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The Tyranny Of The Lawn
For more than a century now, American homeowners have been struggling to remake their small patch of the environment into a soft, green carpet just like the neighbor’s. Who told us this was the way a lawn had to be?
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
By the 1970s the disappearance of dandelions was no longer universally viewed as something to celebrate. Environmentalists saw something perverse in Americans’ increasing reliance on pesticides and power mowers to cultivate nature. In 1984 Lorrie Otto, a meadow gardener, made the case against lawns in The American Woman’s Garden : “It appears to be the American way to arrive ignorant into a new landscape, to denude it and replace it with a hodgepodge from other climates and even other countries, and then to squander energy to artificially maintain the vegetation.”
Otto criticized lawns for consuming water and petrochemicals (in the form of power-mower fuel), demanding pesticides and herbicides, generating polluted runoff, crowding out native plant species, and depriving insects, birds, and other wildlife of their natural habitats. Otto’s indictment didn’t end there: Lawns were responsible for the stupefaction of American youth. In a tract outlining her opposition to weed laws, Otto considered “the possible consequences of caging children in an endless sea of mowed grass. What happens in a society when the young are not stimulated by a diversity of life? Will the dullness of the environment be echoed in the human mind?”
Otto’s more stimulating alternative, of course, was a garden filled with native plants; her own yard contained species native to her home state of Wisconsin. She argued that these gardens were not only more environmentally sensitive but easier to care for than lawns.
Otto and other meadow gardeners offer suburban residents an escape from the tyranny of the look-alikes, but it’s not clear how many Americans are tantalized by their vision. In the early 1980s, while meadow gardeners urged Americans to open their yards to nature, revenues of lawn-chemical companies were growing by 17 percent a year.
Ultimately it may be environmental and economic necessity more than philosophical arguments that challenges the rule of lawns. Drought conditions affecting parts of the Midwest, South, and Southwest during the 1980s brought watering restrictions to many jurisdictions. In areas such as Dallas, where lawns consume as much as 60 percent of city water supplies during the summer months, there is growing interest in xeriscape gardening, which uses native plants and grasses that require little water. At the same time, lawn pesticides have lost their miracleproduct status. The Environmental Protection Agency is retesting many of them after acknowledging that health studies in the past were inadequate. Citizens nervous about the health effects of pesticides have persuaded several East Coast states to pass laws requiring lawn-chemical companies to notify residents when they spray.
But lawn opponents are taking on more than a rectangle of grass. They’re fighting an institution, a way of life, a setting for childhood, a part of the American dream of home ownership. In the end it may be science that rescues the lawn. At universities around the country turfgrass specialists are busily developing the grasses of the future, which they say will be both easier to maintain and kinder to the environment than today’s turf. A professor of turfgrass science at Texas A & M University has recently developed a variety of buffalo grass that is low-growing and stays green with relatively little fertilizer, water, or pesticides, while a Rutgers University scientist has selectively bred a perennial ryegrass that contains a natural insect repellent. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Turfgrass Evaluation Program in Beltsville, Maryland, scientists have selectively bred a type of zoysia grass that could bring an end to a centurylong national chore. The grass requires watering only three or four times a year and needs fertilizing just once or twice a year. The program director, Kevin Morris, describing the new variety, utters welcome words to weary lawn tenders: “The less you do to it, the better it looks.”