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Heather Flores: Wasted on Grass

The following is an excerpt from Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community by H. C. Flores.

French aristocrats popularized the idea of the green, grassy lawn in the eighteenth century when they planted the agricultural fields around their estates to grass to send the message that they had more land than they needed and could therefore afford to waste some. Meanwhile French peasants starved for lack of available farmland, and the resulting frustration might well have had something to do with the French Revolution in 1789.11

Today fifty-eight million Americans spend approximately thirty billion dollars every year to maintain more than twenty-three million acres of lawn. That’s an average of over a third of an acre and $517 each. The same-sized plot of land could still have a small lawn for recreation and produce all the vegetables needed to feed a family of six. The lawns in the United States consume around 270 billion gallons of water a week—enough to water eighty-one million acres of organic vegetables, all summer long.

Lawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland. These pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides run off into our groundwater and evaporate into our air, causing widespread pollution and global warming, and greatly increasing our risk of cancer, heart disease, and birth defects. In addition, the pollution emitted from a power mower in just one hour is equal to the amount from a car being driven 350 miles.

In fact, lawns use more equipment, labor, fuel, and agricultural toxins than industrial farming, making lawns the largest agricultural sector in the United States. But it’s not just the residential lawns that are wasted on grass. There are around seven hundred thousand athletic grounds and 14,500 golf courses in the United States, many of which used to be fertile, productive farmland that was lost to developers when the local markets bottomed out.12

Turf is big business, to the tune of around forty-five billion dollars a year. The University of Georgia has seven turf researchers studying genetics, soil science, plant pathology, nutrient uptake, and insect management. They issue undergraduate degrees in turf. The turf industry is responsible for a large sector of the biotech (GMO) industry, and much of the genetic modification that is happening in laboratories across the nation is in the name of an eternally green, slowgrowing, moss-free lawn.

These huge numbers are somewhat overwhelming, if not completely incomprehensible, but they make the point that lawns not only are a highly inefficient use of space, water, and money but also are seriously contributing to the rapid degradation of our natural environment.

I have traveled in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, and South America, and most of the people I’ve met will agree that eating organic food is a good idea, as are recycling, conserving wilderness areas, and otherwise taking care of the earth. Nevertheless, as a society we continue to degrade our lands and cultures with pollution, mining, logging, a toxic and devastating agriculture, and a string of other abuses. We display our rejection of ecological responsibility through an irreverent consumer culture rife with waste and injustice, and we demonstrate our affluent denial by growing miles upon miles of homogeneous green lawns.

If we truly feel committed to treating the earth and one another with equality and respect, the first place to show it is by how we treat the land we live on. It is time to grow food, not lawns! The reasons include reducing pollution, improving the quality of your diet, increasing local food security, and beautifying your surroundings, as well as building community and improving your mental and physical health. You will save money and enhance your connection with the earth and with your family.

Whatever happens, you may still choose to keep a small lawn for playing croquet and sunning with the chickens. Good for you! The term Food Not Lawns is meant as a challenge to the notion of a homogeneous culture; it is not a call for the eradication of all green grassy places.

A small lawn, incorporated into a whole-system design, helps provide unity and invites participation in the landscape. Lawns offer a luxurious and comfortable place to read, stretch, or exercise. If you are the kind of person who uses a space like this, you should have one somewhere near your house.

And why not enhance the lawn with edible flowers, fruits, vegetables, or other useful plants? Or what about turning your whole yard into an organic food garden and using a local park, school, or natural area for recreation? If we can change our landuse philosophy from one of ownership and control to one of sharing and cooperation, we can renew our connection with the earth and one another and thus benefit through increased physical and mental health, an improved natural environment, and stronger local communities.

What have you got to lose besides a few blades of grass?

  1. Sarah Robertson, “History of the Lawn,” Eugene Register-Guard, 26 April 1995.
  2. Richard Burdick, “The Biology of Lawns,” Discover Magazine 24, no. 7 (July 2003).

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