Lawn Care

I’m a pretty modest guy, but whenever I see my neighbors spending huge amounts of time and money maintaining their green grass lawns I feel smug. My yard requires almost no effort and no money to maintain. True, it’s a full acre, which is about 4-5 times larger than I would like, but the zoning rules in my suburban neighborhood require that lots be no smaller than one acre (see how fast that changes when gas permanently rises above $5 per gallon). As a result, I require a small lawn tractor to mow my lawn, and I feel guilty about the amount of gas I use, and the large amount of raw materials needed to make the mower (let alone the cost). We use a reel mower for small areas that are hard to get to. So other than mowing, my lawn is maintenance-free. Why? Because I let nature decide what will grown on my lawn. Nature wisely chooses the plants that are best acclimated to our climate. This leads to a rich diversity of healthy plants carpeting my lawn. What are my neighbors doing? They partake in a cultural aberration that is almost unique to the U.S. and that began after WWII: they are growing monoculture grasses. Only one grass species, nay, only one plant species is allowed to grow on their lawns. And if you have unlimited amounts of oil to provide energy for machines to mow, aerate, and edge, and to make fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, why be limited to only indigenous species? Why not choose a grass that you saw on vacation on a golf course hundreds of miles away? Maybe it’s not the species that is best suited to the local climate, but all of the chemicals will make up for that. If pests try to dig in your lawn, you can easily find poisons targeted for each type of pest. All it takes is time and money to kill every living thing but one: that single grass species that you love. If you’re wealthy, you can pay companies like Chemlawn to come and broadcast spray your yard every week with chemicals designed to kill everything except your precious grass. But don’t let your kids or pets play on the lawn! Well, no worries there, how often do you see kids nowadays playing outside? As long as you can see a uniform sea of green outside your window, who cares if your environment has become sterile?

Obviously what we’ve described is an unsustainable, even bizarre form of behavior. I feel smug because I haven’t mindlessly followed the self-defeating lawn care practices of my neighbors. Why fight against nature when it can be your ally? What is the purpose of a lawn, anyway? It’s nice to have a lawn for the kids to play sports on, but nowadays parents cart them off to manicured ball fields many miles away to play organized sports. Lawns today serve almost no purpose. Why do I have an acre of grass (actually, it’s mostly onions and clover)? I don’t want it because I don’t use it for anything. Yes, I did play with my kids on the lawn when they were little, but we could have done the same on a yard ¼ the size. We would have been happy to walk a block or two to play in a neighborhood park, but suburban neighborhoods aren’t set up that way. In fact, the design of suburban neighborhoods does not follow their function at all. People appreciate that machines like cars should be designed to perform their function most efficiently. But most people cannot even describe the function of their yard, so how could they decide on an optimal design?

Don’t just settle for the mindless suburban mindset by growing a green grass lawn. Avoid the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides, and of fertilizers that pollute streams and cause eutrophication. Avoid wasting the large amount of time and energy required to maintain it. Don’t fight against nature: let the plants that are most fit win control of your yard, because nature knows best.


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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