The idea of the American Dream can conjure up images of tidy suburban homes with immaculate green lawns, but achieving and maintaining that lush carpet of grass can seem like a nightmare.
“Most people don't install lawns, they get them when they buy the house. They're stuck,” says Paul Robbins, author of Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.
“That's the first thing we learned in our research is that most people would prefer not to have them, but they feel that they need to have them, or that they can't do anything about it. And the need to have them is that they feel an obligation to their neighbors,” Robbins said.
Conforming to the neighbors can be timely, expensive and unhealthy, due to the chemicals used to keep the lawn perfect. But not conforming can also be costly. Janet and Jeffrey Crouch, a Maryland couple who live about 45 minutes outside of Washington, learned this lesson when they decided to forgo a lawn to plant native plants that are wildlife-friendly.
“We started planting native plants and the butterflies and bees and birds started coming immediately when we stopped using pesticides and fertilizers,” Janet Crouch says.
But their next-door neighbor complained to the homeowners association, which like a typical HOA, oversees the management of some residential communities and is usually run by a board of volunteer homeowners. The Crouches were ordered to pull out their native plants and replace them with grass. They refused.
“We were not using pesticides or fertilizers. We knew we were doing things that were beneficial for the environment,” Janet Crouch says. “So, it just seemed fundamentally wrong to tear out this piece of paradise that we've created and put in turf grass, which is an environmental dead zone.”
Lawns are considered environmental dead zones in part because they provide no food or shelter for wildlife, including pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies, which are among the wildlife whose numbers are decreasing at a rapid rate due to habitat destruction and other human-related actions. One million species worldwide face extinction, many within decades, due to the loss of biodiversity.
“The fundamental ecological fact about turf grass is that it's not native to North America, with maybe one exception. And to plant a crop which is not native to the continent, and then try to engineer it into a state of absolute perfection, is like pushing a boulder up the hill,” says Ted Steinberg, author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.
An industry report suggests Americans spend almost $100 billion on lawn care yearly, with each household, on average, spending $503 on lawn care and gardening.
“Super-green monoculture is an ecological boondoggle,” Steinberg adds. “It uses a lot of chemical inputs, a lot of water — you water a lot — and leaches nutrients from the soil, and that sends people back to the store for more chemical inputs, especially fertilizer.”
Chemicals used to maintain lawns include glyphosate and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, known as 2,4-D, which are suspected of causing cancer and other health ailments and can contaminate groundwater. Some states already ban the use of certain chemicals on lawns. Others, particularly in the arid West, have restrictions on how often or if people can water their grass.
“There's more than 40 million acres across the country of turf,” says Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener and Wildscapes. Lawson is also Janet Crouch’s sister and the person who encouraged the Crouches to install native plants. “Turf is the No. 1 irrigated crop, so it's taking up a lot of water.”
Lawson has created a wildlife oasis of native plants surrounding her house. She lives in an area of Maryland that is not governed by HOAs.
“I think the future of the lawn, as it is now, is doomed,” Lawson says. “So, what's the alternative? Well, it shouldn't be rock or something like that because you're heating up the planet even more. So, the alternative is plants, and it's native plants that know how to grow in your soil conditions, in your sun conditions, in the weather of your region.”
The Crouches’ battle against their HOA took three years. The couple says they spent $60,000 fighting to keep their natural garden. They won and as a result of their efforts, the state of Maryland passed a law that allows people to grow native plants instead of grass, no matter what their HOA wants.
Robbins, who is also an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes lawns will always be around, but not in the state they are in now.
“They're going to be targeted in places where they're most appropriate, where you’ve got kids and you want them to have a place to run around,” Robbins says. “There's going to be fewer of them, and they're going to live alongside much more biodiverse options.”