I grew up thinking that the lawns and landscaping esthetic that is quite standard across North America, and increasingly so globally, was not only normal but was something to be desired. Indeed, I even applied for admission to a graduate degree program in landscape architecture at one point.
My thinking has undergone a sea change however, and now I bemoan the waste of time, money, and natural resources that goes into this artificial attempt to second guess Mother Nature.
Here are some interesting results from a quick search of the Internet:
From Redesigning the American Lawn by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, Gordon T. Geballe, Yale University Press, 1993
- A lawnmower pollutes as much in one hour as does driving an automobile for 45 miles (updated).
- 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns (depending on city).
- $5,250,000,000 is spent annually on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers for U.S. lawns.
- 67,000,000 pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on U.S. lawns.
- 60,000 to 70,000 severe accidents per year result from lawnmowers.
- 580,000,000 gallons of gasoline are used for lawnmowers.
- $25,000,000,000 is spent for the lawn care industry.
- $700,000,000 is spent for pesticides for U.S. lawns.
- 20,000,000 acres are planted in residential lawns.
Powered mowers contribute to noise pollution and hearing loss.
The English Burgher Lawn Aesthetic by Virginia Scott Jenkins condensed from The Lawn, A History of An American Obsession
The mowed lawn aesthetic originated in the late 18th century from aristocratic France and England. Landscape architect Andre LeNotre designed small lawn areas for the Palace of Versailles. This aesthetic was rapidly adopted by the rich of England, because turf grass grew easily in the English climate of moderate temperatures and frequent rains.
The U.S. colonists also adopted the lawn aesthetic in an attempt to transform the wildness of the new country into the sophistication of the old world. Landscape architects again were at the forefront, and Lancelot Brown created thousands of acres of magnificent parks using lawn turf and trees.
Prior to the middle of the 19th century, U.S. homes were either built fronting up to the street or road, or else with a small fenced front yard consisting of bare ground or garden plots. The middle class did not copy the wealthy lawn aesthetic until after the Civil War, with the stimulus of the new landscape architects leading the way.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the USDA, the U.S. Golf Association, and the Garden Clubs of America jointly spread the front lawn ethic throughout the U.S. [They] held competitions for landscaping and shamed neighbors into compliance by setting strong example.
Can Lawns Kill? by Colleen Aagesen & Mary Fiscus Condensed From the Heartland Journal
Wildlife specialists, such as Diana Conger of Washington, D.C., call bird poisonings in residential areas lawncare syndrome. Symptoms enumerated by toxicologists include excessive salivation, grand mal seizures, wild flapping and screaming, most often followed by death.
Ward Stone, New York State’s wildlife pathologist, sees more than that in the poisonings. The songbirds act as miners’ canaries for us in detecting the buildup of chemicals that may ultimately threaten humans,” reports Stone.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, lawn use is a significant component of the total pesticide problem. NAS said that although the farmer uses pesticides more widely, the homeowner uses 10 times more per acre than do farmers.
So what’s the alternative? Wikipedia explains one method this way:
Xeriscaping and xerogardening refers to landscaping and gardening in ways that reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental water from irrigation. It is promoted in regions that do not have easily accessible, plentiful, or reliable supplies of fresh water, and is gaining acceptance in other areas as climate patterns shift. Although xeriscaping may be an alternative to various types of traditional gardening, it is usually promoted as a substitute for Kentucky bluegrass lawns.
An even better approach is natural landscaping which concentrates on the use of native plants.
Natural landscaping is adapted to the climate, geography and hydrology and should require no pesticides, fertilizers and watering to maintain, given that native plants have adapted and evolved to local conditions over thousands of years. However, these applications may be necessary for some preventative care of trees and other vegetation in areas of degraded or weedy landscapes.
Native plants suit today’s interest in “low-maintenance” gardening and landscaping, with many species vigorous and hardy and able to survive winter cold and summer heat. Once established, they can flourish without irrigation or fertilization, and are resistant to most pests and diseases.
Many municipalities have quickly recognized the benefits of natural landscaping due to municipal budget constraints and reductions and the general public is now benefiting from the implementation of natural landscaping techniques to save water and create more personal time.
Ecology and habitat
Native plants provide suitable habitat for native species of butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. They provide more variety in gardens by offering myriad alternatives to the over-planted introduced species, cultivars, and invasive species. The indigenous plants have co-evolved with animals, fungi and microbes, to form a complex network of relationships. They are the foundation of their native habitats and ecosystems, or natural communities.
Such gardens often benefit from the plants being evolved and habituated to the local climate, pests and herbivores, and soil conditions, and so may require fewer to no soil amendments, irrigation, pesticides, and herbicides for a beautiful, lower maintenance, and more sustainable landscape.
- no fertilization required
- no additional water
- more water available for other uses and other people
- zero to near zero work needed for maintenance
- no lawn mowing
- erosion reduced to a minimum
- natural landscaped plants take full advantage of rainfall
- when water restrictions are implemented, natural landscaped plants will survive, while more traditional plants may not
- increased habitat for native flora and fauna
- where heavily forested, provides shade on homes and businesses saving energy
native plants rarely become invasive