A Contraposition to Western Lawn Aesthetics

Julia Petryschuk

“The new motto should be that the only things in this world you have to do are get born,  die, pay taxes and abide by nature” (Bormann et al., 1993). It has been thoroughly integrated into Western culture that in order to be a responsible and happy homeowner, our lawns should be  green, free of visual disturbances and variations. Over generations of time, our society has  maintained the idea that a perfectly mowed, monoculture lawn is a symbol of prestige. Lawns  originally became popular in eighteenth century Europe to keep grazing animals on the property,  and eventually evolved into an idea limited only by money (Bormann et al., 1993). These  European ideals were brought to the West through colonization as colonists did not want to deal  with unfamiliar environments (Bormann et al., 1993). Thus, Western civilization has adapted to  what can be referred to as the “Industrial Lawn”; one that is regularly mowed, continuously  green and absent of weeds and pests (Bormann et al., 1993). Homeowners continue to preserve  their lawns, acting against nature through means of additional time, money, and resources. No  matter how much nature wants to become diverse and escape the forced repression, we continue  in our efforts to control it. This control is an example of the pressures from Western society we  face to conform to the “lawn norm” (Schindler, 2014). The lawn norm has no intrinsic value, it is  rooted from the fact that we as humans are attempting to ignore the environment’s natural  flourishing tendencies. We want nature to abide by our subjective idea of beauty and conform to  the ideals of society. This can have negative effects on our surrounding environment, and will  lead to extremely costly impacts in the near future. It should be noted that these industrial lawns  do have some benefits such as increasing home value, acting as a carbon sink, preventing soil  erosion, and offering a sense of community; but its massive square footage does a lot more harm  to the environment than one may initially suspect (Schindler, 2014). In the United States, grass is 

the single most grown crop in terms of its surface area, and as of 2014 it covered approximately  128,000 square kilometers of land (Schindler). Thus, the amount of energy we put into our lawns  has a large impact on the environment. We cannot continue to waste our resources attempting to  follow the industrial lawn norm. The monocultural, non-native yards that are popular now do not  have enough biodiversity in order to be ecologically productive. The non-indigenous quality of  turf grass requires more energy in order to be maintained within an environment in which it is  not adapted (Talbot, 2016). Why do we insist on growing water thirsty grass in biomes where  there is moisture or temperature stress? Why do we rip out the seemingly ugly “weeds” from our  yards? Who decided that nature was such a nuisance? There exists so many other options we can use to increase the ecological value of our yards while still maintaining a sense of community.  Changing our Western norm of green turf properties to a majorly native habitat or home garden  would have a large impact on the future of our climate by increasing lawn biodiversity,  productivity, and sustainability.  

The non-native nature of turf grass is one of the main reasons why lawn maintenance  requires so much effort and resources. The vegetation is not adapted to the stressors of its surroundings, and thus needs a surplus of energy in order to survive. There is usually little to no  variation in species within a typical lawn, so when a stressor arrives (i.e., moisture or  temperature stress, disease, nutrient deficiency) there are no adaptive mechanisms present to  keep the grass from being wiped out (Talbot, 2016). This inability to adapt causes land-owners to  manually protect the lawn from the stress of the environment. This involves additional watering,  mowing, fertilizing, weeding; the list goes on and on. We have entered ourselves into the never ending cycle of aesthetics to keep a green lawn to follow what society expects of us. In the US,  lawn maintenance takes almost 3 trillion gallons of water, 70 million pounds of pesticides and 

200 million gallons of gas every year (Talbot, 2016). On the other hand, native plants have  adapted over many years to cope with one another and as a result, interact in more productive  ways than non-native plants (Tallamy, 2019). In a world where global temperatures are rising,  droughts and fires are occurring, and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are rising, why  would we continue with these efforts to please our own selfish and subjective needs for a  “pristine” green lawn? If we were to switch our landscaping to a primarily native vegetative  state, this wasteful use of energy would be unnecessary. Native plants have the ability to adapt to  their surroundings and can withstand the changing environment with minimal harm. This would  increase the sustainability of our yards by having greenery without the need for external help. 

