Getting the Dirt on Lawns

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If you have a lawn, you're not alone. NASA took some photos from space and concluded that the United States alone has 31,630,000 acres of lawn. (NASA also wanted me to tell you that it's time to clean out your gutters.) That's nearly twice the size of the 100 largest U.S. cities put together. If only turf were a truly beneficial element of gardening, we could be proud of our accomplishment. (How did we get to this point, anyway? See the nearby sidebar "The lawns that ate America" for some background.)

The lawns that ate America

Lawns got off to a poor start. They became popular in the 1600s, when British landowners began to compete to see who could take the most arable land out of production and plant it with the brazenly useless crop of turf. The English climate is ideal for such a silly pursuit, of course, with its constant supply of moisture, agreeable native grasses, and plenty of sheep to keep the results cropped into respectability.

For a long time, lawns were exclusively for the privileged. But two mid-19th-century inventions, one coming closely on the heels of the other, are responsible for the stunning explosion of turf, especially in the New World. First, vulcanization of rubber permitted the development of reliable garden hoses, which were essential for watering, especially in the drier climate of North America. Next, the invention of the mechanical lawn mower enabled the average sheepless homeowner to keep turf under control. The lawn soon became a symbol of democracy and prosperity, enabling the humblest suburbanite to enjoy the fantasy of being the lord of the manor.

Over time, lawns turned into an industry, and today $30 billion a year is spent in the U.S. just on professional lawn care, not to mention the efforts of homeowners themselves and the vast array of technologies that are thrown at modern lawns. This situation wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the negative impacts of turf: global warming, noise from powered equipment, probable to definite risks of cancer and other diseases from turf chemicals (see the study by Cornell University at envirocancer. or visit, water and air pollution, fossil-fuel use, habitat destruction, soil degradation, excess water consumption, mountains of clippings, and golf. Oh. Sorry, golfers. But really, couldn't you play on mulch?

Lawns have become a symbol of consumerism gone mad, and they pretty much deserve their bad reputation. Check out Figure 19-1 for an idea of how lawns adversely affect the environment.

Despite what the lawn industry — which is made up of sod and seed producers, fertilizer manufacturers, irrigation system companies, lawn care businesses, and others — says, lawns aren't all they're cracked up to be. Look at some of the negative effects of lawns that you'll never see in an ad for lawn care products:

  • Air pollution: Because mowers, edgers, trimmers, and so on operate without smog devices, they're responsible for at least 5 percent of U.S. air pollution. Each mower emits 80 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, generously contributing to global warming.
  • Wasted water: Lawns suck water like crazy. Between 30 and 60 percent of urban fresh water in the U.S. is used to keep lawns alive. Lawn water use amounts to 270 billion gallons per week, which is three times what's put on irrigated corn. It's enough to grow 81 million acres of organic food. So is it better to have 31 million acres of lawn or 81 million acres of pure, fresh food?

Figure 19-1:

The effects of lawns.

  • Air quality
  • 5% of U.S. air pollution 1 80 pounds CO2 a yearns


2% of fossil fuel use 800 million gallons a year

  • Green waste
  • 2 tons of fossil fuel use 190 million tons a year in U.S.



  • Air quality
  • 5% of U.S. air pollution 1 80 pounds CO2 a yearns

Figure 19-1:

The effects of lawns.


30-60% urban fresh water use 200 gallons per person a day 270 billion gallons a week

  • 67 million pounds a year
  • cancer and birth defects
  • 65% drifts away

Wildlife • dead zone no birds, bees, fish, or amphibians

at 200 mph • 60,000-70,000 injuries a year

Cost — • $30 billion a year

  • 67 million pounds a year
  • cancer and birth defects
  • 65% drifts away

Wildlife • dead zone no birds, bees, fish, or amphibians

  • Chemical fertilizer
  • nonrenewable
  • fossil fuel sources
  • runoff to streams
  • ruins soil
  • burns lawn

