Saturday, October 8, 2011


Lawns. What a ridiculous waste of land. It's worse than a parking lot in some ways, because, although it has the benefit of being alive and permeable to rain and runoff, it's still largely useless. I drive down the highways looking at acres, no, square miles, of mowed grass. Banks and businesses set on grounds too big for them, and thus surrounded in lawns. I see undeveloped lots everywhere being mowed. What gives?

A man's home is his castle;
in some cases, literally.
Lawns started off as cleared spaces around castles. It is a military design element, open, unwooded areas so as to provide sight lines for defenders and a lack of cover for attackers. They were kept cleared by workers, and grazing livestock. Later, after castles became militarily obsolete, they continued to surround the manor house, the local rich guy who owned everyone's land and could afford to keep up appearances; which is to say, he could hire the peasants keep his acres of non-productive grass shorn. It still served a bit of a defensive purpose, in case his tenants decided to rise up against him. They also made the house look more grand and imposing. Later still they began to be incorporated into the estate gardens as an aesthetic element.

It wasn't until the late 1800s that they began to be seen outside of the realm of the rich. Regular people had no time for, nor money to hire, the scything of great swaths of grass. They grew food or flowers. It wasn't until the invention of the lawn mower that the underclasses could finally realize their dream of aping the rich with these useless patches of boring green squares. That's all it is. It's pure pretension. And I find it interesting that they originated as martial works. Lawns are so much a symbol of the conquest of nature, you can picture a guy standing arrogantly, RoundUp in hand, flanked by his power mower, weed-whip, and other weapons, ready to force Nature to submit to his hand.

Lawns demand huge inputs of water, energy in the form of mowing, and, typically, vast amounts of chemicals in the form of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide, which are ruining water quality in our lakes, rivers, and oceans (about half of all such polluted runoff stems from residential lawns). They are often planted in non-native grasses, which tend to escape and become invasive species in the surrounding environment. They also absorb far less CO2 than trees, as well as having little shade value, thereby allowing the groud to heat up more, both of which contribute to global warming.

I've hated lawns for years. You can go down rural roads and see these struggling farmers (and what farmer isn't struggling these days?) who have to spend at least half a day mowing their enormous lawns, to say nothing of the cost of fuel and mower maintenance. Or here in Southwest Florida, where, in the rush to develop (going back decades) they cleared miles and miles of forest, built roads, and waited for them to be developed. The subdivision I live in is about 1/3 developed, and there are areas nearby that are far less developed than that.

How ugly. I wish I had a green square.
The scourge of rampant single-family home development is another rant altogether; but here someone has to mow all those miles of what used to be wildlife habitat or at least productive agricultural land. I don't know why they feel they have to keep it mowed, but they do. Personally I'd rather see them let it go back to pine forest, or at worst mow it once a year to keep the trees out-- but let it be a meadow in the meantime, where weeds are again wildflowers, and the grass bends beautifully in the winds that blow off the Gulf. Instead, the city or the developer has to hire mowing companies to cut these endless lawns, and have had to do so for decades. Think of the cost, the fuel usage, the pollution! What waste!

And meanwhile, the typical homeowner sits on his quarter acre or so of land, most of it is useless lawn. You can grow a lot of food on a quarter acre if you know what you're doing. You can use it as a net gain, rather than a net loss where you pour money and time into maintaining something that gives very little back to you. Alright, it's a good play surface for kids, but it might be a better idea to save the lawns for the public parks, where children and adults alike can get together to socialize. Might even have some good side effects on the greater society. I know when I lived in Texas last winter, I'd hang out at this one park sometimes, and watch the Mexican families show up and have a barbecue, which I though was pretty nice; gathering in public spaces rather than hiding in your home. But the family and social values of our Mexican immigrants is also another topic... yet you see how so many things can be related. Lawns connect to public space (and the loss of it), social isolationism, dead zones in the ocean, energy use, the distance of travel for the food one buys...

I guess the point is, as I said in this other post, is that here we have a non-functional landscape of negative benefit, as well as a situation where we can take actual steps towards benefiting ourselves, society, and the environment. Kill your lawn!


  1. You would love my front "yard." My wife & I have painstakingly removed our lawn without the use of chemicals. In place of your typical grass, we have planted a wide variety of native species.

    There are salal and salmonberry bushes that produce fruit for wildlife. There are two red flowering currants that are prized by hummingbirds. There is blue-eyed grass, cinquefoil, columbine, lavender and several varieties of mint that are feasted on by honeybees. Interspersed among these plants are evergreen huckleberry, indian plum, mock orange, pacific ninebark, and a variety of ferns.

    The ground cover we've chosen are woodland and coastal strawberry plants. This past summer we must have harvested at least 10 pounds of mouthwatering strawberries!

    While my neighbors spend their summers mowing their front lawns, we harvest ours. :-)

  2. And then there's golf...

    At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I refer you to:

    in reference to and in memory of my dear late mother-in-law who refused to put a lawn in front of her wooded lot in an upscale development.

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