It’s never been harder to keep a lawn alive, and unless radical climate interventions happen like, tomorrow, this is the easiest it’ll be for the rest of your life. Not to be too dramatic, but: Have you ever considered giving up?
This is a serious question. By all accounts, lawns should not exist, and we’d be better off without them. Ecologically speaking, they’re a living nightmare; sociologically, they’re somehow worse. If you have a lawn, the best thing you can do is let it die. Here’s why — and what to do next.
Lawns are beautiful, and beauty is pain
The biggest problem with lawns is the way they look — or, more accurately, the way we think they should look. According to a 2005 paper on lawn aesthetics by ecologist Loren B. Byrne, “[T]he idealised lawn is evenly mown, contains one grass species without weeds or diseases, and is green all year round.”
This definition hammers home how hilariously unrealistic lawns are as a concept. Green, lush, weed-free grass needs enormous amounts of upkeep in the form of water, fertiliser, weed killer, pesticides, fossil fuels, electricity, and physical labour. The bigger the lawn, the more it needs. When you consider that “lawns” include golf courses, parks, athletic fields, campuses, and other big, green spaces, the scale quickly becomes inconceivable. Just how many resources do lawns use?
It’s unclear how many lawns exist (but it’s a lot)
Fun fact: Nobody knows. The exact amount of lawn acreage in the U.S. is a mystery. The last time anyone tried to measure it was in 2005, when Cristina Milesi and her team at the NASA Ames Research Centre developed a formula that uses a region’s “impervious surface area” (pavement) to estimate its total lawn area. To do this, they analysed aerial photographs of 13 metropolitan areas to see how much was pavement and how much was lawn. They found a reasonably strong correlation between those two variables, derived a formula based on that correlation, and applied it to the entire continental U.S.
This methodology is far from perfect, but it was the best they could do at the time and it remains the only data point we have. The findings were also truly wild; this 2005 NASA blog post sums them up nicely:
“Even conservatively,” Milesi says, “I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn.” This means lawns — including residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, etc — could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, covering about 128,000 square kilometers in all.
If you’re curious, 128,000 square kilometres works out to about 31.6 million acres. That’s a lot of lawn.
Lawns are often compulsory
A dark-horse candidate for Worst Fact About Lawns is that many people are legally obligated to maintain one — even if they’d rather have a garden. Homeowner association (HOA) bylaws and municipal lawn ordinances not only regulate how long and green grass can be, but what else can be planted in it. Violating these rules can result in citations and fines; if those pile up, you could even lose your house.
But HOA codes and “weed laws” (which sound fake, but are not) aren’t just about the grass. They’re also a convenient ruse to keep certain people out of certain houses by controlling the way they look — and lawns are a huge part of a house’s aesthetic. It’s not a coincidence that in the U.S., residential lawns are synonymous with single-family zoning, a practice that was literally invented to keep Black people from moving into white neighbourhoods.
How to get rid of your lawn
The good news about lawns is that converting them into something better is both easy and fun. An obvious first step is to start planting anything besides grass: trees, shrubs, flowering plants, vegetables and fruits, or whatever else you like. State university extension programs are a great resource for region-specific native plant selection; for more general information, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Garden For Wildlife program. Keep in mind that you can keep some grass around if you like — introducing other types of plants will actually keep it healthier, with less effort on your part.
If any of these changes are an HOA fee waiting to happen, you still have some options. First, accept that brown grass is a fact of life, not an existential threat. Second, reduce your lawn’s environmental impact as much as possible: Water it less, let it grow longer to encourage stronger roots, and use clippings as mulch. If you can, use rakes and push mowers instead of power tools.
Finally, leverage your power as a homeowner to advocate for better regulations: Run for a seat on your local board, show up to town halls to yell at elected officials, or join a local anti-lawn advocacy group. The law in the U.S is depressingly far off from where it should be, but that could be changing: In June 2021, Nevada banned certain types of “non-functional turf” to conserve water. It won’t go into effect until 2027 and (shocker) excludes golf courses and single-family residences, but hopefully, it’s a sign of better things to come.