Lawns have become part of our world, and surround every house in our suburbs. Even apartment buildings in the city may have a few square feet of lawn in front.

Some think our love of lawns might be traceable to our descent from early humans, who learned to walk upright in the savannah plains of Africa. Standing upright was a convenient means of seeing over the grasses, and spotting approaching predators. It also allowed for tracking prey.

Having a lawn makes great sense if you are expecting raids from the neighbors – as early man had to expect. But today, when neighborhood raiders are soon locked up, grassy yards seem to be vestigial, like an appendix: serving no purpose, providing no benefit.

Of course, that is wrong. A bright green, freshly mowed lawn, neatly trimmed shrubs, and orderly rows of flowers all prove one thing: we have conquered natural forces that all conspire to produce random, unordered arrangements of plants. If we can conquer nature, we must be superior beings. And the beauty of a lawn is that, unlike a tree or shrub, it needs lots of attention every week. So a perfect lawn must mean you are on top of your game, and have nothing much better to do. Only the idle rich can make time to mow or afford to pay someone else to do it. If you do it all well enough, you might win the battle for your street, and be declared the most idle, most rich.

Conquering nature and your neighbors comes at a price.

Wasted weekends. We spend hours mowing our lawns.

Wasted acreage. According to studies of NASA satellite imaging the country’s number one irrigated crop is, you guessed it, lawn grass. In fact, American lawns cover more than 40,000 square miles, ironically, a land area larger than the state of Kentucky.i

Wasted gasoline and oil. According to the EPA, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns each weekend, using 800 million gallons of gas per year. ii

Mowing generates greenhouse gases. One mower will put about 88 pounds of CO2 into the air every year.iii.

Mowing pollutes the air. Small engines emit disproportionately large amounts of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that contribute to smogiv.

  • A 2001 study showed that some mowers produce the same amount of pollution (emissions other than carbon dioxide) in one hour as driving a 1992 model vehicle for 650 miles (1,050 km).v
  • According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving 55 mph for the same amount of timevi
  • According to an EPA study prior to the Clean Air Act of 1990, the 20 million small engines sold in the U.S. each year contribute about one tenth of the total U.S. mobile source hydrocarbon emissions, and are the largest single contributor to these non-road emissions.vii
  • Another estimate puts the amount of pollution from a lawn mower at four times the amount from a car, per hour.viii
  • Another study finds that a single gas-powered lawn mower used 45 minutes each week for a year is equal to driving 22,000 miles in a new passenger car.ix

Catalytic converters that are functioning properly will reduce the pollution, but with or without them, mowing pollutes.

Mowing pollutes ground water. The EPA states that 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment.x That’s more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, in the Gulf of Alaska.

Lawn maintenance – fertilizer, insecticides, herbicides – has consequences.

  • We use fertilizer, which then flows into our streams and watersheds…
  • We use insecticides, kill indiscriminately, persist, and contaminate the environment. For instance, if you “control grubs”, you not only kill Japanese beetle larvae, but you kill firefly larvae.
  • We may use herbicides to control brush, to prevent small plants from emerging in our sidewalks and driveways. Such herbicides then flow into our waterways… and kill our tadpoles and frogs and …

Green Deserts. In the course of creating the perfect lawn, we create a green desert, in which nothing can thrive. Squirrels don’t dare run across a big lawn for fear of massacre from the air, from cats, from dogs. Birds don’t alight for a snack, because the lawn offers nothing to eat – except perhaps earthworms for robins. The monoculture of a lawn provides a useless habitat for everything except a grazing animal.

Alternatives to Mowing

Is there an alternative to a lawn? One that makes more sense?

Restore what was once where your lawn now is. I think a field, a marsh, a lake, or a forest all make more sense than a lawn. Such natural places need no maintenance. They support the wildlife that once lived in your neighborhood. They provide way-points for migrating birds. They sequester carbon.

Mow Less: Create a wild area. If you can’t give up mowing your lawn, consider converting a back corner of it to a miniature wild place. If you can get 2 or three neighbors who adjoin that corner to do the same, you’ll be able to create a habitat big enough for a rabbit to find cover, a bird to raise a family…

Mow Less Often. If you mow every other week instead of every week, you’ll cut your pollution and gas consumption in half.  Mow once a month and you’ll save much more.  To get your neighbors off your back, convince them to do the same.

Hire a goat. Google, Yahoo, and other forward-thinking companies have hired goats to do what mowing previously did, at about the same annual cost and with no fuel consumption, noise or air pollution.xi

Plant sand. In arid parts of this country such as much of California and Arizona, attempting to cultivate a lawn requires massive watering. Sand and the original vegetation would be a far better choice.

End Notes

i Jones, Ron. GreenBuilder. The Elephant in the Front Yard. http://greenbuildermag.com/Blogs/Ron-Jones/March-2012/The-Elephant-in-the-Front-Yard

ii DirtWorks. Gas Mower Pollution Facts. http://www.dirtworks.net/Lawn-Mower-Pollution.html

iii Cleaner Air : Gas Mower Pollution Facts. http://www.peoplepoweredmachines.com/faq-environment.htm . But another source reports 80 pounds, not 88 pounds: DirtWorks. Gas Mower Pollution Facts. http://www.dirtworks.net/Lawn-Mower-Pollution.html

ivEarth Talk. Mowing the Grass is Greener When You Don’t Use a Gas-Powered Mower. Reprinted at environment.about.com: http://environment.about.com/od/pollution/a/lawnmowers.htm

vi Cleaner Air : Gas Mower Pollution Facts. http://www.peoplepoweredmachines.com/faq-environment.htm

vii Grass Cutting Beats Driving in Making Air Pollution. http://www.mindfully.org/Air/Lawn-Mower-Pollution.htm

viiiTexas Commission on Environmental Quality. Reducing Pollution from Small, Gas-Powered Engines. http://www.tceq.texas.gov/p2/P2Recycle/P2Week/otherengines.html

ixAir Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency for Orange County and major portions of the L.A. area. Mow down air pollution: Trade in your gas-powered lawn mower. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2011/05/lawnmower-exchange.html

x DirtWorks. Gas Mower Pollution Facts. http://www.dirtworks.net/Lawn-Mower-Pollution.html

xi Lucian Parfeni. Google Goats: The Organic Lawn Mowers. April 16th, 2010 http://news.softpedia.com/news/Google-Goats-The-Organic-Lawn-Mowers-139984.shtml