1. The grass lawn is an unnatural landscape invention from Europe. The first lawns were created in 17th- and 18th-century England and France as status symbols by wealthy landowners displaying that they had land to waste on non-agricultural use, as well as sheep or scythe-wielding servants to keep the grass shorn.
Grass lawns were first exemplified in America on the estates of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who, though eager to dispel British colonial rule, still eagerly embraced English landscaping ideals. While grass seeds were originally brought to the U.S. in the 1600s as forage for livestock, grass lawns remained uncommon in America until upper class estates began planting them in the late 1800s, encouraged by gardening books and magazines and facilitated by the invention of the lawnmower.
It was not until the 1940s and 50s that lawns became widely accessible to the masses, thanks to mass production of gas-powered lawnmowers, and to newly sprouting suburban developments such as the Levittowns that mandated uniformly cut grass lawns connecting tracts of houses. Today Americans grow more turf grass than corn or any other food crop, and our carpet of green grows by about 600 square miles every year from new development.
2. Grass lawns stamp out the native biodiversity that is our natural heritage. Lawns are so difficult to keep weed-free because they represent Americans’ attempt to displace our natural landscapes with imported grasses that require ample water, fertilizers and herbicides to dominate and flourish in our varying soil types and climates.
Turf grass species are not native to North America – even Kentucky bluegrass was brought over from Europe – and since most insects and wildlife do not recognize non-native plants as food sources, closely mowed grass lawns are of little use to most species. NASA imagery shows that turf grass has been planted over at least 63,000 square miles of U.S. land, eradicating these 63,000 miles of wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs that had evolved over eons to thrive in each local climate, and in turn threatening the insects, birds and other wildlife that relied on those plants for food and habitat.
A rare glimpse at what this plant diversity may have looked like in Illinois can be seen at the James Woodworth Prairie Preserve, 9845 N. Milwaukee in Glenview, where more than 200 plant species still dwell in this five-acre parcel.
“Lawns are a significant environmental problem,” David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, recently told the New York Times. “We put in these lawns, and we basically turned these important habitats into dead zones.”
Loss of habitat and food has led to declines in plant, animal and insect populations and diversity. Insect populations are collapsing worldwide, raising alarm about future food shortages and diminishing populations of songbirds, who need ample supplies of caterpillars to rear chicks.
A recent study found that chickadees choose to nest only in yards with at least 70% native plants to ensure a caterpillar supply. Alternatives: Native wildflower/pollinator gardens, prairie gardens, woodland gardens, rain gardens and wildflower borders.
3. Grass is thirsty, wasting water that could be used to sustain us and grow our food. How much water? By EPA estimates, about 9 billion gallons per day nationwide.
On average, that is one-third of all municipal water supplies flushed out through our sprinklers. Even in water-rich areas such as ours, watering lawns squanders the energy and electricity required to filter and supply fresh tap water to pipelines. “Think of the miracle that is the modern water supply,” writes Christopher Ingraham in The Washington Post. “Pristine water pumped hundreds of miles, passed through shiny state-of-the-art filtration systems, treated with miracle chemicals that keep our teeth from falling out of our heads, and available on-demand at the twist of a knob. And then consider that we intentionally dump billions of gallons of that water out on the ground!” Alternative: Native plants require little to no water once established.
4. Lawn pesticides pose a health risk. Pesticides are designed to kill living things and are by nature toxic: their Latin root “-cide” means “to kill.” Growing a monocrop of only one grass species is not possible without killing competing plants and insects, and nowhere is this more apparent than our lawns, where Americans spray more than 70 million pounds of chemical pesticides each year – more per acre than are used on farms. Regulatory agencies are not always protective: over 18,000 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients have filed suit against Monsanto, claiming that its Roundup weedkiller caused their cancer. In the three trials to conclude so far, the juries returned guilty verdicts and slapped huge financial penalties on the pesticide maker. Children and pets are most vulnerable to pesticides because they breathe and play closer to the ground. The American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed concern that “Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems.” Alternatives: “Freedom lawns” are still mowed but accept whichever plants sprout up to fill in the spots too shady, moist, dry, sandy or acidic for grass to thrive; nontoxic integrated pest management techniques are at Midwest Grows Green, midwestgrowsgreen.org.
