The American Lawn

I’ve never been a fan of lawns, those expanses of green, fertilizer-and-herbicide-hungry plants mowed down to within and inch or two of their lives. It’s a monoculture, and a boring one at that. If you’re going to cover the earth in front of your home with just one plant, choose something interesting. Something that blooms or produces food. Perhaps native plants, which would surely be the most American lawn of all. Anything but one dull little blade of grass after another.

Ted Steinberg offers plenty of reasons to give up on lawns in his new book American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, but unfortunately he’s short on alternatives. Steinberg, a 2006 Zucker Fellow in environmental studies at Yale and the author of two other books and numerous essays, takes on the lawn industry, the influence of golf greens on the suburban landscape, and much more. He’s an admitted lawn-lover himself, but he’s also ambivalent about his little patch of green.

Golf courses, he argues, created an expectation of a perfect, soft carpet of grass that no homeowner can reasonably maintain. Championship courses are mowed as short as an eighth of an inch, leading one sports announcer to proclaim that “they don’t mow them, they bikini wax them.” Mowing low creates a shallow, vulnerable root system and an unnatural demand for water, fertilizer, and pesticide. Steinberg quotes a biologist with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation who said, “If you scraped a golf green and tested it, you’d have to cart it away to a hazardous waste facility.”

Homeowners tend to overfeed and overmedicate their lawns. Americans spray 90 million pounds of pesticides on their little piece of paradise every year, and the runoff of chemical lawn fertilizers into lakes, streams, and groundwater has become a serious problem in many communities. Steinberg spells it all out, but he doesn’t offer many alternatives.


“Nor is organic lawn care by itself the answer,” he writes, with no real explanation as to why that might be. He suggests that runoff of phosphorus into streams would happen regardless of the type of fertilizer used, which ignores the fact that organic fertilizers contain much lower concentrations of those nutrients. In fact, an organic lawn, maintained by setting the mower blade higher, leaving the grass clippings to decompose, raking in a thin layer of high-quality compost twice a year, and fertilizing with an organic lawn blend two to four times a year, would create a much safer lawn for the environment and for the people and pets who use it.

He’s not much happier with a native plant lawn, either. He says that it would take several years for “a meadow filled with native plants” to fill out enough to prevent runoff and absorb nutrients. (This in spite of the fact that native plants, properly selected, should require little or no extra water, fertilizer or pesticides because they are adapted to survive in their climate.) He also suggests that a native lawn would look too weedy in a suburban neighborhood and that many cities have lawn ordinances that would prevent a homeowner from planting a more natural landscape.

I can only assume that Steinberg is not a gardener. He seems to think that the only two possibilities for a front yard are a perfect, green, all-American lawn, or a weedy-looking meadow of native wildflowers. Now, it is true that a meadow, in the proper sense of the word, is more difficult to maintain than many people think, and that it does go through natural cycles of dormancy that might not please the neighbors. But has Steinberg never heard of a garden? It’s sort of a hobby among a few people in this country, in which people select plants—native or otherwise—that are pleasing to them and arrange them attractively in the landscape. What’s wrong with filling the front yard with perennials? Shrubs? Groundcovers? Ornamental grasses?

He does have fun with the lawn care industry, which proudly touts the environmental benefits of a lawn by pointing out that a 2500 square-foot lawn will produce enough oxygen for a family of four. It’s a silly assertion and Steinberg is right to call them on it. First of all, it assumes that the lawn operates under ideal conditions year-round, that the oxygen is not needed to support the other life (bugs, microbes, and so forth) that live in and around the lawn, that no oxygen is consumed maintaining the lawn, and that the family of four is quite sedentary. He also points out that if producing oxygen is the goal (and there does not appear to be a shortage of oxygen), large trees and shrubs would certainly do a better job, but he makes it sound as if this is a silly, impractical notion.

Ah well, you and I know better.


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