The Death of the American Lawn

Did you know?

  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland
  • An estimated seven million birds are killed yearly in the U.S. by lawn-care pesticides
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing all aquatic life
  • In the summer, over half of municipal water usage goes to lawns

Addicted to Green
So who’s to blame for all this? The American love of lawns began with wealthy homeowners copying the look of English estates and spread to middle-class communities after World War II. (In the new town of Levittown, NY, residents were encouraged to apply fertilizer a remarkable five to six times a year because super-green lawns “stamp inhabitants as good neighbors, desirable citizens.”) But more than anything, it was the invention of the power mower and widespread advertising for perfect lawns that sealed a new ethic of the American lawn for decades to come. Proof of the power of marketing (and of the malleability of the American consumer) is the fate of clover. While it had previously been routinely included in grass seed mixes for its nitrogen-fixing properties, when it was discovered that the new herbicide 2,4-D killed clover along with crabgrass, advertisers simply rebranded clover as a weed—and it worked! Advertising has also convinced us that lawns need to be fed in the spring to “green them up,” despite research proving that fast-acting fertilizers kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil and make lawns less drought-tolerant.

The New Anti-Lawn Movement
The anti-lawn drumbeat started with local campaigns against gas mowers and gained momentum in 1991 when bestselling author Michael Pollan wrote an indictment of lawns in his book Second Nature, and declared in The New York Times that the lawn is a “symbol of everything that’s wrong with our relationship to the land.” In academia, Cornell’s “Turf Guy” Frank Rossi is leading the charge against overfertilization, among other ills of the corporate lawn-care regime. He writes, “We need to give up our perfect-lawn ideal — it’s costing the U.S. plenty.” So how about government action? Not waiting for the industry to reform itself, Madison, WI, and seventy towns in Canada, including Toronto, have banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. Five Canadian provinces have banned the use of all pesticides for ornamental purposes, including residential lawns, and the big-box stores have even removed them from their stores countrywide.

Of greater threat to the conventional (perfect) American lawn are increasing water shortages due to climate change. Thirteen states now impose water restrictions and another thirteen are predicted to impose them within the next five years. Lower-input alternatives like Buffalo grass and “No-Mow” grasses are coming on the market, and artificial turf is more popular than ever. Expect to hear lots more about this hot topic in the coming months and years.

By Susan Harris of wowowow

By Susan Harris, DivineCaroline


Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

Brooke K.
Brooke K5 years ago

great thoughts. thank you.

K s Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Robert O.
Robert O5 years ago


Catharine B.

Thank goodness this obsession with the lawn is nearly over!

The racket and gasoline smell of weekend lawnmowers were overwhelming in Iowa, Arkansas and Minnesota when we lived there...but here, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it is illegal to plant lawns!

We planted a native Xeric garden, where the only noise is the flapping of bird wings and the buzzing of bees, and the only scent is the fragrance of French lavender and English roses...

Eli Is Here
Past Member 7 years ago

Great article. Thank you Mel.

Robert B.
Robert Besch7 years ago

The world is already running out of water, and we are still building golf courses as fast as we make them, maybe this depression will halt many of those projects and we won't wittle our clean-water span as quickly.

B. M.
Bette M7 years ago

Have you ever been in a forest or jungle? Isn't it a mass of perfectly disordered order? And, go to any ritzy suburban neighhood & all you see is picture perfect nothing. There's nothing to discover, no hidden surprises of this or that of the animal or plant world.

We've been brainwashed by Madison Ave into thinking this is it, this is what Mother Nature inteneded.......Every flower, tree, and bumble be letter perfect & orderly in a perfect spot.

When you think about it long enough or study such a magazine cover such as Home & Garden nothing is as it should naturally be.

Animals decorate en mass with quivering sound & broken twigs & sunlight dancing through the peek a boo leaves.

Man has no business being here....................

Plant & Protect trees for life........

Seth E.
Seth E7 years ago

About 20 years ago, there was a guy who lived in one of the towns in the area who decided to let his lawn go natural.

It grew pretty high with numerous different types of plants, until the neighbors complained, and the town made him cut it back down to a regular lawn again.

In retrospect, it was a shame; more people should to just that. Think of how many birds and insects (including butterflies) that would attract.

My mother once completely tore up the lawn where we used to live and replaced it with a garden for the main part, and for the part next to the street, she replaced it with bricks.

I'm pretty limited on what I can do now, since I'm a renter, but while I mow the lawn here periodically, I refuse to use fertilizer or weed killer.

I think the best thing is to replace the grass with native vegetation or a garden, or even just gravel or bricks.