Say Good-Bye to Lawns

Living on the Earth, August 1, 1997: Say Good-bye to Lawns

One of these real hot summer days, about noon, go stand in the middle of a large
lawn. There's no shade. You become hot and thirsty very quickly.  Here comes the
lawn-service crew to care for the grass the way advertisements say they should.
What is it today?  A high-nitrogen, energy-intensive fertilizer, or an insect
poison sprayed on the soil?  Maybe it's an herbicide designed to kill anything
that is edible or flowering. 

No, today it's the weekly mowing; three machines start roaring away.  It's too
hot. There's nothing to eat. Too much noise. No birds to watch.  Let's go find
some shade.

We are at a turning point in the reputation of an American icon.

A large lawn, the main feature of many yards, is rapidly falling out of favor.
Recent research indicates that lawn fertilizers pollute Long Island Sound.  The
herbicides used on our lawns have been connected to cancer in dogs. Insecticides
and fungicides not only harm beneficial organisms in the soil, but also create
toxic environments in their manufacture.  And, lawn mowers are many times more
polluting than automobiles. 

Maybe you've heard the lawn industry's response to this criticism which talks
about how much oxygen grass creates and how it absorbs air pollutants.  And this
is true. It is certainly better to have a lawn than say, asphalt or gravel.
(Think about what mall parking lots, spreading like a cancer across the land,
feel like on a summer day.)  Compared to any of nature's environments, however,
the forest or meadow, wetland, pond or thicket, or an organic garden, a lawn
(especially a chemically-maintained one) is a desert, inhospitable at best or
toxic at worst to most living things except grass and geese.  A large lawn
invites to Japanese beetles to take up residence; they love to reproduce in

Most natural environments are complex, multi-story polycultures.  From the tops
of mature trees to the tips of their roots deep in the soil, we find intricate
webs of relationships between plants and animals. Oaks and maples provide places
to live and food for lichens, insects, mammals and birds, and shade for lower
growing trees like dogwoods, which in turn shelter blackcap raspberries or
blueberries, ferns and fungi.  Food and homes are available for millions of
living things. Reproduction, growth, death and decay all occur simultaneously.
In most environments, these relationships have evolved over thousands of years.
They are fairly stable, yet paradoxically they are flexible and always changing.

How can we restore diversity?  First, except for paths and seating areas, we can
stop mowing the lawn. With a reduced area to mow, hand tools are sufficient.
Second, plant some trees and shrubs.  Remember how hot it was in the middle of
the lawn at noon?  Choose native species with shapes, mature heights and root
systems which are appropriate for your site.  You'll want to create summer shade
around your house and outdoor living areas, without blocking winter sun from the
house, or summer sun from your vegetable garden. 

Although we may not think of vegetable gardens as natural, they have been an
important feature of our region for thousands of years.  Humans must eat. There
is no more ecologically-sensible way to feed ourselves than to grow food near
where we live. An organic vegetable garden is very friendly to diversity and to
the environment. 

The large lawn (green until a dry spell turns it brown) is an artificial
creation, encouraged by those who want to sell us lawn mowers, lawn chemicals
and lawn-irrigation systems.  It is also part of the "dumbing down" of human
beings.  In earlier times, in order to survive, everyone had to know hundreds of
different plants: ones that were good for food, flavoring, medicine, fence
posts, or even roof rafters.  Now, with enough lawn, all you need to know is how
to mow and how to apply an ecologically-disastrous 4-step lawn-care program.   

Forget your lawn and focus on your vegetable garden, flowers, native shrubs and
cooling trees. Soon your lawn will fade away, and you will find yourself
surrounded by the ever-changing beauty and complexity, the sheltering and
nourishing bounty of our native environment.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

(C) 1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491

Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays  Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid.  These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.