In America and many other industrialized nations, one feature dominates the landscape, especially in the suburban areas of the great cities–the green, pristine, velvety lawn. The lawn is so ubiquitous in American culture that a huge industry of chemicals, tools, and machinery are purchased and used each year to keep it looking nice. The idea of the pristine lawn is embedded into our cultural consciousness–a lawn that is a bit wild is labeled “overgrown” or “out of control”–but is it really?
The ecological impacts of the lawn are seriously problematic. The University of Vermont studied the impact of lawn fertilizer runoff and found that it caused substantial pollution and algae blooms in groundwater and surface water (rivers, lakes, streams). Another researcher examined the issue of where lawns could actually be grown “naturally” in the USA and found that they really can only grow in a few areas without irrigation, further straining our water supplies, especially in water-starved places like the Colorado River basin and surrounding areas). Yet another researcher found that the lawn is the most cultivated plant in the USA–more than all farmlands and gardens combined. But, by far, the most disturbing thing concerning the lawn is simply to look at the statistics for chemical and fossil fuel use (and I’ll list a few from this site):
- 40.5 million acres of lawn in the USA
- $30 billion dollars spent on lawn care each year
- 800 million gallons spent on lawnmower fuel
- Pesticides include known/suspected endocrine disrupters (13%); reproductive toxins (22%), banned/restricted ingredients in other countries (41%), possible carcinogens (53%) and more.
The plants that appear in the lawn are another consideration. The plants labeled “weeds” in the lawn that are often the target of such pesticide/herbicide use are often the most medicinal (plantain, dandelion), delicious (wood sorrel, wild strawberry, dandelion, and lamb’s quarters) and beneficial to the ecosystem (dandelion breaks up compacted soil; clover fixes nitrogen; grasses provide important nutrients to birds if allowed to seed, etc.).
Animal habitats and food are rare in the typical lawn–it encourages monocultures rather than polycultures, it doesn’t provide good habitat for birds, bees, and other beneficial insects, not to mention larger animals and wildlife.
The spiritual side of the “care” of the lawn also needs to be considered. We are what we surround ourselves with–we reflect our external practices deeply. If we spend our time outside driving around loud, fossil-fuel guzzling equipment as our primary interaction with nature, what does that do to our relationship? If we continue to keep the land around our homes in an unnatural, harmed state, what does that promote? If its more of a chore to go tend the land than simply enjoy it, how does this change our interaction? If we take the time we would spend investing in mowing the lawn to something else, like the act of gardening, how would that change our interaction with the world? In my experiences, shifting shifting how we view–and tend–our own lawns and lands, we can allow us to change great deal of ourselves in the process. The act of tending goes from tedious to regenerative/transformative.
To show this complex relationship with the lawn in action, let me talk about my own evolution and thought processes. I started with reading Gaia’s Garden several years ago, and got to the part about the history and origins of the lawn (which, for Americans, was a strong desire to emulate rich Europeans). I had really never thought about the lawn as an agent of consumption nor class, but there it was, clearly laid out for me. At the time, I was in my first year being in Michigan and living in a condo where the lawn was done by hired professionals. I remember trying to tuck little pepper plants into the bushes, only to have them ripped out. I watched them “care” for these places by using chemicals on every dandelion, cutting the grasses short, and spending inordinate amounts of time driving heavy machinery over the grass, even when it didn’t seem to need cut. And a curious transformation took place in my mind–I saw that lawn for what it was; a sad attempt to shape and tame nature to an unattainable ideal. In many ways, the lawn is the antithesis of nature allowed to prosper and flourish.
When I purchased the land here a few years ago, I had TONS of lawn space–almost 2 full acres if I wanted to mow everything. I decided on a series of paths in the spaces behind the house and then still mowed the front yard so that the house looked lived in. As I went, I converted the sections closest to the house to gardens–herb gardens, butterfly gardens, and so much more. I also converted a ton of the backyard into my organic vegetable garden. This work is ongoing, but at this point, I am quite pleased with my progress, probably converting close to 2500 square feet into garden spaces, walkways, and other more permanent features that require very little maintenance when planted with perennials and well mulched. This year, I’ve decided that I’m only mowing paths for walking (and some of these will be done with a hand mower) and I’m going to put up some signage explaining my lawn philosophy to curious neighbors. Luckilly I live on a dirt road with no homeowners association or pesky city ordinances (there have been numerous attacks on front-yard vegetable gardens and other attempts to remove lawns in more urban areas).
