A Contraposition to Western Lawn Aesthetics
“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.