5. Lawn fertilizers fill rivers and lakes with algae. Those 90 million pounds of chemical fertilizers that we spread on lawns each year don’t stay put. They wash away into lakes and rivers, fertilizing the cyanobacteria that create algal blooms, oxygen-depleted “dead zones” which kill fish and aquatic life. Algal blooms are rising sharply. New research from the Environmental Working Group shows at least 550 reported blooms across 48 states since 2010. Blooms are becoming more toxic, too, even shutting down the Toledo, Ohio, drinking water supply in 2014 (map at ewg.org/toxicalgae). An alternative is to leave grass clippings on lawns as a natural fertilizer.
6. Lawn mowers contribute to air pollution and climate change. Gas-powered lawn equipment belches out about 5% of the nation’s air pollution. The country’s 40 million lawnmowers consume 200 million gallons of gasoline per year and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Alternatives are human-powered push mowers; electric mowers and natural landscaping.
7. Lawns cost dearly in money, time and energy. Consider that the lawn care industry is a $40 billion per year business, and that the average American spends 70 hours per year maintaining their lawns.
Now imagine your lawn with the landscape it might have hosted 200 years ago, as a forested woodland garden or a prairie garden, or with an edible landscape and kitchen herb garden that will nourish humans and wildlife alike.
Consider investing at least part of that money and time spent mowing grass towards repopulating at least some of your place on Earth with the wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees that originated here.
It is time we all take a walk on the wild side and do our part by growing green the natural way.
For grass-free landscape ideas, see https://home.howstuffworks.com/10-green-lawns-without-a-blade-of-grass.htm
For help identifying and locating native landscape plants, see the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder, www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/ or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allison Sloan is Natural Habitat Evanston Co-Lead, Harbert Park steward, Second Sunday Tree Walk leader and a District 65 Green Team member.Adding a native shrub or tree to the yard can reduce your lawn, and the need for chemicals, mowing and other maintenance. Watering is neccessary when a tree is young, but after that it should use much less water than a lawn.
The time to plant is fall or spring, when the weather is cooler and wetter. After planting, it is important to make a mulch ring reaching the tree’s drip line (rule of thumb: three inches deep, three inches away from the trunk, three feet wide).
Leaves or wood chips are good organic mulch, and wood chips are free for the taking at James Park, behind the former recycling center.
Anyone wanting help finding and selecting a shrub or tree can find advice at OAKtober, from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Oct. 5 at the Evanston Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd. Evanston will celebrate trees and becoming a National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat.
There will be abundant tree information and many tree experts to talk with, as well as kids’ activities and interactive, educational booths on restoring wildlife and bird habitat, climate action and more. As part of the celebration, native shrubs and trees will be given away free while supplies last.
Those wishing to learn more about trees are invited to join a Second Sunday Tree Walk with TreeKeeper Allison Sloan.
The September Second Sunday Tree Walk will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 8 at the corner of Main Street and Asbury Avenue, in combinatino with Evanston Streets Alive! The October Second Sunday Tree Walk, at 2 p.m. on Oct. 13, will explore the nut- and fruit-bearing trees in Edible Evanston’s Eggleston Park Food Forest, 2100 Hartrey Ave.
Show your support for Trees. Sign a Tree Petition encouraging the City to protect private trees in our yards and alleys. http://bit.ly/TreePetitionSignUp.
Trees clean our air, cool our streets, absorb stormwater and carbon and enhance our physical, mental, economic and community health.
The City protects street trees, but nothing protects Evanston’s privately owned trees, even though many neighboring communities have tree protective ordinances in place.
The Evanston City Council recogniz-ed the importance of trees when it unanimously approved the City’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan in 2018, which calls for a City ordinance protecting private trees.
Trees sequester carbon, and big trees hold an increasing rate of carbon as they age. More information and signup are available at http://bit.ly/TreePetitionSignUp.
– Leslie Shad