Americans currently spend more than 30 billion dollars, millions of gallons of gasoline, and countless hours to maintain the dream of the well-kept lawn. An estimated 67 million pounds of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides are applied around homes and gardens yearly. Commercial areas such as parks, schools, playing fields, cemeteries, industrial, commercial and government landscapes, apply another 165 million pounds.
Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent. A century ago, people would actually pull the grass out of their lawns to make room for the more useful weeds that were often incorporated into the family salad or herbal tea. It was the British aristocracy in the 1860s and ’70s, to show off their affluence that encouraged the trend of weed-free lawns, indicating one had no need of the more common, yet useful plants. Homeowners were encouraged to cultivate lawns that would serve as examples to passersby. These types of lawns also lent themselves to the popular lawn sports, croquet and lawn tennis. From the 1880s through 1920s in America, front lawns ceased to produce fodder for animals, and garden space was less cultivated, promoting canned food as the “wholesome choice.” Cars replaced the family horse and chemical fertilizers replaced manure.
It has been estimated that about 30 percent of our nation’s water supply goes to water lawns. In Dallas, Texas, watering lawns in the summer uses as much as 60 percent of the city water’s supply.
On weekends, we increase noise and gasoline consumption to mow down the grass we have worked so hard to grow. Running a power mower for one half hour can produce as much smog as driving a car for 172 miles (E – The Environmental magazine, May/June 1992). Bizarre customs, are they not?
The definition of a “good” lawn has come to mean, a plot of land growing a singular type of grass, kept mowed, maintaining a smooth even surface, uniform in color, with no intruding weeds. The United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Golf Association and The Garden Club of America have promoted this type of lawn. Lest a weed appear, it was to be destroyed at once. Manicured lawns have become an opportunity for rivalry between neighbors and an example of man’s domination over nature.
Pesticides are defined as any chemical designed to kill a living organism and can include herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and rodenticides. Pesticides enter the body via the lungs, mouth and skin. They are tracked into one’s home, and once inside can last for years. In a 1987 grant from the National Cancer Institute, it was revealed children were six times more likely to develop leukemia in households that used lawn pesticides. Children have faster metabolisms and more likely to be in the outdoors, and put their hands in their mouths, making them vulnerable.
The elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and chemical sensitivities are also at risk to having their immune systems further disrupted by exposure to lawn chemicals. A 1991 report issued by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute revealed that dogs, which lived where the lawn herbicide 2,4-D was applied more than four times yearly, were at a greater risk of developing canine malignant lymphoma.
Chemicals when sprayed, can drift to other neighbors, kill birds (who eat insects), and endanger precious water supplies. Pesticides can also reduce earthworm populations, which help aerate soil, by as much as ninety-nine percent, for up to twenty weeks. Many insects are beneficial in lawns. Ladybugs, preying mantises, and ground beetles all consume aphids, mites, mealy bugs, mosquito larvae and caterpillars. Honeybees provide valuable cross-pollination and without their help many fruits, vegetables and flowers would cease to exist. Substances designed to kill things are unlikely to be totally safe. Frolicking in one’s yard should not be a health risk to anyone.
What would happen if you stopped watering, fertilizing, pesticiding, and mowing your lawn? You would certainly have more free time. The grass would grow a bit higher or lower depending on weather conditions. And then the wild things, which are naturally adapted to be hardy, and require no special care, would grow. For two and a half years in the 1970s, I lived in The Ozarks in a teepee, totally subsisting on all the wild edible fruits, roots, leaves and berries that were provided in the untamed wild. All without watering, fertilizing or spraying. It was a very healthy time.
We do not need to fear wild plants. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Dandelions look like rays of sunshine and have edible leaves and roots. The dreaded lambs quarter is really wild spinach and far more nutritious than its cultivated cousin. Malva and violet leaves are refreshing additions to the salad bowl. Even the prickly thistle can be dug up, its roots consumed, as Lewis and Clark once did when traveling. Purslane is one of the richest sources of heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. One should focus more on our education of “weeds” and less on eradication. It has been said that the average American recognizes over a thousand logos and the products they correspond to, yet less than five plants in their area.
A few ideas on environmental lawns:
1. Compost. Use organic fertilizers such as manure, rock dust, and wood ash. Do a soil test and find out what your land requires.
2. Choose plants that tolerate dry conditions.
3. Learn to use wild plants that are low growing, not water demanding and might even provide salad fare or herbal teas. Turn your lawn into a wildflower sanctuary specializing in sunny well-drained dry areas. Consider buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) chickweed (Stellaria media), dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla species), clover (Trifolium pratense or T. repens), English daisies (Bellis perennis), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), penstemon (Penstemon species), pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides), plantain (Plantago major), pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta), scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetelosa), strawberries (Fragaria species), thyme (creeping, lemon and wooly) (Thymus species) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Periwinkle (Vinca species), speedwell (Veronica officinalis), uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and violet (Viola odorata), grow well in dry shade.
4. Mulch around plants, using grass clippings, shredded hardwood, dry leaves or wood chips to retain moisture.
5. Group together plants that require similar amounts of water. Use a drip system or soaker hose that waters a plant’s roots, rather than sprinkles the air. Frequent watering encourages shallow roots. Water in the early morning before the sun is hot, to give the plants more benefits. Watering during the heat of the day is wasteful, as the water quickly dries.
6. Collect water from washing vegetables. Recycle rainwater. An ancient Hindu proverb says, “If you have water to throw away, throw it on a plant.”
7. Don’t water, don’t fertilize and in many cases you won’t need to mow. Let the wild things grow and learn to use them. Learn to eat dandelion, malva, purslane and violet.
8. If you do mow, keep the mower’s height around three inches, or the highest setting. Have sharp blades. The taller the lawn, the more drought resistant it will be. Tall grass shades the soil and helps keep it moist.
9. Use a non-gasoline push mower. (Less noise and pollution). Leave clippings on the ground as mulch and fertilizer.
10. Use an organic landscape service. Find out what products they are using and tell them you want to look at the labels.
11. Boycott places of business that use lawn pesticides. Write them a letter and tell them why you are no longer giving them your business.
12. Those that live in condominiums and apartments can organize the neighborhood to create edible landscaping and community gardens. Let the maintenance managers know you would rather have a few weeds than be subjected to sprays.
A healthier environment begins with you. Businesses including parks, schools and industries need to set a better example and not buy into the harmful hype about a chemicalized lawn. Make all your actions conscious of conserving, nurturing and honoring the earth. Resist conformity and allow your ecological lawn to flourish, and flower, celebrating life and diversity!