I write today of a long-standing American tradition: the immaculately kept, Kentucky Bluegrass lawn. Lawns are quite complex, tying into resource conservation, food security, economics, and the underlying societal mores that govern our perceptions. We live in an era where maintaining a lawn to community standards contributes to increased home values, greater respect within the community, and provides a place that homeowners can use for recreation and straight-up chillin’. Further, lawns can provide many positive environmental and community advantages, including reducing heat, glare, and acting as a carbon sink.
However, our national love affair with lawns is complicated by the ubiquity of lawns and their intensive maintenance. There are over 28 million acres of turf-grass lawn in the United States, which is about the area of the state of Pennsylvania. That is more acreage than is used for growing cotton, barley, and rice combined.
Nationwide, lawn maintenance has a large environmental impact. Even with considerable pressure on the potable water supply and massive droughts throughout certain parts of the US, Americans use an estimated 9 billion gallons of water per day on their lawns. Traditional lawn maintenance puts a strain on surface water quality, with an estimated 40-60% of nitrogen fertilizer washing away, which can lead to algal blooms. Heavy nitrogen fertilizer use also releases nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas that also has negative health effects.
Further, lawn maintenance in the United States consumes between 120% and 360% more pesticides per acre than even the most intensive mono-culture agriculture (like corn and soy) without producing anything edible or tangibly usable. In a 2010 survey conducted in Nebraska, over half of respondents agreed that pesticides and fertilizers were a danger to public health. However, most of the respondents in this survey and other surveys also believed that that a well-kept lawn increased property values and that maintaining a weed free lawn was important.
So, clearly Americans know that lawn maintenance can cause environmental damage and endanger public health, but simultaneously value their lawns for monetary reasons and pride. As a society, one thing we have to consider is whether or not we are striking the right balance between our aesthetic and economic values and the environmental and public health impacts.
Although economics falls within the greater environmental context, the economic benefits of lawns are currently outweighing the environmental impacts in American society.
Anyways, what does this mean for the average American? And importantly, if you are so inclined, what can you, dear reader, do about it?
Happily, the EPA and other researchers has provided multiple suggestions for how to deal with this very issue, which I have compiled into the list below.
1) Before applying fertilizer, you may want to do a soil test to see if it actually needs fertilizing. In the survey by Sewell et al that I cited above, only 3% of respondents had their soil tested before deciding whether to apply fertilizer. Also, consider mulching the grass clippings or applying homemade compost instead of applying petroleum based fertilizer. This can often provide a great baseline of nutrients to support a health lawn.
2) Consider cultivating multiple kinds of grasses, especially grasses native to your area. Because the native grasses are better suited to their environment, you will save money on fertilizer and pesticides since they’ll compete more effectively. It is also a much more cost-efficient option than putting down sod; the EPA estimates that installing a landscape of native prairie grasses could cost between 1/3 and 1/6 of the cost of turfgrass ($2,000-4,000 compared to $12,000). These grasses will last longer, and also tend to have much deeper root systems which can better uptake nutrients and prevent run-off.
3) If you choose to apply fertilizers or pesticides, carefully follow the instructions on the container to avoid contaminating groundwater with excess runoff. A higher application does not always lead to a better result!
4) Consider planting a perennial garden or vegetable garden. With careful planning, you can reduce your pesticide consumption, use less fertilizer, and collect a delicious bounty to boot (as well as the psychological benefits of gardening: e.g. horticultural therapy).
In conclusion, lawns are both useful and burdensome. Due to the economic value placed on a well-kept lawn, it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing a shift in the landscaping zeitgeist any time soon. A responsibly kept lawn can have positive environmental impacts, but maintaining a lawn solely for aesthetic and economic purposes is not the most environmentally responsible decision.
Adapted from Mind the Science Gap http://www.mindthesciencegap.org/2013/09/26/first-blogpost-fun/
- Blaine, Thomas W., et al. “Homeowner attitudes and practices towards residential landscape management in Ohio, USA.” Environmental management 50.2 (2012): 257-271. DOI
- USEPA. Natural Landscaping at EPA’s Laboratory link
- USDA June Acreage Report. 2013. link
- USDA. FG Yearbook Table 01. 2013. link
- Zhou, Weiqi, et al. “Can money buy green? Demographic and socioeconomic predictors of lawn-care expenditures and lawn greenness in urban residential areas.” Society and Natural Resources 22.8 (2009): 744-760. DOI
- USEPA. 2013. “Outdoor Water Use in the United State” link
- Sewell, Sarah, et al. “Lawn management practices and perceptions of residents in 14 sandpit lakes of Nebraska.” Journal of Extension 48 (2010): 1-8. link
- Carrico, Amanda R., James Fraser, and Joshua T. Bazuin. “Green With Envy Psychological and Social Predictors of Lawn Fertilizer Application.”Environment and Behavior 45.4 (2013): 427-454. DOI
- USEPA 2012. Source Book on Natural Landscaping for Public Officials link
- Verra, Martin L., et al. “Horticultural therapy for patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain: Results of a pilot study.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 18.2 (2012): 44. link