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The American lawn reconsidered

Many of the painstakingly maintained suburban lawns actually consist of non-native grasses poorly suited to any of the nation’s many climates. As a result, suburbanites are trapped in an endless cycle of mowing and sowing.
/ Source: Financial Times

What could be more natural than a lush, green lawn surrounding one’s home? Well, try a wildflower meadow, for starters — or a prairie-style planting of Buffalo grass. The painstakingly maintained lawns encircling most suburban American homes actually consist of non-native grasses poorly suited to any of the nation’s many climates. As a result, generations of hapless suburbanites have found themselves trapped in an endless cycle of mowing and sowing.

The contemporary American lawn can trace its congested, over-fertilized roots to the landscape movement of 18th-century England, when it became obligatory to surround stately homes with acres of luxuriant lawn. Large expanses of grass were a symbol of affluence, requiring a full-time staff armed with scythes to keep the grass neatly trimmed. The first manual push mower, invented in 1830, brought mowing to the masses. Now, given the toll the conventional American lawn is taking on our ecosystem, this mania for manicured lawns may be a luxury none of us can afford.

The typical suburban homeowner in pursuit of the perfect lawn often resorts to pesticides and fertilizers whose impact extends far beyond the boundaries of his own yard. Pesticides don’t discriminate between good bugs and bad. Excess fertilizer leaches into groundwater, encouraging the growth of harmful toxins that threaten fish, water fowl and other forms of aquatic life.

And then there’s the double whammy of the petrol-powered lawn mower — noise and air pollution in a single machine. Mowers with engines, lacking the sophisticated emission systems of a car, spew more exhaust in an hour than 40 new cars would generate.

Yet the vast majority of American homeowners clings to the notion that a well-maintained lawn constitutes the ideal yard. A lawn, after all, can be a beautiful thing. It provides a place to play, or to have a picnic. It sets off specimen shrubs nicely. And who doesn’t love the scent of freshly mown grass?


Thankfully, for the diehard lawn devotee there are non-toxic, environmentally friendly ways to maintain a lawn. Slow, low-growing grasses can significantly reduce the maintenance needed to keep a lawn looking good. Better yet, Prairie Nursery, a Wisconsin-based company specializing in native plants and seeds, offers a “No Mow” lawn seed mix, a blend of low-growing fine fescues that form a “soft, four- to six-inch-tall flowing carpet of grass.” It’s drought resistant, needs no fertilizer and can be mowed once or twice a year, for those wanting a more conventional cropped look.

There are non-grass alternatives as well, such as chamomile or white clover, both of which spread to form dense mats that can be mowed and walked on. Chamomile has a lovely apple-like aroma, while clover provides forage for bees and enriches the soil. A Chamomile lawn does require full sun; white clover can tolerate a fair amount of shade and drought. For the truly shady front yard, moss can form a velvet green carpet, provided there’s sufficient moisture.

The front yard of my own tiny weekend home in the Hudson River Valley includes a blend of all three: Chamomile between the stepping stones, clover under the fruit trees and moss wherever there’s shade. But these patches of green here and there don’t qualify as a real lawn.

Sure, I’d like to have a little lawn. It’s just that most of our garden slopes so steeply that a lawn would be impossible to mow. My next door neighbor, whose yard is nearly as steep, actually lost a toe mowing her lawn. Admittedly, she was wearing sandals, but still; a “no mow” lawn might be the solution for both of us.

The lack of a lawn, “no mow” or otherwise, didn’t stop me from buying a pricey Brill Lexus 38, the Mercedes Benz of push reel mowers. The Brill, beautifully designed, German made, weighs just 17 pounds, making it easy to handle; I use it to cut the grass at the local library.


Those who prefer not to mow may opt to replace their lawns entirely with native grasses and wildflowers. Such plantings, in addition to simplifying maintenance and conserving water, have the added benefit of providing much needed habitat for wildlife.

But while a courtyard of coneflowers and coreopsis gets the thumbs up from the National Wildlife Federation and other organizations devoted to the promotion of native plantings, it sometimes receives a less enthusiastic response in some suburbs where consistency is prized above all. The uninitiated may mistake a prairie planting for a wasteland of weeds — a cutting-edge landscape, to some, may to others be a landscape in need of a cutting.

While a wildflower meadow will undoubtedly attract all kinds of so-called beneficial pests — ladybirds, earthworms and other benign creatures — it may also bring out noxious neighbors wielding weed laws. In recent years such ordinances, which forbid “uncultivated vegetation,” have been rewritten in many states to distinguish between deliberate native plantings and a yard that is simply neglected.


Still, there are communities where a prairie-style planting still ignites controversy. Ironically, those who condemn the lack of a lawn as downright un-American often have front yards full of Kentucky bluegrass, which actually hails from France and Germany. If you’re going to boycott Beaujolais and bratwurst in the name of patriotism, shouldn’t you add Kentucky bluegrass to the list for the sake of consistency?

In drought-plagued areas where water restrictions make it all but impossible to maintain a lawn, some homeowners have resorted to spraying their sad, brown patches of grass with Grass B Green, a special paint that turns the lawn green for up to 12 weeks. It’s non-toxic, safe for pets and kids and “won’t stain shoes or concrete with proper application.”

Could anything be more fake than a painted lawn? Well, yes. A plastic lawn. In parts of the country where conservation measures are strictly enforced, lawn lemmings are turning to artificial turf to satisfy their addiction to grass. While today’s synthetic substitute is aesthetically superior to the Astroturf of yore, it still looks fake. For one thing, it doesn’t go brown in the summer — or in the winter, for that matter — when everyone else’s lawn takes a break.


And while artificial grass enthusiasts champion fake turf as an environmentally friendly solution, in many ways it’s not. No, you don’t have to water, fertilize or mow it. But, unlike real grass, it doesn’t absorb much water, leading to run-off and potential flooding. It provides no habitat for bugs, good or bad. It’s quite expensive to install, too; a plastic lawn costs 10 times as much as a real one.

Still, people in drought-stricken parts of the United States are rushing to have this synthetic sod installed faster than horrified homeowners’ associations can ban it. To many, the artificial turf represents the greatest landscaping breakthrough since vinyl fencing. It’s a perfect combination — a fence that never needs painting enclosing a lawn that never needs watering.

Finally, in some densely populated areas, the front garden is being supplanted entirely by what’s known as the “pave-over.” This trend, fueled by insufficient parking and/or an excessive number of cars, consists of ripping out one’s yard entirely and replacing it with asphalt. Presumably, it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising entrepreneur comes up with a way to tint asphalt a pleasing shade of green, enabling city dwellers to have their “lawn” and park on it, too.

Kerry Trueman is a free-lance writer who gardens in the Hudson River Valley and New York City.