In age of climate change, can our lawns be more than landscaping?

Forget aesthetics: lawns can raise food, restore habitat, and
even store carbon

If Americans want to reduce their environmental footprint, one
of the first steps may be reexamining what’s in their backyards.
The lawn-industrial complex, and our country’s obsession over
manicured carpets of green, has birthed a turfgrass behemoth.

Lawns cover roughly 2
percent of the land area
in the continental United States, or
three times the area of the nation’s second largest irrigated
crop, corn. Even in cities, lawns are by far the largest
contributor to overall green space. A
recent boom in exurban development
on the fringes of metro
areas suggests that mass of grass will only increase.

They’re a perfect metaphor for so much about American culture
and our relationship to the environment in an age of climate
change. Beginning in the ‘50s,
the spread of sprawl and suburbia led U.S. homeowners
, and the
corporations that profited from the sale of seeds, chemicals, and
tools, to create a homegrown spin on the French concept of
tapis vert,
or “green carpet.” A decade ago, a study found
that of 116 million American households, only
about 25 percent didn’t take care of some form of yard or
lawn
. Landscaping alone is nearly a
$100 billion annual industry
.

For the most part, the vast monoculture of perfectly mowed front
yards, the biggest stretch of the American
landscape
under the control of average citizens, isn’t going
anywhere soon. But slowly, and in relatively small ways, that’s
starting to change.

Sparked by the recent droughts in states such as California, the
idea of the lawn as a space for preservation and responsible
stewardship has taken root out West, fueling nationwide trends
towards native plantings,
drought-tolerant landscaping
, and even raising more crops as a
path to reducing emissions.

According to Paul Robbins, author of Lawn People: How Grasses,
Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are, there are signs, albeit
small, of a significant shift. Americans still judge one another by
their lawns, what he describes as “ascribing the moral failings
of outside the house with inside the house.” But environmental
values are starting to become part of the calculus.

“Shame used to be leveled against people who didn’t take
care of their lawns enough,” he says. “Now, what’s happening
is that has become inverted, at least in some places. If you take
too good care of your lawn, you’re wasting water.”


Getty Images The connection between the climate, and our homes

Our treatment of our lawns—dousing them with fertilizers,
planting non-native species for aesthetics and ease of care,
overusing water to keep these plants healthy regardless of the
climate, and then trimming and shaping the trees and grass with
equipment powered by
pollution-spewing gas motors
—says a lot about our stewardship
of our environment.

But it can also say a lot about growing awareness, and the
unrealized potential of collective action.

“We have more land in yards than in parks or other areas we
tend to think of as green space and infrastructure,” says Dr.
Carly Zeiter, a professor at Concordia University who studies the
carbon-capturing potential of lawns. “Even though you may think
of them as small, they really scale up when you talk about an
entire city.”

Zeiter’s work has revealed some of the surprising powers of
our backyards. A study she conducted in Madison, Wisconsin, found
that the typical American lawn can
capture carbon
better than the land found in an untouched
ecosystem.

Soil in residential lawns can also store high amounts of carbon,
and planting a certain percentage of native plants does make a
difference in supporting biodiversity. Lawns can be an ally in
fighting climate change, and, along with trees, can help cool
cities and reduce the urban heat island effect.

Of course, using a gas-powered mower can mitigate or even offset
that advantage. But this is what her, and a number of advocates,
suggest could be the real power of our lawns: small plots of land
that allow us to take some form of control in the fight against the
seemingly unstoppable forward progress of climate change.

“As a citizen, I can make a difference,” she says. “I can
manage it in a way that contributes to the ecological fabric of the
city and the life of a city.”

The lawn-care industrial complex isn’t going anywhere

Of course, as if continuing to drive home its metaphorical
power, even our great intentions about our lawns can obscure the
reality of the overall environmental picture of the turfgrass
empire.

Statistics paint a relatively grim picture of our collective
habits. The lawn care industry continues to grow. Analysts at

Garden Research
found U.S. gardeners spent a record $47.8
billion in lawn and garden retail purchases last year, roughly $503
per household (a figure that includes outdoor furniture
purchases).


Environmental Protection Agency stats
suggest that every year,
Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline caring for our lawns,
and spill a further 17 million in the process (a spill, in terms of
wasted gasoline, within the estimated range of the Exxon Valdez
disaster). Artificial fertilizers use nitrous oxide that itself
produces additional greenhouse gas, in addition to chemical run-off
that seeps into groundwater. Speaking of water, the EPA also
estimates the average U.S. household uses
320 gallons of water daily
, a third of which is dedicated to
landscape irrigation.

