The Death of the American Lawn

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Did you know?

  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland
  • An estimated seven million birds are killed yearly in the U.S. by lawn-care pesticides
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing all aquatic life
  • In the summer, over half of municipal water usage goes to lawns

Addicted to Green
So who’s to blame for all this? The American love of lawns began with wealthy homeowners copying the look of English estates and spread to middle-class communities after World War II. (In the new town of Levittown, NY, residents were encouraged to apply fertilizer a remarkable five to six times a year because super-green lawns “stamp inhabitants as good neighbors, desirable citizens.”) But more than anything, it was the invention of the power mower and widespread advertising for perfect lawns that sealed a new ethic of the American lawn for decades to come. Proof of the power of marketing (and of the malleability of the American consumer) is the fate of clover. While it had previously been routinely included in grass seed mixes for its nitrogen-fixing properties, when it was discovered that the new herbicide 2,4-D killed clover along with crabgrass, advertisers simply rebranded clover as a weed—and it worked! Advertising has also convinced us that lawns need to be fed in the spring to “green them up,” despite research proving that fast-acting fertilizers kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil and make lawns less drought-tolerant.

The New Anti-Lawn Movement
The anti-lawn drumbeat started with local campaigns against gas mowers and gained momentum in 1991 when bestselling author Michael Pollan wrote an indictment of lawns in his book Second Nature, and declared in The New York Times that the lawn is a “symbol of everything that’s wrong with our relationship to the land.” In academia, Cornell’s “Turf Guy” Frank Rossi is leading the charge against overfertilization, among other ills of the corporate lawn-care regime. He writes, “We need to give up our perfect-lawn ideal — it’s costing the U.S. plenty.” So how about government action? Not waiting for the industry to reform itself, Madison, WI, and seventy towns in Canada, including Toronto, have banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. Five Canadian provinces have banned the use of all pesticides for ornamental purposes, including residential lawns, and the big-box stores have even removed them from their stores countrywide. Of greater threat to the conventional (perfect) American lawn are increasing water shortages due to climate change. Thirteen states now impose water restrictions and another thirteen are predicted to impose them within the next five years. Lower-input alternatives like Buffalo grass and “No-Mow” grasses are coming on the market, and artificial turf is more popular than ever. Expect to hear lots more about this hot topic in the coming months and years.

By Susan Harris of wowowow


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