By Jennifer Young

“A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”

~Michael Pollan, Second Nature, 1991


It’s so important to our American concept of home, that there are companies devoted to the installation of fake lawns for home owners living in the desert. Classified as a ‘crop,’ it’s “the most grown crop in the United States—and it’s not one that anyone can eat.”

It costs us $40 billion annually to care for our lawns, care that includes fertilization, fuel for our mowers, water to keep the grass lush and green, seeding and aeration services, and pest control. A scraggly lawn diminishes your home’s curb appeal. An overgrown lawn invaded by weeds? Rest assured—your neighbors hope you’ll move.

Where does this desire for a perfect lawn arise? Why are we consumed with something that does not exist in nature without human cultivation and care? A well-kept lawn is a way to exhibit status. Washington and Jefferson were only borrowing a concept that had long been in place in Europe. Royals and aristocrats had their highly-manicured lawns—and the more of it you had, the more money you likely could boast, too.

So important are our lawns today that many towns and cities have ordinances that bar people from growing edibles—vegetables—that we could actually eat! People “have even faced jail time for nothing more than growing food in their own yard.” In a bewildering number of cities and suburbs throughout the country, residents don’t want to live next door to “farms” where tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers grow next to the front porch, however neatly and well kept.

Of course, there’s a cost to this obsession to have the perfect lawn, one that’s free from dandelions and broadleaf plantains, free from gophers and grasshoppers. Consider household water use alone. The average American uses more than 50% of their household’s outdoor is earmarked for yard and lawn care. We only use 15% for bathing—and less than 20% to flush the toilet! In states where water is a hot commodity like California and Arizona, water bans can be put into effect; there isn’t enough water for both humans and plants! (Hence—the success of artificial lawn companies)

Lawns also do damage to the environment. Fertilizers, with their phosphorus and nitrogen, leech into the soil, run off into rivers, streams, and drains where they can contaminate drinking water. Pesticides and herbicides with their carcinogenic chemicals do the same. Then there’s the cost of all that fuel needed to run our mowers, edgers, trimmers, and leaf blowers—and it’s a cost to our pocketbook but also to the environment. Did you know that a gas-powered mower emits as much pollution per hour as 40 running cars?

According to some environmentalists, our love affair with the perfect lawn may be doomed. The costs to sustain our patches of green are impossible to ignore. After WWII, the lawn obsession seemed to explode as soldiers returned home to find affordable housing with front and backyards to maintain—gladly maintain for afternoons of croquet and catch, barbecues and cocktails with the neighbors. Who among them knew that their love for a weed-free lawn would ultimately threaten a land of milk and honey?

The answer is simple enough. We must simply refashion our notion of Eden, take pride in our emergent white clover, and welcome all strains of Creeping Charlie (ground ivy) to our lawns. We must try to see beauty in the native species that grow in our lots. If we’re really ambitious, and have a small lawn, we’ll trade in our gas-guzzling mower for a reel mower—fueled by nothing except our own two feet.

Of course, there’s billion-dollar industry at stake (landscapers, manufacturers, grass seed companies, pesticide-herbicide companies, lawn-care equipment makers). It’s not just about our taste in plant species and garden design. The thought of convincing lobbies to change with the times is overwhelming.

For now, just make a start: water a little bit less, buy a rain barrel, and grow a tomato plant next to your front porch.