Suburbs = lawns. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. Grassy yards, white picket fences and ranch houses have been the American idyll for generations.
Our grass fetish predates single-family houses on cul-de-sacs. Lawn love began in Europe in the 18th century when an English landscape architect named Lancelot “Capability” Brown – yes, that actually was his name and nickname – began designing gardens for castles and country manors that did away with knot gardens and formal rows of hedges.
Capability’s designs featured acres of grass dotted with the occasional tree. Rich people across Europe lost their minds, ripped up forests and gardens, and replaced them with grass. The lawn craze was born.
Americans, perhaps too Anglophilic for their own good, got grass fever in the early 19th century, when lawnmowers could be mass produced. Lawns became the norm for the middle class after World War II, when millions moved to the ‘burbs and got their zoysia-sodded piece of the American dream.
Note: Please, stop snickering and thinking about pot every time we talk about grass fetishes, grass fevers or grass love. Okay? Let’s continue.
Two centuries later, grass lawns cover 40 million acres in the United States. That’s an area the size of Florida. The stats on what it takes to keep all that the grass alive are depressing. According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute:
- There are 38 million lawnmowers creating 5 percent of the nation’s smog.
- Each year we spill 17 million gallons of fuel while filling the tanks of lawn equipment. That’s more oil than the tanker Exxon Valdez dumped when it became the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
- Homeowners use 10 times more pesticides and fertilizers per acre than farmers use on food crops. Those chemicals run off, creating a major source of water pollution.
- As much as 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns.
If you don’t give a damn about the planet’s health or your children’s future, consider this: The average American spends 70 hours a year mowing grass. Throw in fertilizing, pesticide-spraying and weed-eating, and that’s almost 100 hours of your life each year spent on your yard. It seems that pursuit of the perfect lawn is damaging the planet and wasting your time. By comparison, the guy at the end of the block with a car that hasn’t moved since the Reagan administration parked on his dead lawn is more eco-friendly. He has more time to watch ESPN and drink, too.
You can free yourself from environmental destruction and lawn slavery. You just need to plant something other than thirsty, high-maintenance turf grass. Here are some ideas:
Native grasses: Skip the hybrid turf grasses and go with a tough, drought-hardy grass that came from the wild and won’t need chemical pesticides, industrial fertilizers or much help from you to survive. Try Blue Grama, Buffalo or Dwarf Fescue. All thrive on as little as 10 inches of rain a year and grow slowly, so you’ll spend less time mowing. Let them grow long for an informal meadow look.
Note: If you have an HOA, they may not like the meadow. They tend to be sticklers for “Leave It To Beaver” -style lawns and will send you nasty emails and letters about your meadow.
Creeping herbs: Ground-hugging herbs like creeping thyme, creeping oregano, creeping rosemary and Corsican mint are good substitutes for turf grass. They don’t need to be mowed. They smell wonderful when you step on them, thrive in dry conditions and poor soil, and can choke out weeds once they’re established. The only drawback to an herb yard: Herbs cannot withstand a lot of foot traffic. If you have kids and dogs who romp in the yard, herbs won’t work for you.
Groundcovers: There are a ton of plants that creep along the ground and cover your yard, making it green without grass. Many of them can thrive in shade, so they’re a good choice for a yard with lots of trees. Try creeping Jenny, vinca, moss or a low-growing variety of chamomile. Depending on the variety of plant you choose, they will need to be maintained and once established, they’ll choke out weeds.
Other plants: Clover is a tough-as-nails alternative to grass. You can let it grow in soft mounds or mow it so it looks like a grass lawn. The downside: Clover needs a fair amount of water, so if you live in a drought-prone area, this is not for you. Sedge, a low-maintenance cousin of turf grass, is a tough alternative. It grows in clumps and you can leave it long for a natural look, or you can mow it for a more traditional, HOA-approved look.
I don’t want to rip up my grass. What else can I do to make my yard kinder to the planet?
You need to deal with the legacy of pesticides and fertilizers that have made your yard a chemistry experiment. Wean your yard off synthetic fertilizer by putting compost on your lawn in the spring and fall. Another way to feed your soil: Take the bag off your lawnmower and let those grass clippings fall, feeding the soil and making less work for you.
Stop spraying weed killer on the dandelions and crabgrass. Get a shovel and dig them out. You’ll burn calories and stop poisoning your yard. Another way to make your yard healthier: Don’t mow your grass too short. Short grass is weaker and needs more water and nutrients to survive. It’s also more susceptible to weeds and insects.
What do I do with my lawnmower if I get rid of my high-maintenance Kentucky bluegrass?
Sell it or donate it to your neighbor who is still spending his Saturdays on a riding lawnmower. Give it to that neighbor with the car parked in his front yard so he can add to his collection of rusting-machinery-as-yard-art. But seriously, you can recycle your lawnmower, so don’t be tempted to just throw it away.