The Lawn is a Lie

Man on a lawnmower on a large swath of grass
Lawnmower Man by dumbonyc via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It broke my heart when I left the heart of the city for the edge of the burbs. I’m a terrible gardener, so I never wanted a house with a yard. Yet that’s where I ended up when city living became too expensive.

My house came with a large swatch of (once) immaculately maintained front lawn — lawn which I ceased watering after the first bill. Now, late summer, it’s a dead brown with patches of dirt where eternal vigilance is not enough to ensure the absence of dandelions. For five months out of the year, I hate my lawn; the rest of the time I’m merely annoyed by it. Some day, when household economics allow, I will hire a landscaper to tear the whole thing out and replace it with xeriscaping — a no-water garden, low maintenance with all native plants, something that allows me mostly to forget about it.

Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide-, herbicide-, water-, labor-, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn. In America, turf grasses, which are mostly non-native, cover 21 million acres (think the state of Maine), cost $40 billion per year (more than U.S. foreign aid), consume around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 80 million pounds of pesticides per year (which sometimes contaminate our groundwater and surface water), and slurp up an inconceivable nine billion gallons of water per day (at least half of all residential water use in the arid West is associated with lawns and landscaping).

All this is before we reckon the colossal time suck that lawns represent. Each year, Americans spend an average of three billion hours pushing or (even worse) riding mowers, most of which pollute at a rate ten times that of our cars. In fact, if a lawn were a car, it would be a Hummer: a resource-intensive, plainly unsustainable luxury item that looks cool but is environmentally destructive. As for biodiversity, forget it. Lawns are exotic, barren monocultures. While they are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Consider also the unfortunate symbolic connotations of the lawn. As food writer Michael Pollan points out, the American lawn is the ultimate manifestation of our culture’s perverse fantasy of the total control of nature. As Pollan put it so memorably, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”

On Terrain, Michael P. Branch calculates the time, money, and emotional angst (if you’re me) we invest on tending to our lawns. He mentions Thoreau’s disdain for this bulwark of American landscaping, even while confessing his own emotional attachment to the manicured green spaces of his youth. He rationalizes his own landscaping choices and admits his guilt in its pleasure.

I have a small back lawn too. I kind of love it. Mr. Branch, I feel you.

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