Another issue that arises with our non-native lawns is the habitat degradation that occurs  to the native species around us. The overall biodiversity of the land decreases because species  that were once thriving are now displaced by the construction of homes and the surrounding  lawns. One might think that a lawn is a great ecological system: you might see some squirrels,  birds, or a rabbit or two; but it does not compare to what would be present if more native  vegetation was available. For example, more birds are usually present in a lawn environment, but  the number of bird species decreases as only a few species can thrive in an industrial lawn setting  (Lerman et al., 2018). Also, in the past few years we have seen a large decline in bees and other  pollinators due to our lawns that are purged of spontaneous flower growth (i.e., Dandelions or  white clover) (Lerman et al., 2018). Bees (and other pollinators) pollinate approximately 87% of  flowering plants and therefore have a large impact on the efficiency of ecosystem functions  (Lerman et al., 2018). To better the productivity and biodiversity of our yards, it would be  extremely beneficial to make a switch to a polyculture in which native plants can establish  themselves.

One of the factors that is largely impacted by industrial lawns is CO2 emissions due to  constant mowing to achieve a manicured appearance. Lawns play important mitigation roles and  can greatly impact the amount of CO2 sequestered due to the large area they occupy (Lerman and  Contosta, 2019). Turf grass is a relatively good carbon sink compared to other substances such as  roads or other infrastructure, but the amount of CO2 emissions due to maintenance can lead to a  net loss of CO2 (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). Also, grass clippings often end up in landfills,  where they decompose unproductively and release the sequestered CO2, further increasing the  harmful impacts of climate change (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). Thus, we must take action to  mitigate problems of increased greenhouse gas emissions, which may be done in a relatively  straightforward way. By simply mowing less often, or reducing the surface area of total turf  grass, the emissions of CO2 would significantly decrease. Also, it should be noted that increasing  canopy tree cover can be an effective way to increase the productivity of turf grass as a carbon  sink (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). The overall temperature of the grass is decreased due to  minimized sun exposure and more carbon can be sequestered (Lerman and Contosta, 2019).  Decreasing individual CO2 emissions may play an extremely important role in the future of our  climate, and would help to slow our fastly rising temperatures. Small individual differences in  the way we treat our lawns add up quickly and would be an uncomplicated way to make a  difference in what the future climate of the earth will be.  

The chemicals we put onto our lawns to increase the nutrient concentrations in the soil  also have a substantial impact on more than just the yard. The harmful effects of synthetic  fertilizers can be quite an extensive list. One of the more apparent side effects of the use of  fertilizer (and other manufactured lawn chemicals) is the runoff of harsh chemicals into nearby  waterways. These chemicals may cause harm to the aquatic life within the water, and the buildup 

of the nutrients may cause eutrophication (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). Eutrophication can lead  to excess growth of algae populations that compete for resources (sunlight and oxygen) with vital  species (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). Runoff not only affects aquatic environments, but  terrestrial as well: fertilizers increase the concentration of atmospheric nitrous oxides, leading to  acid rain and damage of vegetation (Savci, 2012). The constant use of fertilizers causes  decomposers to become weak overtime; thus, the soil can become even more nutrient deficient,  leading to a vicious cycle of over fertilizing (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). The list of harmful  effects continues, noting the problem of bioaccumulation. Once these chemicals enter the  ecosystem and are absorbed by plant roots, they are eaten by consumers and continue to move up  the food chain (Withgott et al., 2016). Chemical concentrations increase up the food chain in a  process called biomagnification, which can directly affect us as humans at the top of the food  chain (Withgott et al., 2016). Do you want to be consuming the same chemicals you are putting  onto your lawn? In order to escape these effects, we could replace our turf grass with species that  can withstand the climate conditions; native species are self-fertilizing and can endure more  stress when it comes to nutrient deficiencies (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). All the negative  effects of industrial fertilizer use would decline, and our environment could return to a stronger  state. By working together with nature and abiding by its natural tendencies for self-preservation  we can make a significant difference in how the climate will behave.  

Not only do fertilizers cause chemical damage, but pesticides and herbicides do as well.  For good reason, Ontario has banned the use of pesticides for commercial use on lawns  (Pesticides Act, 1990). Pesticides carry many similar harms of fertilizers, including runoff,  eutrophication, and bioaccumulation (Talbot, 2016). Pesticides introduce many other problems  such as pest resistance or enhancement through natural selection, as well as killing beneficial 

organisms (Bormann et al., 1993). The soil organisms that keep the lawn properly functioning  will be harmed which interferes with the natural health of the lawn. The yard then requires more  watering and fertilizer/pesticide use to achieve the desired productivity (Bormann et al., 1993).  But, by hosting a native lawn with higher biodiversity, many pest predators such as spiders are  more likely to find shelter within the lawn, and thus provide a natural way to control unwanted  pests. The productivity of the yard and surrounding environment is then preserved, and the  delicate balance of the climate is at less of a risk for damage.  

