A NextGen Blog post by Johanna Mitra, Stony Brook University.
All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.
This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.
Johanna Mitra is currently an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University. She is majoring in ecosystems and human impact with a focus on wildlife conservation and minoring in geospatial science. This blog mirrors our NWNL focus on spreading awareness of US and global megadroughts and mitigating solutions. Read her earlier posts here.
When picturing a typical American home, one of the first things that might come to mind is a lawn. Owning and maintaining a manicured green patch of grass has long been considered a symbol of the American Dream, as 81% of American homes have lawns and many still considering it an essential home feature.[mfn]National Association of Landscape Professionals[/mfn] The lawncare and landscaping industry itself is worth about $105 billion and continues to grow.[mfn]National Association of Landscape Professionals[/mfn] However, America’s passion for achieving the perfect lawns comes with a heavy cost to the environment, owing to the water- and chemically-intensive practices necessary to maintain them.
The Rise of Lawn Culture in the United States
Lawns were first popularized amongst wealthy landowners in France and England during the 1700’s and very quickly became a status symbol reserved for the well-to-do. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that public figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington began replicating European landscaping on their own estates in the United States.[mfn]D’Costa, Krystal[/mfn] The development of the first lawn mowers and sprinklers and the growth of suburban communities made lawns increasingly commonplace and a source of great pride for many homeowners.[mfn]Pennington[/mfn] Today, 2% of the land in the U.S. consists of lawn, which is four times more than the land devoted to corn crops.[mfn]Diep, Francie[/mfn]
Environmental Impacts of Lawns
Grass is the single most irrigated crop in the entire United States, requiring around 2 trillion gallons of water each year.[mfn]Diep, Francie[/mfn] Even in drought-stricken regions of the western United States, some households use as much as 75% of their total water consumption to keep their lawn watered.[mfn]Pullano, Nina[/mfn] As many western states like California and Nevada continue to experience water shortages as a result of heightened demand, climate change and less rainfall, the amount of water devoted to a purely aesthetic crop is beginning to be considered exorbitant and wasteful.
Achieving the perfect lawn color and texture also requires the application of millions of pounds of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers each year, all of which can enter local ditches and waterways through storm runoff. Streams, lakes and rivers polluted with these chemicals can poison wildlife, contaminate drinking water and halt recreational activities, thus harming local economies.
In the summer of 2019, Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest freshwater lake, experienced this first-hand, after runoff from lawns inundated the lake with fertilizers and triggered a massive algal bloom.[mfn]Perry, Sandy[/mfn] The lake was closed to swimming and fishing as its toxicity had the potential for severe health effects upon even the slightest contact with the water.[mfn]Perry, Sandy[/mfn] Due in large part to inefficient and excess fertilizer use, algal blooms are becoming more frequent and increasingly toxic in areas with greater precipitation.
How to Create a “River-Friendly” Lawn
While many municipalities and homeowner’s associations may have their own rules and expectations about how lawns are managed and kept, there are a number of ways that lawns can be made more environmentally friendly through taking advantage of the surrounding ecosystem. One of the simplest solutions includes watering your lawn less frequently for healthier roots and more resilient grass during periods of drought.[mfn]Roberts, Catherine[/mfn] The addition of rain barrels to recycle rainwater can also reduce your total water consumption.[mfn]Raritan Headwaters Association[/mfn]
Making room for native plants in your yard holds numerous benefits, including supporting local pollinators and requiring less water and fertilizer. Native flowers and shrubs are also ideal for incorporating into a rain garden, as they can filter out up to 90% of chemicals and other pollutants from lawn runoff.[mfn]Roberts, Catherine[/mfn] Incorporating organic fertilizers or compost into your lawn care routine can help to prevent algal blooms, like the one in Lake Hopatcong, from happening in your local streams, rivers and lakes. You can read a helpful guide to river-friendly lawn care by Raritan Headwaters Association (a NWNL partner) here.
Lawns continue to play an important role in suburban American culture, from providing recreation space to improving neighborhood and curbside appeal. While a number of homeowners have begun to opt for “wild” lawns of native grasses or growing their own produce in place of turf grass, it is still possible to maintain an environmentally-conscious lawn. Hopefully, homeowners and homeowner’s associations will come to realize that they can attain the same lawns they desire without the incredible cost to the environment of modern lawn keeping practices. By following simple steps such as watering less and introducing more biodiversity into your yard, lawn care can be transformed into a more environmentally sound practice.
D’Costa, Krystal. “The American Obsession with Lawns.” Scientific American. May 3, 2017. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/the-american-obsession-with-lawns/
Diep, Francie. “Lawns vs. Crops in the Continental U.S.” Scienceline NYU, July 3, 2011. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://scienceline.org/2011/07/lawns-vs-crops-in-the-continental-u-s/
“Landscape Industry Statistics.” National Association of Landscape Professionals, n.d. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://www.landscapeprofessionals.org/LP/About/Industry-Statistics/LP/Media/landscape-industry-statistics.aspx
“New Research Confirms Americans Still Value Lawns and Green Spaces.” National Association of Landscape Professionals, April 1, 2019. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://www.loveyourlandscape.org/media/press-releases/new-research-confirms-americans-still-value-lawns-and-green-spaces/
Perry, Sandy. “Raritan Headwaters: Lake Closings Are a ‘Wake-up Call’.” Raritan Headwaters Association, July 2, 2019. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://www.raritanheadwaters.org/2019/07/02/raritan-headwaters-lake-closings-are-a-wake-up-call/
Pullano, Nina. “Is the Anti-Lawn Movement Taking Root?” Scienceline NYU, April 3, 2019. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://scienceline.org/2019/04/is-the-anti-lawn-movement-taking-root/
“River-Friendly Lawn and Garden Care.” Raritan Headwaters Association, May 6, 2020. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://www.raritanheadwaters.org/2020/05/06/river-friendly-lawn-and-garden-care/
Roberts, Catherine. “A Guide to Eco-Friendly Lawn Helpers.” Consumer Reports, April 6, 2021. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://www.consumerreports.org/lawn-care/eco-friendly-lawn-helpers-guide/
“The History Of The American Lawn.” Pennington, n.d. Accessed on June 18, 2021 by JM. https://www.pennington.com/all-products/grass-seed/resources/the-history-of-the-american-lawn