Wikipedia defines a lawn as, “an area of soil-covered land planted with grasses which are maintained at a short height with a lawnmower and used for aesthetic and recreational purposes. Common characteristics of a lawn are that it is composed only of grass species, it is subject to weed and pest control… aimed at maintaining its green color … and it is regularly mowed to ensure an acceptable length.”
When I look at this photograph of well-manicured lawns surrounding lovely houses, it instills in me a sense of comfort and wellbeing. The lawn and its counterparts remind me of everything good from a youth spent growing up in a house very similar to these. Hey, there’s dad pulling up the driveway in his brand new sedan. I can just about smell the ribs cooking as my mother lays them out on the BBQ. Ah, suburban bliss.
Seems innocent enough, however, if we examine the picture a little further it becomes evident that the idyllic lawn, a modern icon of human aspiration, is not as innocent as it seems.
Consider this; according to a new study from Nasa, there is now an estimated total of 163,812 square kilometres, or more than 63,000 square miles, of lawn in America. In an article by Bill Chammies in The Huffington Post, it was estimated that per year homeowners spend 30 billion dollars on 3 million tons of fertilizer, 30 thousand tons of pesticides, 800 million gallons of gas, and used 9 billion gallons of water per day, to keep their lawns short and green, effectively making the iconic lawn, the symbol of wealth and prosperity, one of the major sources of groundwater, soil and air pollution in the world.
There is a silver lining, however, as scientists point out that a lawn can act as a carbon sink, meaning that grassy areas can help mitigate climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The trouble is, currently, the water resources, fertilizers, pesticides and gas required to keep these lawns perfectly manicured far outweigh the benefits to the environment.
So how do we turn this environmental tragedy into a strategy for change? Can we create landscapes that clean soil, water and air, and require little or no maintenance? If we look to nature, we may find the answer. In Janus Benyus’s book, Biomimicry she describes a natural grass land in South Dakota: “No one planted or tended it, yet the grass came up year after year, drought or no drought, through snow and blistering sun.” She then describes The Wauhob, a prairie area in Kansas, “Though never planted by human hands, the prairie is choked with blossoms, grasses gently pouring over, seeds setting, new shoots growing, runners crisscrossing the earth in a web of decay, growth and new life.”
Having visited the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve last summer I can tell you that it is unequivocally the nicest lawn that I have ever seen. Yet it requires no additional watering, no pesticides, no fertilizer and no lawn mowing. Imagine the prairie as a giant scrubber, cleaning soil, water and air, all on its own, without any additional input. Now, take that concept and apply it to the common lawn and what you have is decidedly, uncommon.
Okay, your lawn is going to look a little wilder and maybe to some—weirder than they are used to, but so what? The short green lawn is nothing more than a preconceived idea of beauty. Why not shake things up a little? To be sure, designing a diverse, no maintenance lawn, utilizing local flora and fauna is no easy task. It might take some research, potentially some professional advice and some extra time and cash, but it is an investment worth making, one that will save you money in the long run and as a bonus, if adopted on a macro scale, have enormous benefits to the environment.