When I stopped mowing entirely, a magical process began to occur. The lawn grew more and more wild and more and more beautiful! Flower I never saw before peeked out; grasses grew tall and bent in the breeze, and medicinal plants grew larger and more vibrant. And as this was happening, I was undergoing a parallel transformation in regards to my own healing work. The photos in the blog are photos I took recently of the beautiful lawn–and it really is a thing of beauty, of growth, and benefits everyone much more than before.
If you are interested in converting your lawn, realize that it will be a long process, but the benefits are worth the work! And remember that many hands make light work. The sheet mulching techniques that I described in depth a few years back on this blog are particularly well suited to quickly getting rid of lawn quickly. I’ve also found that asking around to friends and neighbors can yield a wealth of good plants in fairly short time. This year alone, I’ve been given or traded for many plants including: french sorrel, fennel, mints, perennial garlic and onions, blue vervain, rue, Valerian, strawberries, hazelnuts, gooseberries, currants, and much more. A lot of this has been due to our efforts to exchange plants and seeds among our Permaculture meetup members. I’ve also done some trades and offered plants of my own–its a wonderful way to get plants to replace the consumptive lawn! You can usually find free materials if you look around–from leaves in the fall on the street corner to municipalities giving away free compost and wood chips.
You might also see if you can join a group to learn more about the process of converting your lawn. In a broader move away from the lawn, in our Permaculture Meetup, we are starting an event called the 100-Yarden Dash. We are asking 100 people in the area to sign up their “yard” and turn the yard into a garden or expand their current garden–hence, the “yarden” name. At this point, we have over 200 people signed up to do just that, and we are excited to see how far this idea can go! I hope that as we educate others, we can begin to shift our cultural consciousness and our ideals of what a beautiful outdoor space can be!
Dana, I love your yard, and I look forward to the day when my family can have a real yarden of our own. I am learning so much from you, and I appreciate you and your work.
Great article. I’ll share this around!
Thanks for the comments, guys! 🙂
I love this! Do you do anything about trees and brambles or do you plan to let them take over?
Well, it depends on what it is. I try to limit poison ivy’s growth, cause I don’t want too much of it and it can be harmful to me and my family/friends. Trees, it depends on what they are–I am growing a lot of fruit and nut trees, so I’m privledging those kinds of trees. Some others I am transplanting to an area that is near my house that is 80 acres. So far though, I’ve let the seedlings grow for a while unless they are coming through my garden bed.
Brambles, be it blackberry, black raspberry, or red raspberry, are always most welcome because they are medicinal and bear fruit. This is true also of dandelions and many other so-called “weeds”–they are some of the best food and medicine that you can have. So it really does depend on what it is, but I try to honor and respect the life here!
It is about time USA had a rethink about how it treats its gardens. Great post, as always educational.
Alex, how is the concept of the “lawn” different in the UK? I’d be interested in hearing about it.
The British apart from the wealthy and the obsessive few tend to leave their lawns to nature, they mow their lawns of course, but they don’t have the obsessive need to maintain immaculate lawns to impress the community. I have noted a trend of people being lazy by installing plastic grass, or turning gardens into paving and gravel.
[…] the years, I’ve done quite a bit of coverage about lawn issues, as I really do believe that the lawn can be one of the primary sites of transformation and change […]
I live in Ireland and have been saying for a very long time I want my lawn…as a meadow. Love your articles and as a living Druid culture I have grown up with the duality of the ways of the ancients.
Thank you 🙏
Bernadette, thank you for sharing! I’d love to hear more about Irish culture and growing up with the duality of ways. My primary heritage is Irish, but in the US, those ways were lost many generations ago :(.