Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
March 24, 2024 ·  5 min read

Designing an end to a toxic obsession: The Lawn

The image of rows of identical homes, each with matching, pristine lawns, is ubiquitous across America, and has become emblematic of the “American Dream”. Ever since families fled the cities for the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, dutiful citizens have meticulously maintained their perfect patches of grass under regulations enforced by bylaws and homeowners associations.

While these perfect lawns may be pleasing to the eye, they offer little else in the way of environmental benefit. As such, there is a new trend making waves in the landscape design industry: garden lawns.

The Problem with Lawns

Manicured lawns have been found to be harmful to the environment for a number of reasons. The University of California, Irvine, conducted a study that looked at the impact of fertilizer used to keep lawn grass green and lush, and found that ornamental lawns such as picnic areas or athletic fields release a large quantity of nitrous oxide, which is harmful to the environment [1].

A team at the NASA Ames Research Center in California found that most of the grass lawns grown in the United States are not native to their area. This is problematic because the resulting environmental toll that occurs when grass is imported and sustained in an unnatural environment is significant.

“A lawn isn’t a big deal in the northeast, but when you recreate that same landscape out West, it becomes a major ecological issue because the only way to grow those grasses is with high use of water and nitrogen fertilizer,” says lead author of the study, Cristina Milesi [1].

She notes that the impact of one small lawn is likely not very big, but when you add up all of the lawns for everyone in the country, it becomes a much larger issue.

The main reason for this is because of lawn irrigation, or watering. Decreasing water tables and increasing water waste is a significant problem not just in the United States, but around the world. Milesi and her team estimated that today’s manicured lawns require the equivalent of four hundred water bottles per person, per day, to keep green and healthy [1].

This is particularly true in western states like California, where yearly droughts force homeowners to restrict the amount of water they are using on their lawns.

Manicured turf lawns also provide next to no habitat for pollinators and other animals and plants that make up a healthy, diverse ecosystem. In fact, these lawns have the potential to do more harm to the environment because of pesticide contamination in the soil and rainwater runoff [2].

Read: Should Every School Have a Year-Round Gardening Program?

A Shift from Lawns to Garden

Jody Cook, a landscape designer from San Clemente, California, has noticed an increasing trend among West Coast homeowners who are looking for creative alternatives to their current lawns to benefit the natural ecosystem. She says that this new way of thinking about what a lawn should be is giving them a chance to play.

“It seems to me that they are yearning for an authentic experience of nature close to home,” said Cook. “They don’t want to travel to a wilderness park to see ecosystem interactions” [3].

This trend is now catching on across the country. In Minnesota, homeowners are now being offered rebates to replace their lawns with flowers and other plants that are beneficial for bees. In other states, some municipalities have offered to pay homeowners associations to design gardens that collect stormwater in water features and underground rain barrels.

In Arizona, the state has taken action in recent decades against lawn irrigation, charging more for water in the summer and banning lawns on new developments. This has brought the number of green lawns in Phoenix down to fourteen percent from eighty percent in the year two thousand [3].

Many landscape architects are getting more and more requests and inquiries from families who are looking to incorporate native plants into their lawns and gardens, and in 2019 the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Garden for Wildlife initiative, which encourages Americans to design gardens with food, water and shelter for wild animals, surpassed its goal to register a million gardens across the country to support pollinators [3].

The nonprofit, Green America, has also launched the Climate Victory Gardens initiative, which was inspired by the Home Victory Gardens of the first and second World Wars that grew millions of tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables during wartime. The initiative encourages people to plant “regenerative” food gardens at their homes, and today these gardens make up about 3600 acres across America. Over the next ten years, these gardens have the potential to capture the carbon equivalent of removing seventy thousand cars from the road for an entire year [3].

Read: Gardening Experts Say You Should Always Plant Flowers in Your Vegetable Patch

Plant a Garden, Start a Trend

There are many small things you can do right away to begin implementing the principles of a biodiverse lawn garden, if you’re not ready to jump in with both feet.

Mary Phillips, senior director of NWW, says that an entry-level is to simply incorporate more wildflowers- the plants that are often considered to be a nuisance- into the turf.

“The stuff that people are usually trying to get out of their lawn, we’re saying ‘No, that’s good to have in your lawn!'” said Philips. “So reintroduce native violets — and even dandelions — certain clovers, low-growing thyme and things that flower, which provide pollinator benefits and are better for the soil.” [3]

If you want to take it a step further, replace your turf grass with native plants that are taller, and that have better root systems that can manage stormwater runoff and absorb more atmospheric carbon. These types of plants will also attract more birds and beneficial pollinators to your neighbourhood.

“Each small garden acts as a stepping stone for birds, pollinators and other wildlife, becoming something much larger, impacting whole watersheds,” explained Cook [3].

Cook says that if no one else in your neighbourhood has made the switch, you could be the first, which could start a trend. She noted that in many cases, when one house makes these positive changes, it acts as a sort of permission for other homeowners to experiment, and has a domino effect throughout the community [3].

Despite what we may have previously believed, there are no rules as to what a garden has to be, or what it should look like, and if we make the shift to more native species and wild natural spaces, we will reap the benefits of that natural refuges that this creates.

Keep Reading: Plant a wildlife hedge instead of building a fence