Finally, it’s the weekend. Lazy mornings where the fog of a long sleep creeps delightfully into every waking observation—the robins feeding their young at the nest, bees hopping from coreopsis to coneflower, the cool breeze before a suddenly warm afternoon. And the belching vibration of the neighbor’s lawnmower along the fence, the sweet exhaust stinging one’s throat on the retreat back inside.
It is impossible to have coffee on the deck or to be heard in casual conversation on most any summer evening or weekend. I have a neighbor who mows three times a week, tossing nutrient-rich clippings, one-third of a lawn’s needed amount, into the trash; and yet the perfect lines this neighbor leaves of “cut” grass do not seem any lower than those of the uncut. Another neighbor clearly prefers to mow less often—he scalps the yard once a week so it turns brown, then sprinklers come out a few days later, usually on a hot and windy late afternoon, evaporating long before the water hits the roots. Why doesn’t he leave the lawn at 3 inches in height and save on the water bill and time moving hoses?
Each weekend 54 million lawns are mowed, together equivalent to the size of Virginia, using up 800 million gallons of gas (17 million lost due to spills). All kinds of cancer-causing, asthma-irritating, blood-flow constricting, sperm-killing compounds are inhaled by the person pushing the mower. In California lawn equipment accounts for 10 percent of the air pollution, pollution that is equivalent to over one hour of driving 10 to 43 new cars (estimates vary) hundreds of miles over the same amount of time. Mowers also run at 90 to 95 decibels, the same level as a Harley. Anything over 85 decibels creates temporary or permanent hearing loss.
So, fine, lawnmowers are the scourge of suburbia, the hope of our mini kingdoms to serve as quiet and sheltered acreages away from the stress of work and school. But what about other tools we use to create and maintain our lawns? Chemical companies have us believing we need to fertilize our lawns four times a year with nitrogen-laden products; the excess nitrogen that lawns can’t use turns into a powerful greenhouse gas, and much of it leaches into groundwater and storm drains, polluting and choking aquatic life. Take a look at the dead zone near the Mississippi delta and in our farm ponds. Artificial nitrogen also sets up a cycle of lawn dependency like a drug addict—the soil life dies, and the lawn needs more juice, so you fertilize and mow and water more often. Don’t forget about the process to produce all that fertilizer—an energy-intensive ordeal that releases many greenhouse gases as a result.
The argument will always be that we need lawns for kids and pets to play in. But trust me—you don’t want your kids running barefoot in a lawn slathered and sprayed in who knows what. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, for example, 19 are linked to cancer, 13 to birth defects, 21 to reproductive effects, 26 to liver and kidney damage and 15 to neurotoxicity (brain development). Twenty-four of these pesticides are toxic to fish, 11 to bees and 16 to birds. And what about cost? An acre of lawn at a church, apartment complex or industrial park over 20 years will cost roughly $20,000 to maintain—whereas the same acre in native vegetation will cost $3,000. Why don’t we see more native vegetation at our workplaces? Why don’t churches and community centers, especially, take a lead in this? And schools? Students who interact with nature are proven to have higher creative and cognitive skills, and children with Attention Deficit Disorder show astounding improvement.
Have some lawn, but border it with relatively low-maintenance native shrubs and wildflowers. Have some lawn, but don’t use inorganic chemicals or even any chemicals at all—top-dress it with one-quarter inch of free city compost, like LinGro in Lincoln. Let those prairie flower and shrub roots amend the soil underneath and create thriving, self-sustaining ecosystems that provide free nutrients and filter our groundwater. Think about using an electric mower, which runs at 70 decibels and costs $5 a year to operate, or the innovative Fiskars reel mowers.
Our backyards are nature preserves—for the birds and bees, and for our children and ourselves. As native ecosystems lose their ability to sustain themselves, through habitat loss and chemical overspray, we can create environments that physically and emotionally sustain ourselves (and other species) with less effort than we give our landscapes now. If anything, think about how good that morning coffee will taste when you’re mowing less and your kids are following a monarch from coneflower to coneflower and across the naturally green lawn. You might even be able to hear the hummingbird at a penstemon.
Lawn Reform Coalition: www.lawnreform.org
Safe Lawns: www.safelawns.org
Richard Louv, “Last Child in the Woods”: www.richardlouv.com