Say Good-bye to Lawns

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, August 1, 1997

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 lawns.

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

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.