Vox Populist: Is Your Lush Lawn Killing Mother Nature?

Growing up, I learned a lot of valuable lessons from the example set by my Ol’ Texas Daddy: a strong commitment to the common good, a healthy work ethic, and a lively sense of humor. But there’s one thing about him I’ve rejected: his determination to have a perfect yard of thick, verdant, St. Augustine grass.

Lord, how he worked at it, laying sod, watering, fertilizing, watering, weeding, watering, spreading pesticides, watering, mowing, more watering. But it was too hot, too dry, and too infested with blight, bugs, slugs, and such. He was up against Texas nature, and he just couldn’t win.

So I’ve gone in the opposite direction, slowly nurturing a natural yard of native trees, drought-tolerant plants, flowering perennials, low-maintenance upkeep, and a general live-with-nature ethic in my little landscape. I’m hardly alone in my maverick rejection of the uniform green-grass imperative.

Sometimes little things can be a big deal. In considering ways to protect Mother Earth from the global environmental rampages by us humans, look out your window. In many cities and most suburbs, chances are, you’re looking at a lawn—a grass-carpeted yard that looks almost the same as the one next door, creating an aesthetic that is repeated, block after block. Of course, some see a lush expanse of green grass to be the ultimate in landscaping beauty, and there are even those who consider a well-manicured lawn to be a measure of moral character. But at what price?

Beauty and piety aside, the spread and intensification of lawn culture has become an environmental extravagance that is already unsustainable in whole sections of our country, and it adds up to a steadily increasing burden on the Earth’s essential resources. While turf grass itself looks natural, planting and keeping it alive year-round across thousands of square miles is not.

Americans use more than seventy million pounds of pesticide annually to maintain their lawns. That’s ten times more poison per acre than all of America’s farmers useon their crops.

And there’s nothing “green” about the deluge of pesticides, fertilizers, growth stimulants—and endless rivers of water—applied again and again, yard after yard, trying to keep each of these plots verdant. And—oh, the irony!—their “green” includes eliminating bees, doodlebugs, butterflies, and, well, nature. One statistic tells the tale: Americans use more than seventy million pounds of pesticide annually to maintain their lawns. That’s ten times more poison per acre than all of America’s farmers use on their crops.

Just glance around you, and you’ll see the grass-lawn imperative at work throughout your community, probably surrounding your local schools, greening up corporate complexes, spreading across vast acreages of college campuses, forming miles of turf for golf courses, and running along roadways.

Fortunately, a spontaneous yard rebellion is taking hold across our country as more and more households, neighborhoods, towns, businesses, and schools shift to a more nature-friendly approach. A particularly encouraging push for change is coming from students, from the elementary school level through college, who are appalled by the poisoning of our globe. They are organizing locally to do something that both makes a difference and makes a statement. One exemplary channel for their activism is a student-led movement called Re:wild Your Campus.

Some people, of course, consider wild yards to be too scruffy, unattractive, and unruly. That’s their choice, but some also insist that tight and tidy grass lawns must be everyone’s choice. So they proclaim themselves to be the yard police, demanding that cities and homeowners associations make green-grass uniformity the law, filing busybody lawsuits and running rightwing social media campaigns targeting people and groups that dare supplant the “perfect lawn” as the ruling aesthetic.

This is not a diatribe against grassy plots, which can be natural joys when planted with native sedges and grasses. But let’s get real, get creative, and get in touch with the full balance and beauty of nature. These attacks are silly because, well, they are silly, and also because they’re attacking the future, which is nearly always a losing strategy.

You can promote ground cover sanity right where you live with plants native to your area, xeriscaping, organic methods, and rain gardens, and by rewilding your yard and your community.