The University Record, July 9, 1996

America's lawn mania costly to environment, researcher says

Weed trimmers, mowers and leaf blowers contribute about 5 percent of the total air pollution.

Photo by Rebecca A. Doyle

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services


The whole country seems to be afflicted. Everywhere you look, cropped green carpets sprawl across rural as well as urban and suburban landscapes. It's lawn mania, more pronounced in America than anywhere else in the world, with its roots in the early English landscape garden movements.

And Robert Grese, associate professor of natural resources, says it has to stop. Those early versions grew easily in the English climate without supplemental watering or chemical application. They were generally used as pasture, eliminating the need for mowing, a mania in its own right according to Grese.

"It's relatively cheap to mow, but very expensive to the environment," Grese says. "Emissions from lawn equipment such as weed whips, lawn mowers and leaf blowers contribute about 5 percent of the total air pollution."

Add that costly environmental damage to the chemicals spread, sprayed or injected to keep the grass green and the "weeds" dead, and the price of what we have come to view as an aesthetic asset costs more than the dollars invested in the equipment and chemicals themselves. Lawn chemicals are actually polluting streams, rivers and wetlands with too many nutrients, helping promote an invasion of non-native plants and changes in the water's chemical structure. Native plants are being crowded out, and native aquatic species no longer have agreeable habitat, Grese says.

"Lawn care products are likely the largest group of chemicals being stored without regulation," Grese says. "Family garages are just full of pesticides and herbicides."

Grese proposes having just enough lawn to meet our needs. That doesn't mean what we have become accustomed to, but what we actually use for games or other activities. The remainder of a yard can then be planted in horticulture ground covers such as periwinkle, pachysandra, euonymus, or ivy.

Herbs could be used as ground covers, too---thyme and creeping herbs will do the trick. But Grese's own preference is for using the plants native to an area.

The challenge to the property owner, he says, is to discover what native plants grew locally and will grow again. In the prairie areas of the country, one could consider butterfly weed, yellow coneflower, bee balm, prairie dock, asters and goldenrods, all of which provide habitat for native wildlife. Grese recommends finding a local arboretum or botanical garden that can help identify an area's native plants.

"One of the stumbling blocks has often been local weed ordinances which are successfully being challenged around the country," Grese says. "In fact, some property owners are registering their backyards as wildlife habitat with the National Wildlife Federation."

Usually such weed ordinances require that property within a defined municipal district be mowed to resemble what we have come to know as a lawn. But the natural garden that Grese promotes resembles the prairies or natural growth of a particular geographical area of the country, be it sea oats or saguaro.

Grese cautions that the current vogue for wildflowers has not changed the attitudes of most gardeners and designers who, he says, often use native species simply as a substitute for horticultural varieties. Instead, he says, we must work with natural plant systems and cycles, looking not only at the plants but also at the patterns and processes that can serve as the basis for landscape designs. One of those patterns is what Grese refers to as "sun openings."

"We can use sunlight as an aesthetic tool," Grese says. "With careful attention to the direction and angle of the sun during different times of the day as well as at different times of the year, we can make the landscape not only more interesting, but also more comfortable."

Through classes with strong environmental focus, Grese and other faculty at the School of Natural Resources and Environment are educating a new generation of landscape designers ripe for changing attitudes in managing land. In areas where people are taking an active part in restoring the land through use of native plants, they are developing a deeper sense of belonging and of ownership.

"In the 1830-1840s," Grese says, "horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing depicted America as a transient people, who, through gardening and horticulture, formed an attachment to a place."

The natural gardens Grese proposes are not instantaneous landscapes. "You just can't pump on water and chemicals," he says. But by waiting 15-20 years, and investing energy and time into the community and environment through establishing natural gardens and gardening practices, an attachment both to the land and the community is established.

In his work with SNRE colleague Rachel Kaplan, Grese says they have discovered that employees in some companies that have surrounded their facilities with natural gardens have reported an increased loyalty and sense of ownership to the company. Employees bring their families to enjoy the grounds on weekends. And there are sometimes other behavior changes in such employees as well. They don't go out to lunch anymore---they bring their lunches and use that time to walk the natural areas.