I am not a fan of lawns. At all. And neither should you be.
As I walk around in my neighborhood and in other neighborhoods, or drive along, I find myself grinding my teeth in frustration at the prolific presence of lawns. Going to the garden center at your local hardware and/or garden store? There are aisles and aisles dedicated to planting and maintaining your lawn. Open a home and garden magazine, and you’ll get at least one article telling you how to prep your lawn, or keep your lawn green, or keep the pests and weeds out of your precious lawn. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told not to walk on a lawn, either with a sign or a sharp reprimand from the lawn’s proud owner.
Y’all. There’s something seriously wrong with not being able to walk on a particular part of the ground, all for the sake of thousands of the same tiny plants that are doing almost nothing for you except looking pretty.
But that’s not my major qualm with lawns. Get me started.
- Mowing. I’ll start easy. Now, I actually don’t mind the task of mowing that much – it’s pretty decent exercise, and it gets me out in the sun for that sweet, sweet vitamin D I so need. But I’m not a fan of using the gas-powered motor, and I’m less of a fan of cutting down the long grasses, clovers, and flowers that pop up for the pollinators in the warmer months. (We actually let these “weeds” grow in our yard for this reason, because they look nice among the monotony of grass – there are plenty of lawns where people don’t even allow invaders to come near their grass.) Sure, I could get a manual grass cutter, or even a sweet scythe if I’m really feeling frisky, but I’d still be cutting down the stuff where the bees like to buzz and the grasshoppers hop. Nah.
- Usefulness. Lawns, for the most part, are useless beyond aesthetics. Yes, some grass keeps erosion at bay – this is why grass grows in particular places naturally. We will not entirely rid our yard of grass for this reason. We also use grassy areas for recreation. But for the most part, grass isn’t doing anything for you. It’s not growing food (unless, of course, your grass happens to be corn or wheat, but we don’t call those areas “lawns”). It’s not feeding your livestock if you’re not keeping any. (Your dog eating grass to puke doesn’t count.) There are other places to play sports, or hang out with friends, other than individual lawns. Your lawn doesn’t even look that great – it’s boring, monochromatic, and causing you a lot of stress and money, when you could be putting energy towards growing vegetables, flowers, and/or a combination of both instead.
- Wasted time and money. Speaking of stress and money, lawns cost a lot of money and resources to maintain if you’re trying for that picture-perfect lawn, or even some semblance of a magazine-worthy lawn. You’re spending hours mowing, sodding, and fertilizing for (again) thousands of the same plant, growing in the same place, so you can look at it and say, “Yep, that’s a lawn.” And watering? Americans are using billions of gallons of water (yes, billions) for the sake of keeping their lawns green.
- Environment. Lawns wreak serious havoc on the environment. I already mentioned gasoline to power motors for most “efficient” lawn equipment – lawnmowers, leaf blowers, etc. I also mentioned wasting literal billions of gallons of water on tiny green plants per day. In addition, we often use pretty nasty pesticides and herbicides to keep what we consider to be the “good” grasses in and the bad bugs and grass out (dandelion, clover, plantain, for example – which are, by the way, all edible plants. Your tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass are not). Go look at weed killers at your home improvement store, and check your labels – I’ll bet the vast majority of them are not safe for your children or pets, so why would they be safe for you and your water supply? Planting grass and sod in place of native plants and structures (trees, for example) also leads to more erosion, which leads to the fertilizers and pesticides traveling from our overwatering into our waterways. Not cool. We destroy and level swaths of natural landscape and native plants, all to be replaced by nonnative monoculture grass, to be maintained by killing any effort from our environment to repair itself by cutting and poisoning the area. And all for a space that you can look at, but often not touch, and certainly not use to feed yourself or your animals. Why are we still doing this?
- Bullshit antiquated ideas of wealth and status. Why, exactly, do you have a lawn? Why does your neighbor have a lawn? Why do just about all of your neighbors have some semblance of a lawn instead of, say, a garden, or other structures? Why is the idea of a lawn so attractive to the American eye, and the idea of “overgrowth” (tall grass, “weeds,” etc.) so repulsive? It’s all about antiquated ideas of status and wealth that date back to nearly the Middle Ages (likely before), starting with castles built and land cleared to see possible invasions, continuing with 17th and 18th century aristocrats maintaining massive gardens and lawns because they could afford the labor, and leaking into our modern consciousness. We see our lawns as a symbol of wealth and belonging with our neighbors, and the failure of a lawn as a symbol of being “left out” of the lawn party (literally and figuratively). But is poisoning and wasting our water supply, killing beneficial plants and animals, and wasting thousands of hours and dollars, simply to feel an outdated sense of belonging that we don’t even recognize, really worth it? (The answer to any question like that, in any article is, of course, no.)
So what, then, are your alternatives? I’m glad you asked!
- Limit (like, seriously limit) your lawn space. If you plan to have any at all, limit the space to a few square meters at most, and actually use this space for something on a regular basis – feeding goats, allowing for outdoor play, allowing for animal grazing and wandering. Don’t grow grass simply for aesthetics, and certainly don’t prohibit people and animals from touching it.
- If you’re going to plant a “lawn,” use alternatives to nonnative grass that maintain themselves. Clover, creeping thyme, mint, and other ground-covering herbs and plants are good choices. Best of all, many of these alternatives are useful, low-maintenance, and edible! Keep in mind I’m writing for my own area (the mountains of the American Southeast), so check what’s native to your area.
- Replace your lawn with garden space, preferably with native edible and pollinator plants. Let the bugs back into your space and save the bees! People argue that it takes more work to maintain a vegetable garden than a lawn, but consider two things: am I really spending more time pulling weeds, watering responsibly, and harvesting my useful plants than I am mowing, mowing, seeding, overwatering, mowing, poisoning, and mowing my lawn? Secondly, if I am, indeed, putting in as much or more work maintaining a garden, I’m at least getting something out of it – vegetables, fruits, and the satisfaction of knowing that I grew that cucumber, and that tomato, and that pepper I’m biting into. A lawn will never rival that feeling. And I’m saving a buttload of money on my grocery bills.
- Plant native trees. Check local ordinances and spacing and be smart about it.
- If your city, area, or HOA forces you to have a lawn, get mad. Check the fine print and regulations. Write letters. Go to meetings and speak up. Get others together with you to fix the bad policies. The more people who speak out against a policy, the more likely the policy is to change.
There are a plethora of resources and sources regarding the environmental impact of lawns and what you can do to curb the impacts and replace a lawn. I’ve included some links in the post, but not nearly all of the sources out there, so do your own research if you need more information.
Down with lawns! Bring back the garden!