Who doesn’t love a nice green lawn? It contributes to the aesthetics of our neighborhoods and provides a pleasant space for social activities. Summer is coming, and lawns are about to reappear, so let's take a moment to talk about them.
Yesterday, as I was walking through an expensive neighborhood full of flowers in bloom and manicured gardens, I could not help but notice the one house with an unkempt lawn. The grass was long in some spots and dotted with a variety of different weeds. I stopped and took in the perfectly nice house behind the lawn, and wondered what on earth had possessed its inhabitants to neglect their front yard. Please understand, dear reader, that I am by no means a judgemental person or a supporter of extensive lawn maintenance. I firmly believe in the good ol’ push mowers with no motor. I’ve used one all my life. But here I was, judging the owners of this poorly maintained lawn in this fancy neighborhood.
We think of lawns as natural spaces, and yet they exist because of social norms. Lawns have become such a cultural phenomenon in North America, that we consider it our civic duty to maintain them, and we look down on those who don’t follow this cultural norm. But what side effects does our collective lawn maintenance have, and who -- if anyone -- is really benefiting from it all?
Firstly, keeping a lawn green requires a lot of water. Some climates, such as deserts, are not conducive to lawns at all, and in many of these places, a movement has begun to transition lawns to different vegetation that requires less water. In most parts of Canada, we get enough precipitation to keep our lawns green through the winter and have climates conducive to grass growth. Vancouver in particular is well known for its winter rainfall. But as the summer begins and rainfall grows infrequent, people begin to water their lawns to keep them lush and green.
Water conservation is becoming a serious issue worldwide, and even Canada, with its relative abundance of water, has reason for concern. The Canadian prairies are very dry, most of Canada’s freshwater is far north and hard to access, and the freshwater we do have is needed to preserve the health of our ecosystems. Just last summer, a shortage of water in the Greater Vancouver area raised concerns about the well-being of nearby salmon. Metro Vancouver residents were consuming a lot of what little water was left, leaving very little water for the salmon to travel up rivers. As for our glaciers, they are melting away without being replenished.
So let's make sure there’s enough water for the really important things in life, like drinking, hygiene, and the lakes and rivers inhabited by our local wildlife. Let’s do something different, and allow our lawns to go yellow and dry in the summer, or consider alternative landscaping. A yellow lawn is still suitable for picnics, barbeques and for children to play fetch with their dogs.
But it doesn’t stop there. We don’t just water lawns. We also fertilize them and spray them with pesticides. Don’t forget about the noise pollution from motorized lawn mowers.
Many people consider fertilizer as plant food. The reality is that most fertilizers are synthetic or chemical rather than natural, and we use much more of it than necessary. As a result, fertilizer runs off into streams and lakes and cause algal blooms, depleting oxygen for aquatic species in freshwater habitats.
Then there are the pesticides and herbicides. These often include chemicals that may be harmful to our health. By using these chemicals, we may be eliminating ugly weeds from our lawns, but we are also potentially poisoning the children and pets that use those lawns, and harming important insects like honeybees. Honeybees are experiencing massive die offs. This is of global concern because human livelihood and economic stability depend on these insects to pollinate crops. By spraying chemicals on our properties, we are worsening the problem of honeybee die off by creating yet another potential threat for these creatures that provide us with such a valuable and free pollinating service.
So if watering, over-fertilizing and spraying lawns with pesticides does so much harm, why do we keep doing it?
Firstly, there is societal pressure to maintain an attractive lawn. As a child, I frequently asked my mom why we had to weed the lawn of its dandelions. The answer was always the same: the neighbours wouldn’t like it if our dandelions spread into their lawns, so we had to get rid of them before they could spread.
Secondly, developers make more money from selling land with perfect looking lawns, because a nice lawn adds value to a home. So, it is in the best interest of developers to create lots with lawns. A bad looking lawn, however, will not help a property sell, so it is also in the best interest of developers to use lots of water and chemicals to make the lawns look good.
Finally, it is in the best interest of the chemical industry that we consume large amounts of pesticides and fertilizer. Otherwise they would be out of business. So, the dangers of pesticides and fertilizers are kept as quiet as possible and lush green lawns are idealized. Many people hire businesses to take care of their lawns for them. We assume our lawn care businesses are doing the right thing and they assume their suppliers are selling them good lawn care products. But can we really put the health of our families and ecosystems in the hands of corporations whose primary goal is profit?
There is some good news, though. Some municipalities in Canada have banned pesticides. New York state now has laws in place preventing some pesticides to be applied near lakes and streams. But there is still a lot of progress to make.
So, this spring and summer, I challenge you and your families to to take lawn maintenance into your own hands. Try not watering your lawn. Refrain from spraying it with pesticides and try applying little to no fertilizer. It might be hard to convince your parents to try this, but they might just listen to you! If you really want to get rid of certain weeds, try removing them manually. Even dandelions can be managed effectively using basic gardening tools that allow you to remove their big root. Plus, here’s a bonus: when your lawn dries out, you’ll be able to sit on it without getting your pants damp. Good luck!