In many areas across the United States, some planners, developers and homeowner associations are saying, “Lawns really don’t work here. Grasses can’t survive. They’re just too demanding on resources and will fail.” One much-discussed alternative, especially in the drought-ravaged Southwest, is replacing the lawn with gravel, rocks, cacti and other plants that don’t require a lot of water. While appropriate in some situations, this solution seems unnecessarily extreme.
Lawns are a well-established and accepted tradition of suburban life. And there is no doubt that the hard facts about lawns are disturbing. For example, lawns drink more water than we do up to 60 percent of drinkable city water is used to irrigate lawns. We put 580 million gallons of gasoline into our lawnmowers annually. We spend $700 million on pesticides and $5.25 billion on fertilizers every year, exposing ourselves, our families and the environment to a range of potentially toxic products. We do all of this just to keep a needy landscape on life support.
Given these facts, you may be surprised to hear that, as an ecologist, I propose the lawn isn’t the problem.
We can easily demonize lawns as an environmental burden, but there can be potential environmental and social benefits of the lawn. It’s not specifically the lawn as an entity that’s responsible for these problems; it’s how we do them.
Abandoning turf altogether belies one major misunderstanding. Our American lawns are usually a single species of grass, depending on region, imported from Europe, Africa or Asia. Kentucky bluegrass hails from Eurasia. Bermuda grass originates from Africa. St. Augustine from pan-tropics. Although often successful, here in America these may be the wrong plants in the wrong place. In the gardener’s dictionary, that’s a weed.
There is no doubt that lawns and turf resonate with most of us. I’m partial to the lawns, moors, fells, pastures and hills of the Great Britain of my childhood. I have also conducted research in several grass ecosystems around the world, and they are for the most part very pleasant places to work. A common feature of all these landscapes is the complexity of the environmental dynamics, such as flood, drought, fire and grazing, and high plant diversity. Even the front lawn of my childhood was a polyculture of mosses, daisies and clover, woven among the turf grasses. It was in effect, a miniature, species-rich ecosystem that evolved over the years to need less and less maintenance. Eventually, it needing mowing only once or twice a year. Like a rainforest or prairie, this lawn had reached a point called a steady-state or climax plant community by ecologists. That’s very different from our demanding, nonnative, mono-species American lawn that, without life support, is unstable and highly sensitive to drought, weeds and pests.
But we love lawns, and we can fix them by using an ecological approach.
At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, we have experimented with several local native turf species and discovered a grass mix that does brilliantly in the warmer, dryer climates of the Southwest. This ecologically designed lawn not only removes the necessity for heavy-handed mechanical and chemical maintenance of the industrial lawn, but also provides habitat for butterflies and other insects, and given its infrequent mowing requirement, can be a net carbon dioxide sink. It saves money, water, provides ecological benefits and doesn’t pollute. These are claims that the average industrial lawn cannot provide.
Such an ecological lawn is also resilient: If the rains stop or the irrigation restrictions mean no supplemental water, the grasses go drought-dormant only to green up as the rains return.
I’m confident that we can develop a native lawn for pretty much anywhere in this country. By mimicking and using nature, we can transform yards, roadsides, parks and campuses into diverse, robust ecosystems. A better American lawn of American grass species would save us money, water and gas, and help a little with some environmental clean-up. And we get to keep that part of our landscape that is so expected and enjoyable.
From my view, and perhaps the perspective of the modern city, the ecological lawn is not a pleasant alternative but, done correctly, an urban imperative.
Mark Simmons is the director of research and consulting in the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, an organized research unit of The University of Texas at Austin.