(Originally published in The Denver Post, February 22, 2009)
This is an essay I wrote some years back when I had the privilege to be one of the “Colorado Voices” columnists at The Denver Post. I think it’s also one of the most important essays I’ve ever written, especially in light of the honeybee collapses that we now know is caused by the use of insecticides and other toxins.
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My sister and I ended many summer afternoons in the 1970s green from the knees of our jeans down, sweaty, and reeking of gas and exhaust. As servants of the Great American Lawn, we regularly mowed ours, the elderly Miss Howard’s next door, our grandma’s, and once in a while, our great Aunt Flora’s.
It was work that was necessary and our lawn in particular was well used—the six kids in our family played games of tag, pitch and catch, badminton, and we used the space, as teenagers, for sunbathing. Dad saw physical labor as the best character-builder, so he “volunteered” us to maintain it. We received $5 a lawn, to share.
I didn’t mind the work but Missouri summers were hot and humid, and occasionally at Miss Howard’s I ran over a toad (a horrifying thing).
I learned more about turf at age 20, verifying sales for a lawn-care company in Colorado Springs. I telephoned clients, confirming that they had joined our fertilizer/weed killer program, with insecticide and/or fungicide treatments as needed. With our help, their lawns would be the envy of the neighborhood!
During our one-day training, we learned to instruct clients with pets to remove dog and cat bowls before spraying, as there had been pet deaths from tainted water. We also cautioned them to keep pets and people off the grass until the applications dried. It sickened me to realize that the men who drove the trucks and sprayed these toxins daily would inhale them, get them on their clothing, their skin, and bring these toxins home. I wondered why people would pay good money for lawns you wouldn’t want a baby crawling on.
A decade later, as a college grad, mom, and hobby gardener, I had my own lawn—or, rather, weed/native grass lot. Seduced by the American ideal, we installed sod in our backyard. For a while, it looked gorgeous; but without pampering, chemicals or a sprinkler system, it deteriorated fast. In Colorado, lawns require constant life support.
A few years later when I became a master gardener, I determined to get rid of our lawn. Bit by bit, with a tiny budget and lots of elbow grease, I created a garden instead—with fruit trees, herbs, flowers, native plants, sandstone paths, even a goldfish pond. I kept patches of grass/weeds for our dogs (and the occasional badminton game for the kids) and maintained it with a reel mower, enjoying a good workout in the process. Our established garden requires much less maintenance than a lawn. Except for the vegetable garden, I water once a week, deeply, and I do not water the grass/weeds at all.
I realize that turf is a multibillion-dollar U.S. industry (in Colorado it’s our #1 cash crop!) and many are wedded to the old ways. Lawns, those pretty green carpets, do have an aesthetic charm and they are good for sports. But they don’t support butterflies, honeybees, birds, other wildlife, or much of anything else. Caring for one is the antithesis of green. Five percent of all our nation’s air pollution comes from gas-powered lawn mowers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one gas-powered mower, used for one hour, emits as much pollution as eight new cars, driven at 55 mph for the same time.
According to the EPA, Americans burn 800 million gallons of fuel each year trimming their lawns. Of this, 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. This is more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Fertilizer pollution is a huge problem, and lawns require significant water, yet another burden on our limited resources.
In addition, nearly 80 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used on U. S. lawns annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that “homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.”
It’s past time to see traditional lawns for what they have become: antiquated, wasteful, and harmful. I propose that we return to our roots—cottage gardens. Gardens assist nature on a meaningful scale and they are excellent outdoor classrooms/playgrounds for children and adults. My children had more fun in our backyard than I ever did in the 1970s as they had chickens, and flowers, and a pond—and lots of places to let their imagination run wild. Our home landscapes can also provide us with locally-grown food. You cannot grow luscious plums, pull up sweet carrots, snip chives for your potatoes (and grow potatoes, too), pick wildflower bouquets, or provide bird sanctuary or forage for honeybees with a grass lawn.
As the industrialized world races toward green living, homeowners everywhere can make a difference. It’s easy; take up your shovel and start getting rid of your lawn.
References: People Powered Machines, http://www.peoplepoweredmachines.com/faq-environment.htm; Environment and Human Health, Inc., http://www.ehhi.org/reports/lcpesticides/summary.shtml;