Are lawns green?

(Updated and reprinted from my other blog.)

I may not be very popular after writing this, but the truth is, I don’t like grass. Let me rephrase that – I don’t like the fact that almost every American suburban house comes with a lawn. I don’t like that this is the default landscape of the suburbs, and I don’t like that many neighborhood codes require people to keep up the lawn when there are greener (and arguably prettier) landscape possibilities.

Copyright: Five Seed

Now don’t get me wrong – having grown up in Southern California, I can’t help but like a little grass. I like it in playgrounds, schools, and parks. But do I think we need to have so much grass? No way. And I certainly don’t think grass is the only safe, neutral, child-, pet-, and visitor-friendly landscaping element.

Let’s break it down.

::Lawnmowers suck.

First, just to start with their least offensive trademark, I consider them to be noise pollution. I hear lawnmowers going in my neighborhood 3-5 hours a day from May through October and it is annoying! If I happen to run into my neighbor outside, I have to stand right in front of her in order to hear her talking to me when lawnmowers are running on our street. It makes me miss the quiet of winter.

But let’s get really green here. Why the gas-powered lawnmowers? Our lawns are so small in this neighborhood, I don’t understand why almost all of our neighbors feel the need to own one at all. I own a push lawnmower (people-powered, not gas or electric), which is perfect for my tiny front and back yards. Gas-powered lawnmowers are oh-so-bad for the environment.

Here are a list of stats from http://www.peoplepoweredmachines.com:

~The EPA says gas mowers represent 5% of U.S. air pollution.

~Each weekend, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year and producing tons of air pollutants.

~According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a traditional gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars each being driven 12,000 miles.

~…The EPA states that 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. That’s more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

~One gas mower spews 87 lbs. of the greenhouse gas CO2, and 54 lbs. of other pollutants into the air every year.

~One gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving 55 mph for the same amount of time, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

~The replacement of every 500 gas mowers with non-motorized mowers would spare the air 212 pounds of hydrocarbons, 1.7 pounds of nitrogen oxide, and 1,724 pounds of carbon dioxide.

(Click here for the source.)

So you see…gas mowers suck.

::Lawns use up precious water for what is essentially, an aesthetic preference.

According to Science Daily, “Lawns are the single-largest irrigated crop in the United States, three-times more than corn.” And again, why do we use this much water for grass? Just because it’s pretty?

Despite the fact that most American cities now have official water schedules set by the district, most people don’t follow these rules, and they are not often enforced. For instance, in our neighborhood, you may only water every other day (odd addresses on odd days, even addresses on even days, and no one on the 31st of the month), and only before 11AM, or after 4PM. Not to sound like the Water Police, but I notice neighbors watering every day, around 1 or 2PM. (Doesn’t everyone know that is the LEAST efficient time of day to water?)

And how about sprinkler placement? Even in this environmental climate, I still see people “watering” their driveways and sidewalks because their sprinklers aren’t correctly positioned.

::Lawns aren’t as eco-friendly as people think.

Many argue that lawns are great because they absorb carbon dioxide. However, a study “in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, found that typical lawn maintenance activities emit four times more carbon dioxide than grass can absorb. Devices that burn fuel, including mowers and leaf-blowers, contribute a bulk of emissions. Fertilizer production and irrigation add to the totals. Soccer and baseball fields are even worse offenders, the study found. Playing fields spit out both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, but they fail to pull any carbon out of the atmosphere because they get trampled to death every year.”

The final verdict, from Claudia Czimczik, a biogeochemist at the University of California, Irvine and her colleague Amy Townsend-Smith:

“In the lawns we studied there would be more benefit to the environment if the lawn wasn’t there.” (Italics added. Click here for the source.)

Now before the lawn-lovers throw tomatoes at me, let me say that I’m not against lawns in general. I do think it’s nice to have a patch of lawn for the kids to play on, or for the dogs to nap on. I think it’s nice to have them for playgrounds and parks (to some extent). I just don’t see why even the smallest yards (like ours) need to have lawns.

Part of my frustration is seeing (and hearing) the amount of work going into the lawns in my neighborhood. I wish I could give you an actual numeric measurement of the lawns around here, but let it suffice to say that both back and front yards are very small! However, if we all had a garden plot in our back or front yards (or better yet, both), all the families around here could easily feed themselves throughout the summer. If we dedicated even half our backyards to garden space, we would all be overflowing with zucchinis and cucumbers and lettuce! (And frankly, I think it would be more fun for a child to play and work in a garden, than on a lawn.)

If I wasn’t renting, I would rip out 90% of the lawn in a heartbeat. Two fruit trees would go in the back, and garden beds throughout, with a patch of lawn in the center for my sun-worshipping dog. And more garden space in the front yard, as well. I would have quite the bounty if I was allowed to do that, and I’d consider the fast-growing water bill worth the money, rather than cringing over the fact that I have to pay so much extra over the summer to water a lawn that I hate.

I think this is a really good time for us to question the “need” for lawns. If you decide you can’t live without one, what can you do to make it more green (figuratively speaking!)? If you, like me, are stuck with one, what can you do to counteract its less-than-green attributes? If you don’t like them, need them, or want them, what will you do to create a new, “greener” landscape?