The lawn care industry quickly went from niche to
industrial-scale over the last century. In the 1920s, the Scott
company started selling grass seeds. After the post-war boom in
(mostly white) homeownership, the industry truly became mass
market. Even as more and more consumers make nods towards more
sustainable lawns, they’re opening up niches and new business
lines for
succulents
and drought-resistant, genetically modified grass
strains.

It’s a profit model predicated on continued growth, says
Robbins.

“I don’t see changes in that industry,” he says. “The
lawn industry isn’t turning over a new leaf but, bless
capitalism, seeking new opportunities to make money.”


LA Times via Getty Images A community garden is in the works at
Rancho Mission Viejo on June 25, 2104 in San Juan Capistrano,
California. Backyard and back to the land

Where some see a lawn that needs ornamentation and new plants,
others see a chance to change our relationship with our backyard
agriculture into something, while not natural, at least more
holistic.

“We can’t continue to go on like this,” says Fred Meyer of
Backyard
Abundance
, a group that promotes gardens and healthy
landscaping for food and self-sufficiency. “We can’t have
turfgrass landscapes that don’t really help us, or help the rest
of the planet.”

Meyer, who founded the group in Iowa in 2006, sees our backyards
as a tool. Lawns can help feed us, as well as create habitat for
butterflies, honey bees, and other creatures.

“Anybody who’s paying attention knows there are a lot more
endangered species out there now than there were even just a few
years ago,” he says. “Our landscapes can help solve
that.”

It may seem like a fanciful suggestion, more virtue signaling
than actual accomplishment. But, done at scale, there’s something
to the idea of a lawn as a natural staging ground, a mission
adopted by a nationwide alliance of volunteers, nonprofits, and
government agencies. Some of the more successful initiatives have
pushed the idea of gardens as yards as waystops in larger, green
infrastructure systems.

A project in Toronto called the Homegrown National Park Project,
launched by the David Suzuki Foundation in 2013, encourages
Canadians to plant native plants throughout their city, in vacant
lots, alleys, and balconies. The program even hired park rangers to
help promote new planting. It’s since spawned a follow-up of
sorts, the Butterflyway Project, that’s creating a network of
native wildflower plantings across the nation.

Others back up Zeiter’s point about the power of lawns to
reduce emissions by growing more food. Jillian Seeman, food
campaign director of the environmental group Green America says
that our backyards can become beacheads in a larger regenerative
agriculture movement, focused on raising crops without the use of
herbicides or pesticides, and help increase self-sufficiency.

Green America has launched a Climate Victory Gardens campaign,
echoing the WWII-era program, to promote the idea of growing your
own food as an easy way to contribute to the fight against climate
change.


Library of Congress A man in Oswego, New York, working on a Sunday
morning in June of 1943 on his victory garden.

“During the original Victory Gardens campaign, the nation
raised 8 million tons of food in 1944,” says Seeman. “We
thought that would be a great idea, considering the climate crisis
we’re in now, to bring back to victory garden concept for the
planet.”

Both Meyers and Seeman’s organizations have raised awareness
and encouraged action, and according to stats from Garden Research,
one of the biggest growth areas in U.S. garden spending has been
raised beds for vegetables.

But in terms of the global challenge of climate change, these
grassroots efforts likely haven’t moved the needle substantially.
Seeman said 1,300 people have signed up online to raise Climate
Victory gardens. But it’s more about encouraging engagement that
leads to larger collective action, Meyers says.

“Pretty much every environmental measurement is trending in
the wrong direction,” he says. “What the backyard movement mean
is that we can make small differences in our own landscape. They
teach us how to advocate for larger scale action in our
neighborhood and city.”

A symbol of greater awareness

Can the way we treat our lawns really make a difference, or are
they the straw-ban equivalent of action: easy and performative, but
ultimately, not taking the drastic steps necessary to solve the
larger issue?

Robbins sees evidence that these lawn trends, and beliefs, are
taking root, though to what impact remains to be seen. In Madison,
Wisconsin, a university town and liberal bastion, restored native
prairie landscapes can be found everywhere. But does a
proliferation of wild landscaping signify a commitment to big
changes, or dressing up ecological disaster with a nice native
shrub?

“I think these things need to be treated with a lot of
skepticism,” he says. “People like to perform a certain kind of
citizenship. Now, some people simply perform it via something other
than nicely maintained turf grass.”

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
In age of climate change, can our lawns be more than landscaping?