Are lawns evil?


The lawn is taking a beating these days. It’s accused of all manner of environmental crimes, starting with reducing biodiversity and sucking up excessive amounts of water. Mowing it with a gas-powered mower is, by one account, responsible for five percent of our nation’s carbon emissions. Fertilizing it causes runoff that pollutes water, so do herbicides that kill off weeds. It is our largest irrigated crop; according to a 2005 NASA study, the U.S. has 63 million acres of it.

In some circles, having a lawn is becoming a cultural stigma. An article in the Guardian even claims that lawns are racist because owning a home with a lawn comes with a history of racially exclusionary redlining and racial wealth disparities. That made me wonder about people who rent a house and mow the lawn. Is their lawn racist? How about the lawns in parks that we all share?

Sweeping statements like that trivialize the very real impacts of racism and add nothing to our knowledge about lawns. Honestly, sometimes it seems that in America today, opinions on every topic get taken to jaw-dropping extremes.

After reading way too much about lawns, here’s a distillation of the available common sense:

  • Yes, there are more environmentally beneficial uses of land than lawn: gardens of diverse, mostly native plants that need less water, provide more habitat for birds, pollinators and other little critters top the list.
  • Lawns do have very limited environmental benefits: Like all plants, grass sucks up carbon dioxide and produces oxygen; just not as much as bigger plants. The big problem is the use of gas-powered lawnmowers, pesticides and herbicides on lawns. Also, a green lawn’s sinful water use can be mostly eliminated simply by letting it go brown in the summer.
  • Grass is not the only option. There are other plants, like clover, that more or less look like a lawn, but have deeper roots and require far less water and no fertilizer. A planting of clover will inevitably be joined by weeds and grasses, but they can be made welcome.

Mowed grass and clover
Mowed grass and clover

  • Other options – like mowing whatever grows occasionally – can work in some places and times. So can various groundcovers, though it takes a lot of experimenting to find what works. And of course a push mower or electric mower is preferable.

Young woman pushing a lawn mower on grass
Young woman pushing a lawn mower on grass

  • Quantity matters. Acres of lawn – especially if it’s mowed with gas-powered mowers, watered through the summer, and treated with fertilizer and herbicides, really is a bad idea. There are lovely alternatives: One is to let it grow, and mow a path around the edge, or a path that meanders through it. Then mow the whole area just once or twice a year. This can create habitat for ground-nesting birds, and the insects and seeds they like to eat and feed their young.
  • Areas where grass is allowed to grow tall can also be planted with wild or semi-wild flowers, as they are at Great Dixter, a historic English estate once owned by Christopher Lloyd, a leader in environmentally-minded gardening. (They even include our local native camas, which of course, is exotic to them. Those proper Brits call it cammassia quamash.)

One caveat to the tall-lawn idea: dry brown grass can be a fire hazard.

And now a digression: Years ago in Indonesia, I never saw tall grass, because wherever there was grass, there were boys tending small flocks of goats that ate it – even in the median of busy urban boulevards. A man who hired out to cut the grass in people’s yards with a scythe used it to feed the pony that pulled his cart. Grass was a resource that was never wasted.

I don’t suppose we could emulate that way of thinking about and using grass, but I do sometimes imagine sheep or goats grazing on those sweeping suburban lawns.

Here’s a more local story about lawns:

A gardener reported that the house she and her husband now live in had a lawn at one time, but a new owner pulled it out and planted gardens. The next owners pulled out the garden and replanted a lawn for their kids to play on. She and her husband have now pulled out that lawn and are planting gardens. The moral of that story: If you have kids, you probably want to keep your lawn. (And if you don’t have kids, maybe you have time to dig up your lawn.)

We are all free to make up our own minds about whether to have lawns, how big they are, how to manage them, and how to be at peace with our consciences. And we are all free to choose among the various points of view and conflicting data online.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


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  • AugieH

    Try pitching unmowed, unwatered, and/or unfertilized lawns to the HOA of a large neighborhood that seeks to achieve a neat, manicured, and uniform appearance to attract new residents. Good luck with that! Why not just replace your lawn with an overgrowth of Scotch Broom; it doesn't have to be watered or tended and is a lovely yellow.

    Friday, September 15, 2023 Report this

  • ConservativeHippie

    "Mowing it with a gas-powered mower is, by one account, responsible for five percent of our nation’s carbon emissions."

    Weird stat right? Well, the author misleads. The 5% statistic is inclusive of all "non-road" engines like lawn mowers.

    My lawn is brown btw.

    Really could have used a tip on gardening. Late stage watering is confusing. My grandfather said I should stop watering the peppers a couple weeks ago to encourage production of fruit growth versus plant growth. But I can't find any info that would support that claim.

    Why does this gardening column constantly produce virtue signaling programing versus gardening tips?

    Saturday, September 16, 2023 Report this

  • GinnyAnn

    I live in one of those communities with an HOA-controlled, contracted, landscaped, front lawn patch. It does nothing except require the landscape company's maintenance. I put in my personal request to forbid chemical use since I realized that I had no bugs or other living creatures in my garden. Now I'm seeing lovely bugs returning even though I do have weeds in my lawn. I do want to comment to AugieH who would plant Scotch broom. OMG! This is an invasive species that no one can eradicate. This is a scourge in our state that many are highly allergic to and most of us hate mightily. You can't kill it. There are hybrids to plant in a garden now, but the wild, invasive broom forces out all native species and destroys habitat. Nothing eats it except gnats, as far as I can tell. So what if it's yellow? So are yellow jackets, but I don't want them in my yard.

    Saturday, September 16, 2023 Report this

  • KarenM

    Some HOA Boards are made up of volunteers from the residents. If you live in a HOA neighborhood you could potentially change the traditions to a more natural and sustainable approach. The noise and pollution from gas powered mowers is not the only problem. The workers are exposed to fumes, bad air and gas as well as high noise levels. Home owners should be allowed to establish native plants and keep them up to avoid the lawn.

    Saturday, September 16, 2023 Report this

  • Terrilovesanimals

    I'm with Conservative Hippie. 5%??? I don't think so. And noise? Just try and hear a lawnmower over the freeway or motorcycles/noisy cars and trucks down our streets. Taking care of lawns gets people off of their butts and outside too!

    Sunday, September 17, 2023 Report this

  • MrMonk

    Since climate has been falsely defined by most of the "scientific" world, it is no wonder so many bad ideas are earning so much money.

    Lawns are good.

    Atmospheric carbon dioxide is VERY good, and we should be attempting to build the level of CO2 up to about 1500 parts-per-million (ppm) from the scan 410 or so ppm it is currently.

    Because more CO2 is free fertilizer.

    More CO2 means a much healthier biosphere as we gain trees and land plants.

    Wednesday, September 20, 2023 Report this