Rethinking Lawns

by Kevin S. Baldwin

Grass_lrgSpring has arrived, Summer is just around the corner and once again I must deal with the enigma that is my yard. As I look around town, there is a wide range of lawns spanning from, what Michael Pollan (2001) would call, Apollonian control to Dionysian abandon. Mine is towards the Dionysian end of the spectrum.

This is by choice. I have never understood lawns. What exactly is the point? A uniform swath of green grass seems so contrived and unnatural. As practiced in much of 21st century North America, that monoculture is a triumph of technology. It takes a lot of inputs to maintain such a beast: Regular mowing, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, fertilizer, and in some areas, water. Perhaps that is the point.

I remember growing up in upstate New York, helping to fertilize the yard, mowing its weekly growth, and then putting the clippings in bags to be taken to the dump. It just seemed wasteful at the time (not to mention that as a fifth or sixth grader, it really cut into my playtime). Now I would probably mulch the grass in place and skip the fertilizer. Later, as a teen in southern California, I had to religiously apply water, herbicide and fungicide to maintain our lawn. Again, it seemed colossally wasteful. I tried to convince my parents to switch to more drought friendly vegetation, but they weren't that enthusiastic about it. As it turns out, I now happen to live in one of the few areas in the country where it is possible to grow lawns without irrigation or fertilization. I mow it when it gets shaggy, and that's about it. I'd rather spend time gardening than trying to achieve a “perfect” lawn.

A few square feet of my lawn resemble the chemlawn ideal (an example of modern Platonic essentialism?), but it is mostly a patchwork of grass, clover, creeping charley, dandelions, and many other species that I have not identified. In the heat of summer, with little rain, the grass will retreat as it is displaced by crabgrass, which is a hot-dry specialist. If the rains return, the grass fights its way back. I enjoy witnessing this tug-of-war. My lawn is diverse and dynamic.

My chemlawn neighbors have these amazingly uniform lawns that look like they would feel nice on bare feet. But, when I walk by after the service has sprayed the lawn, there is that sweet-sour smell that is highlighted by little signs that say to stay off the grass for a few days. The mixed message is curious. I suppose chemicals create new business opportunities: Pet owners can buy booties for their dogs to protect their sensitive paws from lawn chemicals. But there is little encouragement to consider whether the risks of herbicide and pesticide application outweigh the benefits.

I gave up on trying to control dandelions after spending quite a bit of time and effort manually weeding them, tossing them on the compost pile, and then watching over the next few days as the yellow flowers still transformed into fluffy seed bearing heads that dispersed their contents with the slightest puff of wind. Such chutzpah in the face of death was admirable and filled me with wonder. Those so-called weeds are really good at what they do! Who am I to interfere with such an amazingly resourceful species? Eliminating them chemically doesn't seem to be worth the risks to me or my family.

The absurdity of lawns is taken to the limit in drier parts of the west. I hope this is no longer the case, but 25 years ago, lawns in Phoenix were slightly concave and filled with water in the morning and allowed to soak in and evaporate during the day. Las Vegas was also a particularly egregious offender. I don't know if more recent development in these areas has been more sensible, but the reckless use of water is part of the reason why the Colorado River no longer empties into the Gulf of California.

Something like 20% of California's electricity production is used for moving water around the state. Much of this water is used for agriculture, but a substantial fraction is used to maintain lawns in arid and semi-arid regions that really have no business trying to host Kentucky bluegrass. Local conditions are starting to be taken into account with some new developments specifying xeriscaping, but there is a lot of legacy landscaping that demands huge inputs of water. Frac_turfgrass

This is more than simply an academic exercise. Multiply a quarter-acre lot by tens of millions and you are talking about some serious acreage. Lawns collectively comprise the largest irrigated crop in the U.S., covering about 163,800 square kilometers, plus or minus 35,850 square kilometers; Milesi et al. 2005), an area larger than Ohio. Another estimate puts lawn area at more than twice that of cotton (Steinberg 2006).

Given this acreage, it is not surprising that about one fourth to one third of all herbicides are used on lawns (the exact percentage depends on the herbicide). Fertilizer application also tends to heavier than needed, creating nitrate runoff that contaminates drinking water aquifers. Compared to agricultural applications, lawns tend to suffer over-application. Lawns represent a huge contribution to non-point source pollution. Point sources are relatively easy to identify, regulate, and clean up. Non-point sources are by their very nature difficult to do anything about. Simply electing not to use certain products could have a huge impact.

We need to reimagine the entire lawn aesthetic. Variation, diversity, and dynamism need to become acceptable possibilities for lawns (Robbins 2007, Appendix A). More locally appropriate vegetation, greater biodiversity, fewer applications of harmful chemicals and fertilizers make this a win-win opportunity.


Lindsey, R. 2005. Looking for Lawns. NASA Earth Observatory: Features. 8 November.

Milesi, C., S.W. Running, C.D. Elvidge, J.B. Dietz, B.T. Tuttle, R.R. Nemani. 2005. Mapping and modeling the biogeochemical cycling of turf grasses in the United States. Environmental Management 36(3), 426-438.

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World. Random House, Inc. New York.

Robbins, P. 2007. Lawn People. How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are. Temple University Press.

Steinberg, T. 2006. American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. New York.

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