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Time to ungarden: creating an organic, fruitful yard

Lawns in the US cover an area roughly the size of New York State and most of them are grown in parts of the country that don’t have the climate, or water supply, to support them.

Americans spend more on their lawns every year than the annual GDP of Serbia. That’s about 40 billion dollars to mow, water and add pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides to yards that don’t produce anything.

While some lawns- parks, sporting fields, etc.- may serve their purpose for recreation, we certainly don’t need so much of it.

Lawns in the US cover 50,000 square miles- an area about the size of New York State- making it the single largest irrigated crop in the country.

NASA researcher Christina Milesi who has researched the size and impact of US lawns reports : “Even conservatively, I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn.”

The problem with lawns, says Milesi, is not just that they don’t produce a crop, but most of them are planted in areas that don’t have the climate, or water supply, to support them. “A lawn isn’t a big deal in the northeast, but when you recreate that same landscape out West, it becomes a major ecological issue because the only way to grow those grasses is with high use of water and nitrogen fertilizer.”

“An individual, quarter-acre lawn isn’t a big ecological influence, but adding up all those quarter-acres for everyone in the country… We suspected that the ecological impact could be pretty big.”

Milesi and her team discovered that the impact of lawns is big, especially with respect to water. To keep our nation’s lawns watered requires 200 gallons per person per day of water, or double the daily indoor consumption for an average family of four.

“A nationwide chemical experiment”

Beyond their impact on our threatened water supplies, lawns are contributing to the growing pesticide load on our environment. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service: “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on their crops”.

We spend $10 billion per year on chemical inputs for our lawns, using some very potent compounds. One of the most popular herbicides- 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), is a major ingredient in Agent Orange and now a suspected carcinogen. Ted Steinberg, author of  American Green, warns that lawns are “a nationwide chemical experiment with homeowners as the guinea pigs.”

The organization Beyond Pesticides warns: “Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides 19 have studies pointing toward carcinogens, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 15 with neurotoxicity, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 27 are sensitizers and/or irritants, and 11 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system”.

Studies shows that children and infants are particularly susceptible to the health risks of garden chemicals. Given that lawns are often seen as an ideal playground for children, Beyond Pesticides published a report warning “Children and lawn chemicals don’t mix” which highlighted, among others, the following facts:

  • “Studies show children’s developing organs create ‘early windows of great vulnerability’ during which exposure to lawn pesticides can cause great damage.
  • “A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds that household and garden pesticide use can increase the risk of childhood leukemia as much as seven-fold.”
  • “The most commonly used nonagricultural herbicide, 2,4-D, has been linked to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in scientific studies.”

The SUV of the garden

Lawns don’t just contribute to pollution via fertilizer runoff which pollutes waterways and soil, but via mowers. American lawn mowers consume 800 million gallons of gas per year and, according to the EPA, cause 5% of the nation’s air pollution.

Since lawnmower engines haven’t been regulated until recently, one hour of mowing is the equivalent- in terms of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)- of driving a car 350 miles. The Union of Concerned Scientists claims that “the average lawn mower emits as much smog-forming pollution in one hour as eight new cars traveling at 55 miles per hour.”

The war on turf

While the acreage of lawns in America hasn’t stopped growing, the anti-lawn movement has been picking up momentum and a diversity of opinions. In a New Yorker article Turf Wars from July 2008, Elizabeth Kolbert outlines the authors from the past couple decades who have contributed diverse alternatives to grass:

  • Michael Pollan with Second Nature suggests replacing parts —or all— of the lawn with garden.
  • Sara Stein with Noah’s Garden advocates “ungardening”—essentially allowing the grass to revert to thicket.
  • Sally and Andy Wasowski with Requiem for a Lawnmower recommends native trees and wildflowers and Buffalo grass for those who can’t give up a lawn.
  • Heather Flores with Food Not Lawns and Fritz Haeg with Edible Estates push edible plantings, or what Haeg calls “full-frontal gardening.”

Not all of the authors call for a ban on lawns, but they are simply asking Americans to put them in perspective. Heather Flores of Food Not Lawns (both a book and an activist group) told faircompanies that her group was not a “literal blockade of green, grassy places” and that a little bit of grass makes sense in a park, but less so in your yard.

“People pay a half a million dollars for a small piece of property in this country and it seems like it would make more sense to use your land for something that benefits you as an individual versus surrounding yourself with something that’s poisoning you and your family.”

How to shrink your lawn

The group Smaller American Lawns Today (SALT) aims to reverse “the lawn mania in America” and restore land to more ecologically sound landscapes. They offer a tipsheet on decreasing the size of your lawn with the following suggestions, among others:

  • Create tree/shrub plantings along the property lines.
  • Cover old areas of lawn using foundation plantings like shrubs, flower beds and ground covers.
  • Grow a vegetable garden.
  • Let your backyard revert to a natural meadow.

SALT founder William Niering has posted a sketch of his yard on the site to show its diversity in a mix of trees, shrubs, vegetable garden, meadows and remaining “mini lawns”. He advocates leaving as much of your yard as possible unmowed. “The meadow can take as much of your remaining lawn as you want. There are some people who prefer no lawn, which is ideal!”

Freedom lawns

For those who still want the look of a lawn, there are less resource-intensive methods. In the book Redesigning the American Lawn, authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geball propose “freedom lawns,” allowing more natural growth of grasses, clover and wild flowers that occur without “cultivation, chemicals or cutting.”

To achieve a more natural, less resource-intensive lawn, here are a few tips:

  • Plant a native species like Buffalo grass (the only turf species native to North America).
  • Avoid pesticides and embrace “weeds” such as dandelions and clover (or weed by hand if necessary).
  • Mow only when necessary and cut no shorter than 3 inches.
  • Use a human-powered mower (consider it a workout).

Moss: a major design trend

There is one more alternative to grass that still achieves the image of a great green sea: moss. Prominent members of the American Society of Landscape Architects, in an informal survey, predicted that a major design trend for 2008 is the use of native and drought-resistant plants like moss as a substitute for grass.

This is something that David Benner, a retired horticulture professor, has been preaching for decades. “Every time I give a lecture, I go into this spiel: get rid of your grass, and grow moss. And now it’s finally gaining momentum.” Benner hasn’t had to water, or mow, his lawn since he planted it in 1962.

Moss is drought-resistant and only requires a fraction of the water- 1% or less- required by grass lawns. It also grows fast, prevents erosion, repels weeds and can be walked on. It’s a lazy gardeners’ dream. Says Benner, “I really don’t water. I work with nature, and my philosophy is that things have to tough it out.”

To help others get started, Mr. Benner is now selling moss starter kits- via his son’s specialty moss company Moss Acres- offering four of the easiest-to-grow moss plants: fern, hair cap, rock cap and cushion.

The only real work to be done: getting rid of that weed called grass. “When my neighbors walk by and I’m there pulling out the grass so the moss will grow, they think I’m a little crazy.”