30-60% urban fresh water use 200 gallons per person a day 270 billion gallons a week

  • Overuse of fossil fuels: Each year, $5.25 billion is spent on fossil fuel-based lawn fertilizers. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that Americans burn 800 million gallons of gas in their mowers each year. Lawn care equipment (mowers, edgers, trimmers, and so on) accounts for 2 percent of American fossil fuel use.
  • Excessive use of dangerous pesticides: Sixty-seven million pounds of synthetic pesticides go on American lawns each year. Only 35 percent of those pesticides actually reach the plants; the rest drifts off to do harm. This leads to water and air pollution, global warming, loss of wildlife and beneficial insects, and numerous diseases (cancer, birth defects, and heart disease, for example).
  • Damaging fertilizers: Chemically based fertilizers are made from nonre-newable fossil fuels and other nasty stuff. They leach into the water supply and kill lakes by nourishing algae blooms that suck all the oxygen out of the water. Unlike gentle natural fertilizers made from organic sources, chemical fertilizers are salts that have a terrible effect on soil well-being; they kill the beneficial soil microorganisms on which the grass depends for its health. They also disappear suddenly, leaving your lawn without adequate nutrients.
  • Harm to wildlife: Lawns are dead zones for wildlife. Compared to a mixed planting of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals, a lawn contains almost no biodiversity and offers little or no habitat value. Plus many common lawn chemicals are toxic to bees, fish, and birds. Even the family dog isn't safe; there's twice the incidence of lymphoma and bladder cancer in dogs that live around pesticide-treated lawns.
  • Creation of green waste: A typical 1/3 acre lawn generates almost 2 tons of clippings a year. That's slightly shy of 190 million tons in the U.S. alone. Most of that is taken away in a fossil-fuel consuming truck and put in a landfill where it will never again be part of a living system.
  • Safety concerns: There are around 70,000 severe lawnmower accidents per year in the U.S. alone. Don't believe me? Think of it this way: A rotary mower can fire rocks at 200 miles per hour. Also consider what happens when you try cleaning out the chute while the mower is still running.
  • An abundance of noise. Stop with the racket already! Imagine your neighborhood on a Saturday morning without all the lawnmowers and blowers going at once. How peaceful that would be. Peace and quiet isn't an impossible dream.
  • High costs: Suppose you pay a gardener $50 a visit to mow your lawn. And suppose you live in a mild climate like mine where mowing is a year-round job. If you do that for 20 years, not accounting for inflation or raises for the poor sucker, you'll spend more than $50,000. This number doesn't even count the water, fertilizer, sprinkler repairs, replacement, weed control, and all the rest.

Having said all that, however, there are a few advantages to having a lawn:

  • A recent independent study found that if lawn clippings are left on the lawn after mowing, lawns can sequester significant quantities of carbon, which helps mitigate global warming — a big plus. (See the later section "Grasscycling" for more info.)
  • Grassed areas (as long as they aren't compacted or growing on heavy soil) absorb water readily, so they can soak up a lot of stormwater, preventing urban flooding and allowing groundwater recharge.
  • They produce oxygen, cool the air, and trap dust and crud.
  • Lawns don't burn, so they're handy if you live in a high fire hazard area.
  • They're soft and safe to play on.
  • They reduce glare.
  • And hey, they're pretty.

Are these benefits justified in light of the problems that lawns create?

Differing schools of thought exist, and no solid data takes into account the mitigating effects of organic lawn care.

Whatever the bottom line, lawns probably aren't going away any time soon, if ever. It's better not to have a lawn, but if you have one or want one, you can minimize its destructive effects by using one or more of the alternatives I present in this chapter.

Minimizing the Impact of the Lawn

You do have options. You can change your lawn and the way you manage it with significant positive results. Most of the changes aren't difficult or expensive. Some of them are even free and result in immediate savings in water and labor. None of it is rocket science. In the following sections are some initial thoughts; visit Chapter 22 for a detailed rundown on lawn care the sustainable way.

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