you.
The lawn as a concept is so ubiquitous that some 128,000 square kilometres is devoted to it in the USA. According to NASA, that’s three times more acres of lawns than irrigated corn.
Here’s the thing, though: from an ecological standpoint, that green lawn is a desert. Its also a huge contributor to carbon emissions.
Let’s address the first point. We clip our lawns very short, so they don’t provide a decent habitat for anything but the smallest of ground dwelling insects. We’re careful to roll everything flat and fill in holes, so nothing dares burrow. We spray for “weeds” and eliminate any flowers for pollinators. We also don’t fancy bugs very much, so we kill grubs and other critters with pesticides. So from a wildlife point of view, that’s tens of thousands of square kilometres that are essentially no longer habitable or food bearing.
As for carbon emissions, we can look at direct and indirect production. Most of us still use gas lawnmowers (and gas-powered weedwhackers and leaf blowers), which are highly inefficient. The US Environmental Protection agency (EPA) estimates that hour-for-hour, gas-powered lawn mowers produce 11 times as much pollution as a new car. The government of Canada suggests that a single lawn mower produces 48 kilograms of greenhouse gas in a season.
Oh, and they’re noisy and smelly!
Meanwhile, think of all the additional emissions generated to bring you: grass seed, weed killer, bug killer, and all the tools and machinery you use. While we’re at it, let’s think about how wasteful it is for every single household to have a dedicated lawn mowing machine. A number of lawnmower maintenance sites suggest that the average lawnmower is used for about 60 hours per year. That means it just sits around in your garage for 99.4% of the year.
Lawns are also water hogs. Landscape irrigation (lawn watering) is estimated to account for nearly 1/3 of residential water use, or an average of 27 billion litres every day (EPA).
Finally, all those lawn chemicals contribute to waterway pollution and fertilizer run-off, which creates algae blooms that kill wildlife.
So, there’s very little to love about lawns.
All of that said, it’s easy to see why we still have them. They’re ‘normal’ to us, because we grew up with them. Kids and dogs like playing on them. We like imposing order on our surroundings.
How to make our lawns ‘greener’
Fortunately, there are a lot of easy fixes, many of which involve *less* work than what you’re doing.
- If you’re constrained by local bylaws or a homeowners association, and can’t (easily) change the composition of your lawn, you can still decarbonize by switching to electric mowers and tools. The latest generation of tools have enough power and torque to handle most lawns and there are even decent electric riding lawnmower options now. You could also shop around for a ‘green’ lawn service that uses electric machines. If you have a small lawn, you could also just use a reel mower.
- On that note, you can call around to your local lawn service companies and ask if they use electric equipment (even if you already know they don’t and/or you can’t afford to use a service anyway). If they feel they’re losing potential customers by using fossil fuels, they might start decarbonizing their fleets.
- You can reduce or eliminate your fertilizer needs by adding nitrogen fixing plants to your lawn. Clover, for example, used to be standard in lawns until weed management chemicals killed them off.
- Speaking of which, consider accepting imperfection, and give the weed killers a miss. If you must control weeds, switch to corn gluten application in the spring to stop most weeds from sprouting in the first place.
- Get your lawn tested and investigate what local mycorrhizal fungi you should add to your lawn. These fungi have a symbiotic relationship with certain plant roots, and help plants absorb phosphorous, potassium, calcium, copper, and iron. They also help with water uptake.
- You can reduce or eliminate your water bill by setting up rain barrels to catch rain water and save it for dry days. You can also reduce evaporation by watering very early in the morning or late at night when it’s cooler. More water gets to the plants this way.
- Other water saving options include setting up ‘rain gardens’ and ‘grey water systems.’ A rain garden uses roof run-off and rain water to nourish water loving plants like lilies and reeds. Always use what’s native to your region. A grey water system reuses water from things like showers, sinks, washing machines and dishwashers. Be sure you’re using environmentally-friendly soaps and not dumping anything bad down the drain.
- You can also just let your grass go brown in peak summer heat. Grasses have a natural dormancy cycle they use to conserve nutrients, and they can generally stay that way for as much as a month.
- If you have looser local regulations, consider over seeding with a regionally-appropriate “low mow” or “no mow” seed mixture. These produce short grasses and flowers that need only a few lawnmower passes per year, or sometimes none at all.
- You can reduce the total area of lawn you need to mow by planting native shrubs and trees.
- You can also convert sections of your lawn to native flower gardens. Or go all out and convert everything! It doesn’t have to be a meadow wild riot – it’s possible to have an orderly wildflower garden if that suits you more.
- Finally, you might be able to get past local regulations by converting everything to food production. While this isn’t ideal from an ecology point of view, it does save on greenhouse emissions, and you get produce out of it, which will help you save on your grocery bill.