Grass is Not Green

It’s disturbing that so many influential environmentalists have avoided what is one of the overriding “green” issues of our time.

That issue is grass. Yes, ordinary yard grass, in about three ordinary subspecies, decorating the lawns of approximately 75 million American homes. Not to mention all the grass surrounding apartment buildings, commercial buildings, public parks, playgrounds, and designated public squares. .

The problem becomes even worse when one realizes that the majority of homeowners are under 30 years of age, with the 30 to 44-year-old demographic taking a close second. What it means is that the cultivation of grass has gone from a pre- 20th century, European notion to a carefully  defined space, due to the efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Garden Club.

The effects are far from beneficial. As Wildlaw – a environment-centered legal website – notes:

“From the air we breathe to the water we drink and the land we live on, nearly every decision we make impacts our natural environment.”

The History of Lawns

Between 1915 and 1930, or just before the Great Depression, lawns became a big thing, thanks to the two entities mentioned above.

A good lawn is  “…mown to a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, neatly edged and without weeds”.

By the middle of the last century, this definition has become a pastime – in cases, even an obsession – with a newly-minted class of suburban homeowners who viewed the perfectly weeded, mowed, fertilized and pest-free lawn as a civic duty.

The Problem with Lawns

This lawn paradigm requires loads of time. It delivers positive effects like exercise, sunlight, and fresh air. It also requires tons of negatives: chemicals fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides,  and even some mammal-killing rodenticides to keep out gophers, moles, voles and the like.

Unfortunately, the fertilizers wash off lawns and into streams and lakes, causing algal blooms that are dangerous to both fish and people. The biggest bloom in the U.S. is located in the Gulf of Mexico, where a “dead zone” almost 6,000 square miles in extent – the size of Connecticut – is wiping out marine life and destroying the livelihoods of area fishermen.  

Lawn pesticides kill every living thing in a lawn, from the tiny frogs, grasshoppers, and butterflies that feed in lawns, down to earthworms, beetles, ants, microscopic insects, algae, and bacteria. Kills them, even though this diversity is essential to maintaining healthy soil and healthful food.

Herbicides do to native plants what pesticides do to native soil dwellers, and with the same disastrous consequences. When a farmer uses enough herbicide, or weed killer, to wipe out everything but corn, or wheat, or cotton, he/she is also hampering the health and growing cycle of crops, because nothing on Earth exists in a vacuum. That, in fact, is the ultimate lesson of soil science and no-till farming.

Rodenticices, often compounded of first-generation anticoagulants like warfarin (a pharmaceutical blood thinner for humans), or second-generation bromethalins (central nervous system poisons), also kills dogs, cats, ferrets, and other pets that come in contact with it.  

In fact, first-generation compounds containing warfarin are suspected in the stunning death toll of barn owls in Canada. In the U.S. and Europe, studies are also finding significant deaths among bald eagles, bobcats, coyotes, deer, foxes, golden eagles, hawks, mountain lions, owls, possums and raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and vultures.

The Future of Grass

U.S. Homeowners currently spend more than $17 billion on outdoor improvements to lawns and landscapes. Fortunately, the Garden Club of America has updated its concept of lawn maintenance.

First, it no longer advocates for monocultures: that is, all grass and nothing else. Remove weeds, where you must, by spot-spraying, regular mowing to prevent seeds from spreading, and using organic fertilizers to encourage grass to grow too thickly to allow weeds like crabgrass to get a foothold. When it comes to dandelions, organize the family to pick blossoms – pay a ransom if you must – and make dandelion wine, or a soothing, healthful tincture.

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