Lush lawns make Americans poor citizens of the Earth, but how can we opt out?

The Charlotte ObserverMarch 28, 2014 

A neighbor was recently fertilizing his grass. I thought: Is it time for me to start getting my lawn in shape? Of course. This is what I’ve done every spring. It’s what you do if you have a home with a yard in America.

But: More people are opting out of lawn care. For now, that shift is largely in places with freshwater shortages, and it’s mostly because arid towns and cities are placing restrictions on watering. But in 100 years, our great-great grandchildren will look at our lush lawns as quaint and distasteful, much the way we remember previous generations that blithely threw trash out the car window.

But: It is not 2114. It is 2014, and the social expectation now is that when you buy a home in a neighborhood full of green lawns, you keep your lawn green. It is, in fact, not only a cultural norm, but an economic pact. My fescue contributes to a collective curb appeal that benefits the property values of all. It’s neighborly.

But: That lawn makes you a poor citizen of Earth. The fertilizer we use leaches into the ground and causes algae in lakes and rivers. The weed killer is dangerous to animals and aquatic life. In trying to approximate nature with our patch of green, we are harming it.

But: This is true of many choices we make. We could always do more for the environment, no? We could bike to work instead of driving. We could live in a home with less square footage to heat. We could drink from nothing but glass. Easing our ecological guilt is a Sisyphean exercise. We’ll never get that boulder to the top of the hill.

But: The same is true in reverse. The more you care how your lawn looks, the more time you put into seeding and watering and mowing and raking it.

But: That’s what 12-year-old sons are for.

But: There’s an emotional commitment, too. The better your grass looks, the more obsessive you get about it. Being great at lawns is like being great at golf. You never truly appreciate the successes, because the joy is ruined by that one miss, that one patch of crabgrass. Plus, both cost a ton.

But: That money is an economic driver. The lawn care industry contributes about $25 billion and 900,000 jobs to the economy each year. And it helps provide “income opportunities” for sons looking for spending money.

But: How hard do you work that boy?

But: Well…..

But: A lot of that money could be spent on a different kind of landscaping. What about a wilder, natural look with native plants? They are low-maintenance. They are friendly to the ecosystem. And they are more interactive – digging and planting gets you closer to nature than walking your yard with four wheels in front of you.

But: That sounds nice, unless you mind looking like that person.

But: Like what person?

But: You know, the one with the “natural” landscape.

So you compromise. You will let the back lawn be what it wants to be, because that’s where the boys in the neighborhood like to play. You will be attentive to the front lawn, however, because that’s what everyone sees. You don’t want to be that guy, after all. At least not yet.

MCT Information Services

Peter St. Onge is an editorial writer at the Charlotte Observer.

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