by Carl Carlson
A neat patch of perfectly manicured lawn is an iconic image of the suburban American landscape. The smell of fresh cut grass on a summer afternoon conjures up deep nostalgic emotions. We love the vaguely naturalistic, pastoral effect they provide to our landscapes, yet we often don’t consider the negative effects of the perfectly manicured lawn, which despite appearances is not a natural component of all environments. It is important that we understand the impacts of trying to grow grass in climates that won’t naturally support them and instead find acceptable ecological options that will fit within different regional landscapes.
Lawns originated as grassed enclosures for feeding livestock, most often as communal grounds in rural towns and cities. As livestock production moved away from individual families to larger farms, the neat patch of green grass stayed but it needed to be maintained by people since the livestock were no longer on site. As European settlers expanded west into the United States, they brought their old farming practices to new landscapes, damming up rivers and building irrigation canals to support grass fields for livestock production. Fresh water, which has always been valuable, became much more so as more settlers built farms in relatively arid climates. This problem was exaggerated by the post WWII suburban building boom, as population centers shifted from the northeast to the southwest, suburbanites transplanted their temperate zone landscapes. Today we waste millions of gallons of water every year to grow grass in deserts, we dump tons of fertilizers and pesticides to keep them green (the same fertilizers and pesticides ultimately end up polluting surrounding watersheds), and we send millions of pounds of carbon dioxide into the air cutting the lawn that we continually encourage to grow. So despite the somewhat natural appearance, lawns can actually produce adverse environmental impacts.
There is however a growing movement of people who are trying to use their yards in a more efficient and hopefully ecologically thoughtful manner. Some towns are promoting xeriscaping in arid areas, landscapes that require little to no water. This trend is re-shaping (and re-coloring) the look of desert living.
Mini vegetable farms in typically underused front yards are another “anti- lawn” idea gaining popularity. Although, it may not be the most ecologically sensitive (farms are highly managed and maintained landscapes that offer limited habitat value), it is a significant improvement from average American suburbia. Most front yards are relatively unused and highly manicured areas that focus on creating an appealing first impression of a home. Why shouldn’t these unused areas be more productive as vegetable gardens? Growing your own vegetables is the ultimate in the locavore movement. Food can barely get any closer than your own front yard. Growing and eating more of your own veggies has health and environmental benefits. It could encourage us to waste less water by using drip irrigation around specific plants instead of typical lawn sprinklers that indiscriminately spray water everywhere. It cuts down on greenhouse gasses by negating the need for a lawn mower and it allows for healthier regional landscapes by reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers that might wash into storm sewers and local watersheds.
Trying to do something different with your front yard however, can have the unfortunate effect of running afoul of HOA bylaws or local regulations, as not everyone appreciates the unconventional landscaping. In some cases, municipalities have mowed down landscapes as “nuisance weeds” then billed homeowners for their destruction. Many people have been given violations and been forced return their landscapes to a style more “typical” of their surrounding neighbors and in one unfortunate case a homeowner in Michigan faced criminal charges when she refused to remove her front yard vegetable garden.
However the alternative landscaping trend is gaining momentum. Americans are becoming more interested in their gardening options, forcing elected officials to rethink zoning laws. Towns like Santa Monica are actually encouraging residents to remove lawns and replace them with something more “sustainable” as shown in a recent New York Times article.Firms like Great Ecology are developing education and outreach programs about water management on private properties or offering design services tailored to ecological concerns of their region. The more the public is educated and exposed to potential lawn transformations, the more alternative landscaping will become accepted and the less we will be negatively impacting our surrounding environment.
Want to create your own wildlife-friendly garden?
The National Wildlife Foundation provides excellent tips and will even provide Certified Wildlife Habitat designation for your property if you can fulfill their requirements.
Kurutz, Steven. The Battlefront in the Front Yard. New York Times. December 19,2012.