Americans devote 70 hours annually to pushing petrol-powered spinning death blades over aggressively pointless green carpets to meet an embarrassingly destructive beauty standard based on specious homogeneity. — Ian Graber-Stiehl
Lawns cover forty million acres in the United States, the equivalent of eighteen Yellowstone parks. They are the largest irrigated crop in the country, with municipalities devoting almost half of their water use in support. Lawns consume seventy million pounds of fertilizer each year. The conversion of natural gas to nitrogen fertilizer for lawns leads to 70,000 tons of CO2 emissions per annum. Seventy-eight million homes in the United States use lawn pesticides. Lawn pesticides are used at two times the rate of pesticides on food crops. Manufacturers sell five million lawnmowers per year to maintain the national lawn-scape. Lawnmowers use over five hundred million gallons of gas and emit five and a half million tons of carbon dioxide yearly into the atmosphere. Leaf-blowers add to this total. Lawnmowers and leaf-blowers both operate above seventy decibels, beyond the considered safe level of fifty-five. Just listen to the machining of your neighborhood on any weekday. That is the death toll of us wasting water to create ecological deserts that contribute to global warming so we can enjoy a meaningless 19th century aesthetic.
I admittedly have been at fault here. Lawns cover 20% of the land in the state of New Jersey, and my home half-acre contributes to this statistic. I have paid for a crew to fertilize and de-weed my lawn and cut the grass weekly from April to October. In a way, I am afraid not to have a lawn. What would the neighbors think? In our American mind’s eye, there is an ideal suburban template of beauty consisting of a house surrounded by grass, bordered by shrubs and mulched gardens, with intermittent trees. How did this come to be?
The original word for lawn derives from the Old French, “laund,” which referred to a glade or opening in a forest. From Shakespeare in “Henry VI,” we get the sense of a laund as a place of adventure, embedded in a surrounding wood: “Under this thick-grown brake we’ll shroud ourselves, For through this laund anon the deer will come.” In the 17th century, the word evolved to “lawn” suggesting less a forest opening and more a stretch of untilled ground where sheep might be tended. In the next century, we see the change in meaning towards more formal and tended spaces, as lawns became a design element in private gardens. The royal garden at Versailles near Paris used the “tapis verte” (green carpet) as a design element for its parterres. In 18th Century England the designer Humphrey Repton created “Home Lawns” as more formal green-space near mansion houses for cricket. Early in the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson labeled his green quadrangle at the University of Virginia as “The Lawn,” and lawns have become the primary landscape of college quads since. Village greens, which were originally common town land for sheep or cattle grazing, transformed more into grassy parks for lounging or sports. The Dartmouth Green in Hanover, New Hampshire, served the dual purpose of college quadrangle and town green. New York’s Central Park expanded the idea of the green even further with the Sheep Meadow, and later the Great Lawn.
By the mid-nineteenth century, lawn designs were still relegated to private estates, public parks, and universities. The expense of urban land parcels and the cost of maintenance prohibited more widespread ownership. The less wealthy could not own lawns themselves until it became cheaper to do so. Four elements converged to enable the proliferation of the suburban lawns that we know today. First, land ownership outside urban areas became accessible with the growth of railroad towns and villages commutable to the central metropolitan area. These new towns made land ownership affordable and property easier to purchase. Second, the aesthetic of the stand-alone country house or cottage with the surrounding garden, which began with the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1840s, emerged as the desired form. Third, the lawnmower and eventually the motorized lawnmower allowed less wealthy homeowner to tend their lawns in reasonable time with less effort, changing the lawn maintenance value equation (scything was brutal work and time consuming). What was an emerging trend in the new suburbs became embedded in law with the imposition of town codes regarding landscaping, which dictated that homes must have tended lawns and gardens. These codes — combined with unstated but real community pressure around maintaining home values through home and landscape uniformity — led to what we see today.
Many towns in the east East and northeast Northeast of the United States adhere to rules codified by BOCA: the Building Officials and Code Administrators International. The name itself has a big Big Brother feel, suggesting a lock-step approach to town development. BOCA dictates the following: “All premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches (254mm). All noxious weeds shall be prohibited. Weeds shall be defined as all grasses, annual plants and vegetation, other than trees or shrubs provided; however, this term shall not include cultivated flowers and gardens.”
The implications of this are clear: one cannot allow weeds (e.g., wild grasses or wildflowers); grass must be cut; and flower gardens, shrubs, and trees are encouraged. My town adheres to BOCA, and the local Director of Building and Inspections is allowed, after a written notice and ten-day period, to come onto one’s property to remove weeds (or tree stumps, or trash). The town bylaws are clear what’s at stake: “the appearance of the premises and structures shall not constitute a blighting factor for adjoining property owners nor an element leading to the progressive deterioration and downgrading of the neighborhood with the accompanying diminution of property values.”
Here we see economic greed trumping ecologic need. As stated, the environmental consequences of our lawns include carbon emissions, noise pollution, use of pesticides, and reduction in animal life. Critically, lawns do a deficient job trapping carbon and managing water runoff, relative to trees and meadows. The decline in fauna is especially troublesome: the last thirty 30 years have seen the reduction of bee colonies, especially the native bumblebee, with some estimates around 90%. Bees are critical for pollination and thus the sustenance of plant species. Separately, bird populations have been impacted by the reduction in food sources like caterpillars, which require more native forest-like environments and ground cover to survive.
Doug Tallamy, in his book Nature’s Best Hope, asks us to take some simple steps to reduce the environmental impact of our lawns. He suggests shrinking our lawns, taking half of the space and replanting it with native keystone trees like white oak, cherry, or willow, creating a grove with some ground cover of rocks, logs, shrubs, and even leaf litter. Tallamy further advocates planting stands of pollinators such as sunflowers, goldenrods, or blueberries to facilitate the return of bees. I remember a field in back of our house, when I was a kid, replete with goldenrod and flush with thousands of bees each year. Tallamy cites New York’s High Line park’’s success, which features extensive wildflower plantings, celebrating a less-ordered, more elemental gardening style.
Importantly, Tallamy threads the needle of local bylaws, as he does not recommend letting weeds run rampant or the the complete elimination of the lawns, but instead advocates having reduced lawn areas, well-trimmed, as borders for more wild areas. If one conceives and maintains a new grove of trees or a stand of sunflowers as a different type of garden that is confined to a specific area of the yard, one is likely adhering to local landscape code.
I think the result of having more variety in our local properties is a landscape that is inherently more satisfying. The experience of a grove of trees opening on a glade of lawn can return us to the original conception of lawn as as “laund” — an opening in the woods. A bed of wildflower, a bit run amok, can be just as beautiful as an ordered row of tulips. We can still retain formal garden elements, we can still enjoy lawn for sport, but we can also recognize that we have a larger responsibility to have less of an impact on the natural world.