As briefly noted above, a problem with industrial lawns is the level of ecological  productivity they currently carry. A way to increase productivity may be to increase the  popularity of home gardens(food and/or flower). A garden may be a higher maintenance option,  but it acts as a good source of exercise and entertainment for those that enjoy putting effort into  their property. One of the main benefits of a home garden is the increase of plant and animal  biodiversity. As mentioned before, an increase in biodiversity can help protect the ecosystem  from disease, but polycultural communities also have less competition for resources (Tallamy,  2019). Native species have evolved with the surrounding environment and have learned how to  survive among the other native species. Each plant has its own ecological role and requires  different amounts of resources to carry out the role(s) (Tallamy, 2019). By hosting a native  garden, less industrial pesticides and water need to be used as the ecosystem can endure stressors  (Bormann et al., 1993). On a broad scale, food gardens can reduce greenhouse gas emissions if  individuals are willing to rely on them for most of their fruit and vegetable resources by reducing  transport of produce items (Bormann et al., 1993). Emissions could also be decreased by gardening by limiting the amount of turf surface area. More space would go into the garden  (which continues to act as a carbon sink), and mowing would take less time for the smaller area 

(Bormann et al., 1993). The negative impact of industrial fertilizers would decrease as the  garden’s own compost could be used for additional nutrients (Cleveland et al., 2017). Gardens  still offer us the aesthetically pleasing yards that we so much desire, while still breaking the Western social norms of the clean cut monocultural turf. Gardens are a fitting example of how  we can increase sustainability of our yards while still enjoying the visual benefits. 

An easier method to increase the sustainability of your lawn is to adapt into the idea of a  “freedom lawn”: offering little to no maintenance to your lawn and allowing nature to do the  landscaping (Bormann et al., 1993). This option may lead to social problems due to by-laws  concerning grass species and length, but the idea may offer some inspiration for individuals  looking to better their lawn’s sustainability. This option allows nature to decide what is best for  the land, and little to no external resources from the homeowner are needed to maintain the  lifestyle. The amount of energy and resources saved through this method is quite extreme. If the  majority of homeowners were to follow the idea of the freedom lawn, we could decrease  atmospheric carbon emissions and concentration, save water for more critical needs, and  decrease the amount of chemicals in surrounding waterways. Our environment would have the  opportunity to expand without restriction, and its overall sustainability would greatly increase. It  is understandable that the freedom lawn may be a daunting decision for many homeowners and  the idea does not abide by most by-laws, but there still exists many other options that can help  sustain the ecosystem. Reducing grass area and replacing it with more functional species (i.e., flowers and food) is a helpful option as the mowing area decreases and thus carbon emissions  decrease. It has been noted in research that trees and shrubs offer more shade to turf and can  increase the amount of carbon sequestration in the yard (Lerman and Contosta, 2019). Even just 

reducing the number of times you mow your lawn can have a significant impact (Bormann et al.,  1993).  

Many individuals may be hesitant to stray from their traditional turf lawns due to societal  pressure of what is deemed acceptable. The lawn norm involves putting the wishes of society  before the needs of the earth. We need to begin expanding the diversity of our yards to develop  more complex ecosystems that can survive naturally without external resources. Nature is a  beautiful thing that has adapted over millions of years, it is able to take care of itself. Instead of  forcing nature to abide by our aesthetics, we as humans need to abide by nature in order to have a  sustainable future. Traditional, industrial lawns increase greenhouse gas emissions, use  unnecessary amounts of fresh water, disrupt natural nutrient cycles via industrial chemical use,  and cause habitat degradation to native species. Lawns are extremely popular and cover a large  surface area of land, thereby having the ability to cause considerable changes to ecological  communities. By beginning to stray away from the cultural norms regarding lawns, we can begin  to have a large positive impact on our earth. By making simple changes, by putting away the  hose, the mower, and the bags of chemicals, we can begin to see how nature is able to sustain  itself.