Square and rectangle patches of green seem to be as much a hallmark of American suburbia as the two-car garage and the barbeque. Although we still see our manicured plots of grass lying in the front or back of a house as representing the 1950s ethos of conformity and tidiness, the times they are a changing. Lawns sometimes do serve a purpose—in a baseball field or at a park—but they also represent our national conspicuous wastefulness. Americans spend forty billion dollars on lawn upkeep each year and dump gallons of water, petroleum-based fertilizer, and chemicals on them just to keep them looking pretty. The benefits of a lawnless life are rapidly becoming clear—and possibly coming to a neighborhood near you.
Enjoy a Less Toxic Lifestyle
Green, weed-free lawns typically don’t come without a price. Nearly eighty million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of these are neurotoxins and carcinogens that pose threats to children and animals. Many are also toxic to beneficial insects like honeybees, ladybugs, and butterflies.
The pesticides don’t just stay within the yard, either. Rainwater and irrigation bring the chemicals to drains, streams, and other natural bodies of water, killing wildlife and leaching back into drinking water supplies. Lawns also thrive on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, which can run off into the waterways and cause algal blooms.
The amount of water lawns consume is also exorbitant. A recent NASA study found that lawns, including golf courses, cover almost fifty thousand square miles of the U.S.—about the size of the state of New York. More than a third of all urban fresh water goes toward watering lawns.
Gas-powered lawn mowers and blowers also contribute to air and noise pollution. The EPA estimates that 580,000,000 gallons of gasoline are used for lawnmowers every year and emissions from these machines contribute to smog.
Alternatives to lawns don’t mean these environmental costs necessarily disappear. But organic composts, planting according to your climate, and choosing natural pest protection means you can reduce the amount you do use.
Stop Mowing and Blowing Your Money Away
Part of the allure of the lawn is that it’s easy to maintain—just mow it, right? However, lawns need constant care if you want them to look good and this means spending money. While mowing your own lawn used to be the only way to go, most people now use hired help to mow, blow, and edge their green. That means monthly expenditures that usually get more expensive over time, as gardeners raise rates and pesticides and herbicides increase in cost.
Then there’s water. With recent droughts and increasing costs for water, planting or maintaining a thirsty patch of green is likely to become more expensive. Places that now experience drought aren’t likely to see increases in rainfall in the near future, so water rates are also likely to rise.
Functional lawn alternatives—those that require less water, that you can walk on, but require mowing only a few times a year—abound. Yarrow, some species of thyme, red fescue, native grasses, native meadows, and white clover are just some options. For the truly low maintenance, artificial turf is an option.
Increase the Value of Your Home
Back in the day, lawns were reserved for aristocracy. They served no functional purpose, other than a cheery patch where kids might play or a blanket might be laid, and only the wealthy could afford such a frivolous luxury. Then lawns spread to the masses and became a cultural custom. A nicely kept patch of grass used to symbolize a neighbor’s commitment to community upkeep (or that they followed “weed laws,” which mandate yards be trimmed and neat).
However, lawns now seem more like a burden for the bourgeois. Their constant upkeep means the lawn purveyor must constantly put money and care into them. With changing ideals, a better understanding of natural climates, and constraints on time, a home without a lawn and with an interesting landscape is likely to be worth more. Most of the houses on the market where I live in Oakland, California have lawns that have been redone with drought-tolerant or native plants to help the home sell. Not only does it improve the look of the house, the buyer knows the beautiful and low maintenance front yard is part of the package.
Create a Welcoming Habitat
Lawns seem like an ideal place to sit and relax and in some places, like parks, they are. But although most of the houses on my block have square patches of grass, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a neighbor hanging out on them. Lawns don’t create habitats for beneficial insects, native pollinators, or contribute to the natural ecology. Their creation means the necessary plowing under and suppression of whatever natural habitat once existed. But by having something other than a lawn, you can create a habitat for birds, bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies, or arbors with hanging flowers or food for the family—whatever fits your fancy. Although suburbia and cities are typically places considered to be devoid of nature, plants can help bring it back. Trees can help provide a cool spot on a hot day and reduce air pollution. And without the mowers and blowers, you can actually hear the birds. Chances are you might just find yourself out there along with them.
Improve Your Aesthetics
Despite all the benefits of getting rid of the lawn, I think one of the strongest arguments comes down to pure aesthetics. We’ve been trained to think lawns are nice, but when’s the last time someone commented on a beautiful lawn? Flowers, trees, shrubs, and landscapes are beautiful and interesting; lawns are boring. Plus, lawns are a bit like living in the exact same house as your neighbor—conformity at its worst. One of the best things about getting rid of the lawn, for me at least, is that it’s opened up my world to the possibility of plants. It has caused me to slow down and see what other people are doing in the yards and marvel how all of them (those without lawns at least) look uniquely different. Taking the time to notice how long the cherry blossoms stick around, what natives do well where, and the timing of the emerging bulbs has made me aware of the nature around me.
Despite all the benefits, it’s understandable that some people, especially those that just rolled out the turf, wouldn’t want to say goodbye to their lawn. There are still things you can do to make it greener, in the environmental sense of the word:
- Use a push mower and use it less frequently. I used to have a ninety-year-old neighbor who push-mowed her own lawn. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying … ninety! Push mowers only require human energy; letting your lawn grow a little longer will improve its drought-tolerant capabilities.
- Let it go dormant in the summer. Yes, it’s brown but it will come back with the first fall or winter rains.
- Remove some of the lawn, not all. Putting a perennial border around a lawn, making a slate path through the yard, or putting a few raised beds on top will reduce the amount of lawn you have to care for and provide color/functionality/edibles.
- Use organics. Compost, organic fertilizer, hand weeding. All good options to get rid of the chemicals.
- Water in the morning and the evening when you’ll lose less to evaporation.
The bottom line is this—if you do want to get rid of your lawn, it’s a relatively painless process, and it could be a very lucrative decision.