Get rid of your lawn
Your backyard is nature's best hope
You know as well as I do that the planet isn’t doing well. Native species of flora and fauna are disappearing at alarming rates. We are rapidly repleting Earth’s resources. Cities far exceed the land’s carrying capacity. None of the news is very positive, and it makes us feel defeated and powerless.
But we’re not powerless. We have a tremendous opportunity to redeem the land, starting with our own backyards, no matter how small they are. 86% of all land east of the Mississippi is held in private hands. So if we’re going to save the planet, it’s going to start small, and with us.
The best place to begin is to get rid of your precious lawn.
Why is it bad to have a lawn?
In America, we love our lawns: More than 40 million acres of land in the United States is devoted to one species: turfgrass (Milesi et al. 2005). We add about 500 square miles of lawn every year (Kolbert 2008).
Why are we so devoted to these expanses of grass?
Lawns are a status symbol. Europeans prized lawns because they showed off how wealthy they were: “Look at all of this useless grass I have! It is is literally for nothing at all: not farming, nor hunting. It is just there, because I am rich.” American colonists, in particular, aimed to mimic this landscaping fashion, despite the fact that most turfgrass cannot thrive in the United States and required incredible amounts of water and maintenance (more on that later).
Lawns have become a standard of beauty. Because of this colonial history, a thick green expanse of grass is de rigueur in American landscaping. Your yard is not perceived as beautiful unless you have grass. Indeed, you may even be judged to be bringing down the neighborhood property values if you do not maintain a perfect lawn.
Lawns make us feel safe. Some theorize that it taps into deep human need to survey a savannah for predators or whatever.
But why is turfgrass bad? Why is maintaining a huge lawn the equivalent of being a local ecological terrorist?
Let me count the ways.
Lawns are a biological wasteland. When you plant turfgrass, you remove and choke out all other plant species from that space. You create a sterile monoculture, which makes it impossible for any other species to thrive. Lawns do not support life: They do not host pollinators, shelter animal young, encourage breeding, or promote biodiversity in any form. Furthermore, “the amount of oxygen produced on a lawn is a tiny fraction of what was released into the atmosphere by the original plant community, and the same goes for the amount of water cleansed and returned to the underground aquifer, the amount of atmospheric carbon sequestered and pumped into the soil, the amount of topsoil pulverized from the bedrock by plant roots, and the amount of moisture transpired by plants into the air as part of our vital water cycle” (Tallamy 2019). Whew.
Lawns are toxic. Because turfgrass cannot look pretty on its own, keeping weed-free lawns requires massive amounts of pesticides. On a per acre basis, homeowners put about the same amount of fertilizer on their lawns as large-scale farmers do to their crops (Law et al. 2004). And about 40%-60% of this fertilizer ends up in the surface and groundwater, where it kills aquatic organisms and leaches into our drinking water (EPA 2008). Most of the chemicals used in U.S. pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are banned in the rest of the developed world, as they are known carcinogens. Horrifying.
Lawns are outrageously wasteful. In summer, lawn watering accounts for 30 percent of all water used in the summer in the East and 60 percent of all water used in the West (Tallamy 2019). This is absolutely insane: all of this valuable water being poured out on totally useless grass. The profligacy of this action, this ye-old American summer pastime of running through sprinklers on a glossy lawn, is just mind-boggling.
Lawns are time consuming. Americans spent more than 3 billion collective hours per year maintaining our lawns (and spewing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we do). Ugh.
Lawns are expensive. Again, all of this means that lawns cost a lot of money to create and maintain. They are utterly artificial, and so we have to spend a great deal of time, money, and resources to keep them looking the way they do, year after year.
But I love my sterile grass! What should I do instead?
I do understand that lawns are pleasant. I have small children, and I love dogs, and lawns are very nice things to have for them. Relatedly, I spend a lot of time taking care of my plants, and I don’t want my kids and dogs to trample them. So, what’s to be done? Here are a few ideas.
Keep your lawn—but stop watering it, mow as seldomly as you can, and quit using fertilizer. Yes, it will die in the summer. Yes, you will get a lot of weeds. But perhaps this will inspire you to do something useful with that bit of land God gave you.
Compromise, and give up half of your lawn to native plants, such as trees, shrubs, and flowers indigenous to your region, and add other natural features to encourage wildlife.
Grow a meadow. Go full hippie and grow an actual wildflower meadow where your lawn once was.
Grow clover. Pollinators love clover, and it can be easily sown and mowed in lieu of grass.
If you don’t have children or dogs, plant up the whole yard with native plants. Stop prizing popular imports from other countries (here in the South, we love East Asian ornamentals, such as hydrangeas, camellias, crape myrtles, and so forth, which are useless to wildlife) and instead choose the less showy but incredibly valuable plants native to your region.
At our home, we’ve done a mix of these things. It has taken several years, but I have been focused on getting rid of all the grass in our front yard since we bought our house.
Sadly, I learned about the importance of native plants a bit late, so I do have some things that aren’t from these parts (Japanese anemone, a dwarf Japanese maple, and a rather stunted hydrangea and camellia), but my pledge from henceforth has been to only add native plants if I add any at all.
I have loosely followed a rather English mode of garden design, which is really just plant a lot of stuff too close together and see what happens. A great benefit of planting tightly this is that I’m a very lazy gardener, and this method has saved me so much time. Because my intentional plants have fully taken over my yard, weeding is a quick chore instead of an overwhelming nightmare.
In the backyard, we still have “grass,” but we never water it or use anything on it. It’s a pretty steady mix of green “weeds” but ones that are easily mowed (such as violets, plantains, broadleaf ivy, clover, etc.), so it’s still a nice level place for the kids to play without trampling any of my beloved plants.
All this to say, the yard is a work in progress, but it’s the one plot of land we might be able to actually do something about. Eradicating the lawn fills me with great hope.
More on this subject in a later missive.