August 25, 2002

Lawn Culture

[This is another transfer from my soon to be expiring website. This was originally posted in the summer of 2002, the first summer we were in FC and realized that we were expected to put water on the non-crop in our front yard.]

We love our lawns.
As the Englishman, Frank Scott, wrote in 1870, we see our lawn as our "home's velvet robe." (1) In fact, in his book, The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, he stated that "a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house." (2)

But these same lawns are:
* depleting reservoirs of water -- water that could be used for drinking or to grow food. [In some areas, lawns use more water than a family of four.]
* contributing approximately 410,000 tons of ozone causing pollutants and 1.6 trillion tons of carbon monoxide emissions per year in the United States as gas powered mowers and handheld equipment is used to keep these lawns manicured. [Lawnmowers and other gas-powered lawn equipment produces
5% of the nation's air pollution and uses 800 million gallons of gasoline
a year.]
* reducing the amount of available habitat for natural wildlife. [Suburban sprawl is a major threat to native animals, plants and insects.]
* causing about 70,000 injuries a year as people lose fingers, toes, or more while using their mower or other lawn equipment improperly. [Hospitals and emergency rooms treated 70,640 injuries related to power lawnmowers, hand mowers and riding power mowers in 1999.]
* using up our free time as we becomes slaves to watering, mowing, fertilizing, and weeding our lawns.
* undermining our national security as we contribute to our national "need" for petroleum based products such as fertilizers and weed killers (not to mention the gasoline that is used to power lawn equipment). [It is possible that political situations could affect our ability to fertilize our crops as well which could lead to a food shortage.] 
* contributing to the pollution of drinking water and land in general. [Fertilizer contains toxic pollutants.]

But what alternative do we have?
There are several steps you can take to combat our current situation, from changing mowers to gardening with only native plants. Even taking one small step could mean a world of difference if
the whole nation were to follow suit. And by taking a little extra time and money up front, you can actually reduce your costs and labor dramatically and still have a beautiful yard.

* Get a reel mower. Use a broom instead of that noisy leaf blower. And try out a pair of clippers instead of using a gas powered string trimmer. Several regions have programs called "Mowing Down Pollution" which enable you to turn in your gas-guzzling power mowers and other hand-held equipment in return for great rebates on people powered lawn equipment. (Just type "mowing down pollution" into your favorite search engine and see if there's a program near you.) -- Of course, if you
want to get really radical, you could try having a free range guinea pig. We had one for 8 months that kept our lawn looking like a golf course. Our lawn was trimmed and fertilized without any money or energy on our part. (It worked great until a neighborhood cat discovered our "lawn mower.")
* Try a little xeriscaping. Xeriscaping means planting water conserving landscapes that are appropriate for their given uses. (For example, a rock garden isn't appropriate for an area where your kids will be playing soccer, but it might be the best option for a part of the yard that's hard to drag the watering hose over to.)
* Go native! The plants that are native to your part of the country are ones that are perfectly adapted both to the climate and the pests. You'll end up watering and fertilizing less and enjoying your yard more. (Did you know that Kentucky Blue Grass is not native to Kentucky?! It was actually brought in from Europe.) You can find out what plants are native to your area by plugging your zip code into the
Backyard Wildlife Habitat site. (Go to the Native Plants page and click on the kinds of plants you'd like to find. There will be a popup page that asks for your zip code.)
* Water your current lawn more wisely. Avoid watering your driveway, sidewalk or street (or any other
non-growing thing that doesn't really need water). Water in the morning when temperatures are cooler to minimize evaporation. Only water your lawn when it needs it. (If you walk across it and leave footprints, then its time to water.) Collect rain water and use it to water your garden. (There are even more water saving ideas at the "Water. Use it Wisely" web site.)
* Compost. By composting your grass, leaves and kitchen scraps, you not only save landfill space, but you're creating a terrific soil amendment (=healthy soil that's full of good stuff for plants).

Resources (in addition to the ones listed
Top ten Reasons to consider a reel mower (from the American Lawn Mower Company).

Another helpful composting site.

More great essays on Lawn Culture:
The American Lawn, Dawn
of a New Lawn
, The Lawn
Mower: Analysis of Suburban Artifacts (Interpretation)
, The
Lawn: A History of an American Obsession
, Have
you checked your hay crop for irony lately?


(1) quote taken from Jeremy
Rifkin's book, Biosphere Politics, (Crown Publishers, Inc. New York,
c1991), page 166 (where he is in turn quoting Frank J. Scott from his
treatise, "The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds."

(2) quote taken from the article
"Dawn of a New Lawn" by Andy Wasowski in Audubon Magazine