By Jenevra Wetmore
Rewilding sections of lawn by planting and encouraging native wildflowers produces an array of blossoms that attract a diversity of pollinators. Photo by Heidi Marcotte.
Americans love our lawns. In fact, grass is the largest irrigated crop in America, if one defines a crop as a cultivated plant. Figures from NASA estimate that the US grows 63,000 square miles of turf grass. For context, Vermont is 9,623 square miles, meaning the US cultivates an area the size of six and a half Vermonts of grass. Instead of using this land for growing edible crops or supporting pollinators and other wildlife, we choose to grow turf grass.
What is so bad about growing a lawn? Admittedly, lawns have some benefits including recreation, lowering urban temperatures, and some water-trapping flood reduction benefits. But, overall, lawns just aren’t that good for the environment. To keep our lawns looking green and healthy we add 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides to them every year. Even worse, maintaining a lawn uses up to 237 gallons of water per person per day. While it is difficult to find numbers on how much gasoline we use to mow our lawns, Yale University estimates that the US uses five gallons of gas per household to mow and trim yards each year. In addition, significant carbon emissions are emitted during the manufacturing process for synthetic fertilizers, and the flush of nutrients added to lawns and gardens greatly increases soil microbial activity and related carbon emissions. So if you add up the pesticide and fertilizer use, the massive consumption of water, and the carbon released into the atmosphere from mowing and fertilizing, lawns don’t seem as idyllic as they once did.
You can take small steps to reduce your lawn’s impact on the environment. First, stop using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which harm insects and pollinators and run off into our waterways. Additionally, consider buying an electric lawnmower. Electric Mowers are becoming more popular due to their convenience, relative quiet and improved battery life. Green Mountain Power offers a $100 rebate on electric lawn tractors and a $50 rebate on electric push mowers. You can also raise the blade of your mower to cut grass no less than three inches from the ground. Cutting grass shorter can limit root growth, hurt soil health and increase the need for watering.
These are all great options for reducing your lawn’s carbon footprint, but they will not solve our collective lawn problem. To kick grass to the curb, we must take bold action and say goodbye to lawns. In some places this is already a reality, especially where governments give rebate payments to residents for eliminating their lawns. The most popular program of this type is in Southern California, and was created as a way of combatting severe drought. Residents receive rebates of up to $2.75 per square foot of grass removed and replaced with sustainable landscaping. This “cash for grass” program recognizes what we already know: lawns are a waste of precious water, with little environmental benefit.
Where to start? I suggest taking a walk outside around your home. Look at your lawn with new eyes and ask yourself, “Do I need this much grass? What areas of lawn serve me, and what areas do not?” There is no need to tear up your whole lawn in one go–start small! At my late grandmother’s home, we decided to stop mowing a 30 x 50 square-foot section of lawn last year. The area was wet and no one used it to walk or recreate. Since then, we have let it go wild, adding some additional plants that favor wet areas, like willow and viburnum, and letting the natural wildflowers come in. Last fall we were rewarded with a vibrant patch of purple asters. If you choose to use this approach, be sure to remove invasive plants as you go.
If you’re a more hands-on kind of person, you may prefer to actively transform your lawn into a native jungle, with edible plants and berries that pollinators and other animals (including you!) can appreciate. If you’re unsure of where to start, visit www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder, where you can enter your zip code to see plants native to your area.
Lawncare in the US is a 40-billion-dollar industry. Instead of spending this money on turf grass, imagine the resources we could invest in growing native plants and gardens in the space our lawns now occupy. Experiment with your lawn this summer and let go of a small patch of grass this year, perhaps a 10-square-foot section of lawn. Throw some wildflower seeds in, or watch what naturally comes up. You may be pleasantly surprised!