The Grass Isn't Greener

by Raina Wellman

Illustration by Juan Tang Hon

published October 28, 2016

Fertilized, chemically manipulated, frequently mowed, regularly watered and generally adored, the lawn and its upkeep are sites and sources of both American identity and great ecological burden.

The modern, archetypical American lawn first originated outside the castles of European nobility in the 17th century and spread into the United States, perhaps beginning in 1803 when a lawn was installed at Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. Years later, pesticides, weed-free grass seeds, advanced fertilizer, and easy application methods made the installation of an immaculate lawn attainable across the United States. And while the suburban American dream landscape is now very easy to achieve, it is at the cost of biodiversity and the health of local environments. 

Cristina Milesi, the scientific director of the Institute of Public Health and Environment in Palo Alto, has been using satellite imagery to track the growth of the American lawn since 2003. Her research led her to find that American lawns occupy around 128,000 square kilometers, around three times as many acres as irrigated corn. In an interview with the College Hill Independent, Milesi urged lawn owners to take notice: “we have to accommodate more and more people without having more water, which means there needs to be different aesthetics for modern landscapes.” 

William Levitt, the face of the real estate company Levitt & Sons, helped to develop suburban housing in the 20th century and effectively establish the lawn as a standard of homeownership in the United States.“No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns,” he wrote. In the suburban yards of returning soldiers during the fifties, rules and regulations concerning grass color, water usage, and lawn ornaments emerged, comprising just a portion of homeowner associations’ efforts to preserve a particular image of the American lawn. In Washington DC, regulations prohibit lawn owners from allowing grass and weeds to grow more than 10 inches in height. Additionally, lawns with grass or weeds that are dead and diseased are subject to fines. This past April, in Sugar Creek, Missouri, a family was given four days to tear out a vegetable garden that broke a newly implemented city ordinance requiring traditional landscaping. In the past few years, similar cases have occurred in Florida, Oklahoma and Michigan. 

In part because of regulatory efforts, the green lawn has become a real threat to the intricate ecologies of our landscapes. Swaths of land consisting of diverse and delicate ecosystems are now subsumed under brilliantly green grass. In drought-ridden New Mexico, where I’m from, the prevalence of the banal green lawn provides an eerie contrast to the desert landscape. Yearly, New Mexico gets between 8--21 inches of precipitation. This makes the required 1-1.5 inches of water required each week for lawn upkeep, a task that essentially must be done entirely by hose or sprinkler, using up valuable resources.  

When communities remove native grasses and wildflowers to install sod, they demonstrate disregard towards the beauty that local landscapes provide, but there’s an even greater range of negative impacts. As Mark Hostetler, a professor of the Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at University of Florida, explained in an interview with the Indy, “the lawn is an exotic monoculture inhospitable to most wildlife.” Monocultures, the agricultural practice of growing only a single variety of crop, generate a wide range of problems including vulnerability to environmental changes and pests. Indigenous species do not forage in or use lawn surface as a nesting habitat, so immediately following the installation of a lawn there is a loss of plant and animal diversity. On a subterranean level, lawn chemicals impact the soil, creating nutrient waste, leaching into the groundwater and reducing the activity of beneficial organisms within the dirt. Moreover, when communities remove native grasses and wildflowers to install sod, they demonstrate disregard towards the beauty that local landscapes provide.




In order to combat environmental distress due to drought, lack of ecological diversity, and poisonous pesticide use, scientists, landscapers, and architects are looking to reinvigorate the American lawnscape. Xeriscaping, which was originally defined by Xeriscape Colorado in 1981 and is growing in popularity, is one of the most promising landscape redesign options. Xeriscaping is a practice of landscaping that uses drought tolerant plants with the intention of conserving water and establishing waste efficiency. Companies offering xeriscaping are available across the United States to landscapers who have the initiative to change norms in order to promote sustainability. In particularly dry areas throughout the Southwest, rock gardens with areas that support the diverse, water efficient local plant communities are a practically maintenance-free possibility. 

Still, Hostetler believes that there is no easy solution to lawn culture. “It’s more of a mindset. The important thing is to switch your mindset. It is possible to have aesthetically pleasing landscapes that have a reduced footprint,” she says. As a tradition and a norm, the lawn can be difficult to buck against, but as Hostetler expressed, “we need that one person to make a step within the community.” However, we need to look beyond personal judgment and expectation and address the many sustainably adverse city and county ordinances and homeowner association rules that arrest or fine people for installing gardens or letting their grass get crisp, brown or overgrown. 

Unfortunately, the act of rethinking lawn maintenance practices rarely occurs except in circumstances of severe drought. In California, the drought generated higher water prices and pushed people to rethink the way that they landscape. In another case, homeowners in Los Angeles were offered up to $3.75 a square foot for scrapping their lawns. Californians were also encouraged to install artificial turf, receiving tax rebates for installing synthetic grass. Similar alternatives must be considered even when the crisis is less immediate.




Though water use is currently high and strictly monitored in California, golf courses require large expanses of grass and upkeep as well as huge, rarely regulated quantities of water. The golf course’s required water intake can be more than 325,851 gallons per year according to the United States Golf Association. Golf courses are installed in environments all over the world, including places that don’t naturally foster the green grass prevalent in Britain and now the United States. In Maricopa County, Arizona, where rainfall is inconsistent and meager, there are more than 220 golf courses. 

Yet some landscape designers have realized golf courses need to be made up of landscapes that incorporate and foster the ecosystem of the surrounding environment. One example is Peter Dye, a world-renowned golf course designer who created the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina, which is classified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Within the course, Dye utilized native grasses, created over 22 acres of freshwater wetlands, and restored about 80 acres of saltwater marshlands. Dye is not alone more than 2,100 golf courses in 24 countries participate in the standardized certification process created by the Audubon Society. This standardized sustainability certification process proves that there are ways to develop outdoor spaces for human use that incorporate wilderness communities, but it does not wholly address the larger problem at hand. In order to negate the many problems that lawns pose, action must be taken by individuals and small communities, not just designer golf courses.




It’s time to stop extravagantly using our resources. On the East Coast, Rhode Island included, creating a sustainable landscape also means focusing on drought-tolerant plants and soil with special mulches and compost. In a November article for the Ecological Landscapes Alliance, a Northeast landscaper named Benjamin Crouch advocated for local grasses and plants like white sedum, toadflax, beardtongue, and coneflower. 

If communities are going to continue growing personal plots of grass, Milesi notes that they need “to do research on the type of lawn they are planning to install and look beyond aesthetics for deeper root systems, which require considerably less water.” In her interview, Milesi recommended that lawn owners consider reducing lawn surface area, installing drought resistant species, and letting the grass grow its hair out a bit. Communities need to look at the lawn as more than just an aesthetic issue. Nonetheless, most people continue picnicking, barbequing, and doing somersaults while failing to consider the many underlying problems created by these verdant landscapes. 


RAINA WELLMAN R’19 is nervously pulling out strands of grass.