Study of Lawn in Our Gardens: Part I

February 5th, 2010  |  Published in Landscape Sustainability, Water Conservation

lawn 003 Study of Lawn in Our Gardens:  Part I

How did lawns, indiscriminate guzzlers of precious resources, become such a welcomed and customary feature to our arid, western landscape?  Although many books and no fewer articles have thoroughly and justly documented the rapid rise and firm reign the lawn culture holds root in America, far fewer have provided creative and compelling reasons for homeowners and designers to question the installation and continued maintenance of lawn.

Imported as a status symbol from the temperate British climate, early lawns signified wealth and upward mobility because wealthy landowners would have to hire a small army of laborers to meticulously hand trim the grass.  Or, the slightly less civilized option (still reserved for the upper class), called for herds of grazing sheep to munch the grass to a low nap.

And with the rise of the middle class in America, the excesses of the wealthy soon became affordable options for the masses with the rise of technological advances.  The advent of the improved seed varieties, cheap municipal water, mechanical mowers, and garden hoses took the germinating lawn by storm and planted itself comfortably in the average American’s front yard.

us turf map 001 Study of Lawn in Our Gardens:  Part IIn less than 200 years, lawn square footage burgeoned from nil to cover more surface than any other single irrigated crop in the country according to NASA scientists.    Amazingly, our collective desire for our own patch of green has created enough lawn to be viewed and quantified through a lens in space!

Should it Be Here?

But why is there a growing popular backlash against lawns in California.  Organizations have sprouted up all over like Food Not Lawns that encourage the removal of lawn and the planting of edible gardens.  Bumper stickers can be seen on freeways throughout southern California claiming “I Killed My Lawn.  Ask Me How.”.  But why the bad wrap?  Lawn couldn’t be such a success without good reason, right?

Without doubt, lawn has some unique characteristics lending it to be a choice plant material for some situations such as athletic fields and play areas.  But, more often than not, lawn is chosen by default only because of its prevalence in the landscape.  A common mentality is “That’s how the Jones’ did their yard, so shouldn’t we?” lawn 001 Study of Lawn in Our Gardens:  Part I

Take the standard suburban Californian home with a large lawn out front, accented with perhaps a small planter bed or two.  Is this really appropriate?  Is it even aesthetically pleasing? Is it only “nice” because this is what we are accustomed to seeing?  If so, it is time to shake up the neighborhood a bit!

It could be argued that the dominance of lawn is simply an example of a supreme lack of imagination, a lack of understanding of our climate, and emblematic of the typical Californian’s lack of appreciation for the living landscape.  And in most cases, innocent ignorance of the negative impacts of lawns, both on your pocketbook and the environment, perpetuate the problem.

Okay, lawn is boring and most Americans don’t really value gardening.  But is it really that bad for the Jones to have a sprawling lawn that is green year-round?  If viewing the Jones individually, the short answer is likely “No”.  But when considering the implications of hundreds of thousands of Jones’ yard aggregated over our California landscape, the answer is a resounding “Yes”.

The most serious impacts of lawns are those charged to the environment: gigantic amounts of carbon dioxide and smog from mowers and blowers, accidents, pesticide and fertilizer run-off, and unproductive and sterile environments for wildlife. Unfortunately, these well-documented impacts are often times not enough to challenge the status quo.  Since it is difficult for people to relate to environmental costs, perhaps we should explore the financial costs.

Proponents of lawn in the West often counter:  “Lawn reduces the urban-heat effect, allows for stormwater infiltration, sequesters carbon dioxide, etc.”  True, but, at what cost?  Countless other plants can be accredited for accomplishing the same tasks, but require far less resources to do so.

The simple fact is that lawns require an enormous amount of resources to maintain.  (And ironically enough, they are some of the least used spaces in many residential landscapes)  To  illustrate, take a look at the following example to understand what the yearly cost (owner-maintained) of an average size lawn area in San Bernardino:

lawntable 001 Study of Lawn in Our Gardens:  Part I

$750 per year!  (And those of you paying a gardener to come “Mow & Blow” could expect to pay closer to $1,200 a year!)  That number should make you shudder!  That is a trip to Mexico, a bathroom remodel, or so many other worthy expenses. Or consider what $750 invested in a vegetable garden would yield! Is your patch of green really worth $750/year?

If we continue with the owner-maintained example, let’s assume that this 2,000 sq.ft. lawn area is equally split between the front and rear yards (1,000 sq.ft. front, 1,000 sq.ft. back).  And even further, let’s assume the average homeowner actively uses the front yard lawn 3 times per year (likely higher than average) and 10 times per year in the rear.  (In many cases, number of uses may be higher or lower, but you understand the point of the example.)  It then becomes interesting to break the price into cost per use:

lawntable 002 Study of Lawn in Our Gardens:  Part I

When lawns are analyzed in this manner, it is glaringly obvious that this is an expensive way to “fill” your landscape, even more so if the is only for show.

And now compare lawn to the yearly costs associated with maintaining a drought-tolerant landscape.  You’ll find a much more digestible number.

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Analyzing the cost of maintaining a landscape over one year is helpful, although projecting the yearly costs over 20 years puts it all in perspective:

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So now the next time you drive through a neighborhood with lawn after lawn after lawn, you will see “green” in a new way.  Green just won’t be the color of the overly-fertilized and overly-watered lawn, it will also be the color of a constant stream of greenbacks being dumped into the landscape.

But should you feel guilty for still wanting a lawn even after taking the above environmental and financial points into consideration?  Luckily the answer is no!  In A Study of Lawn in Our Gardens:  Part II, we’ll provide some guilt-free and less-guilty options for lawn lovers.

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