I think MC Hammer put it best. “Let’s Get It Started.” I’m referring to my inaugural blog:

“I hate most lawns and will remind you of that fact from time to time. My turf diatribes inflame a lot of readers and generate the most comments from the Loyal Order of Lawnists (LOL). Tune in as Billy gets beat up.”

“From time to time” is now. You go dig out the boxing gloves from your sporting goods bin, I’ll put in my mouth guard, and we’ll meet in the alley.

If you are working on making your landscape more sustainable, you can take a quantum leap by taming the biggest offender—your lawn. Lawns are without a doubt the most unsustainable, resource-intensive, polluting part of our gardens. Yes, lawns sequester some carbon, but not enough to make up for their negative impact.

What do I mean by sustainable? The simplest definition is a garden that resembles a natural system. It doesn’t have to look like a natural system; it just has to behave like one. That means introducing the fewest number of resources (we’ll call them inputs), like potable water, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fossil fuels. If you live in a climate where you don’t have to irrigate to keep your turf green, you’re doing better than us here in southern California. If you have a manual push mower or graze Shetland ponies in your front yard, here’s to ya. Have you gone all-organic with your lawn care products? Then you can tune out now. You’re pretty darn close to zero impacts.

What about the outputs? Are your weekends spent spreading nationally advertised miracle turf products that promise continual feeding and weed-free growth? That’s what I’m talking about. Read the health warnings on the shiny bag. Most of these products are loaded with stuff that can have a pretty nasty impact on our water supply, your kid’s skin and the air we breathe. Whether these materials are leaching into the water table or running down the
gutter and into local creeks, it’s a problem.

Using a power mower? According to the EPA, those contraptions are responsible for 5% of the nation’s air pollution.  There are plenty more statistics I could cite, but that one says enough.

What really inspired this post was an article in the May 2, 2009 Los Angeles Times titled “Painting the town green—the dead lawns, that is.” The article concerns, David Milligan, an intrepid entrepreneur who has been hired by the city of Perris, out in Riverside County, CA, to paint the dead lawns of foreclosed homes a charming shade of green. Neighbors and the local leaders feel that neglected lawns are harming surrounding property values. They’re probably right. Milligan is making between $400 and $700 a pop for a treatment that lasts three to four months. He’s using biodegradable paint, so I have no gripe there.

My problem is the mindset that put all these acres of lawn in front of these new homes in the first place. It might be different if the lawns served a recreational value, but ninety percent of our kids are in the house tethered to their electronics anyway. Savvy developers know that people like the looks of a monotonous swath of resource-greedy turf, so they roll it out like so many square miles of verdant shag carpeting.

Let’s just say that the current economy turns around on a dime and all these homes sell like cold watermelon at a county fair. Then what? Our spray paint Picasso is out of a job (who wants to pay $2800 a year to keep spraying the dirt green?), the sprinklers come back on, and everyone stampedes the big box stores to load their pickup trucks with 50 lb. bags promising suburban nirvana. I recommend four approaches to getting our yards a lot more earth-friendly. I’ll start simple, then get more radical.

1) If your lawn serves a useful purpose, like playing ball with your up-and-coming Cy Young Award winner, how about downsizing to the minimum necessary size, manage your water wisely, going fossil-free, and giving the chemicals a rest?

2) If you don’t use your lawn for recreation but think you might go through withdrawal without a bit of level green stuff in your yard, try this: Downsize the lawn and replace it with a turf species that is adapted to your climate and can survive without being put on life support. Here in Santa Barbara, people are switching to Buffalo grass and native sedges like Carex pansa and C. praegracilis. They don’t need any fertilizer, can get by on very little summer water, and are pretty much pest-free. In some of my design projects I sprinkle in a bit of yarrow and blue-eyed grass seed, then let it “go meadow”. I’m partial to a natural look so the meadow rarely sees a mower and the flowers bring a bit of interest to an otherwise monotonous swatch of green.

3) Rip the whole lawn out and create a lovely garden of native and locally adapted ornamentals. While you’re at it, add a tree or two to create a shaded reading area. Your reward is a beauty and function without the care and feeding.

4) Grow food! Raise chickens! Graze llamas! That’s what suburbia was supposed to be about—folks moving from the cities to the country to have a little rural patch of productive ground under their feet.

I think we’re stuck on our obsession with lawns based mostly on a learned aesthetic. I’ve always thought that if America had been first settled in the southwest—with people moving east—that homeowners in New Haven, Connecticut, would be trying to grow saguaro cactus in their yards. We’re just used to seeing lawns.  But aesthetics can and do evolve. I can’t remember the last time I saw a top hat or bonnet in my Land’s End catalog.

Perhaps Mr. Milligan can put away the paint sprayer and retrain his crews to build chicken coops.

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