If you've ever been to New England or Palm Springs, you know how many Americans feel about their own personal patch of pristine green, but why do lawns even exist?? Lawns started as a way for pastoral communities to feed their livestock, but it soon became a status symbol amongst the American and Northern European aristocracy. The lawn plan was adopted by American Housing Associations and communities in suburbia all across the country, and the concept was solidified by the idea of the ideal American Nuclear Family, white picket fence and all. But, with the overuse of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, lawns might be a larger burden on the environment than you might think. Is it time for a grass roots revolution? Here are six things you can do to turn the tables on absurd American lawn standards!
1. Switch to Native Grasses
Many commercially laid grasses are mostly something called sod, which are patches of pre-grown grass, held together by their roots, and rolled into bushels for purchase by landscapers. Sod is laid down quickly as it is often used to prevent soil erosion. Most (if not all) sod, while having been developed in the USA, is not made of native grasses, and up until recently, your choices were limited to water guzzling varieties. Growing non-native plants is fine, but native grasses have adapted to their local climates, and will be better suited to deal with drought. To keep drought-susceptible grass green, you've got to water it. A lot. And then more, and more. Lawn sprinklers can be running multiple times a day for entire seasons, depending on your yearly rainfall.
2. Switch Up Your Greens
NASA's data shows that lawns have surpassed cropland in the United States, and Christina Milesi, an ecological forecasting researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, estimates that, “'Even conservatively... there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn." This means lawns—including residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, etc—could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, covering about 128,000 square kilometers in all," (NASA, 2005). With space like that, one could be growing flowers or food or building affordable housing. Since grass is never able to flower, because of societal standards, all of the space that could be used to help our pollinator populations is essentially wasted (from an environmental standpoint).
3. Take Action at Home
Don't do away with the green spaces around your property, instead put them to better use with vegetable gardens, wildflower/ornamental patches, trees, etc. The work you put into these has a direct benefit to you and your community, giving you and your friends your own food supply that lessens your dependency on grocery store and lawn mower carbon emissions. Flower beds bring bees and butterflies to your yard, giving them a safe haven from urban pollen deserts. Or if you have no desire to tend to gardens or pick food from your garden, head over to a local nursery or landscaping outlet, get a native grass seed mix, and plant that instead.
4. Don't Feed the Fish!
Big, green lawns only stay green if they are constantly fertilized and watered, which is often overdone in practice. Overfeeding and overwatering lawns leads to an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil, which will either be released into the air or dissolved into local bodies of water. The nutrient-rich water feeds plankton and allows them to flourish until they die, sink to the bottom, and begin decomposing, but the decomposition of the algal bloom uses all of the oxygen at the base of the waterbody, which creates a dead zone. This once-thriving marine ecosystem is now in a state of hypoxia, which will kill hundreds of fish and waterbirds if not rectified. Unfortunately, fixing hypoxia water is not easy, and the only way to fix it is to limit nutrient run-off, e.g. using less fertilizer on lawns. Bear in mind, hypoxia is not only a result of over-fertilizing with commercial fertilizers, but also a result of over-fertilizing with any substance that has high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus (such as compost, manure, coffee grounds, and natural/organic fertilizers).
5. Reflect on the Sun's Effect
Albedo is the scientific term for the proportion of light or radiation that is reflected by a surface, typically that of a planet or moon. Certain colors and objects reflect and absorb different amounts of light and radiation. For example, black tarmac/asphalt will absorb more light, heat, and radiation than a park. Green spaces are integral to keeping urban areas cooler, cleaner, and less loud, which is why major cities often have many parks strewn throughout their boundaries. The lower the albedo, the hotter the space, the more unbearable it is to live there. This is one of the reasons why global climate change occurs.
6. Take Action Beyond
If lots in your community are being turned into living spaces, try to encourage city planners and designers to include green roofs and green spaces. Encouraging the planting of community green spaces on and around new (and old) urban developments will decrease the heat absorbed by buildings, meaning smaller air conditioning bills and more habitable temperatures during the summer.
Join us in conserving our water and helping out our pollinators! Swap out that thirsty green grass for a more sustainable native, flowering, or fruiting green, no-mow alternative!