If Your Lawn Is Green, It’s Pretty Likely You Aren’t

Linda Sharps faces the truth: Keeping up with the Joneses takes its toll on the planet.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Living in Eugene, Ore., with her family, Linda wrangles two rambunctious boys while ignoring the laundry.

Yards were the first thing I noticed when we pulled into our new neighborhood two years ago. Mature landscaping with plenty of huge flowering rhododendrons and trees, but most of all, lush green lawns. Every house sported a beautifully kept expanse of grass, and the constant tsst-tsst-tsst of expensively installed sprinkler systems attested to the homeowners’ devotion.

Our yard, in comparison, was the only brown one. I once jokingly apologized to a neighbor for having the “hooptiest lawn” on the block, and she waved a hand: “Oh, that yard has always looked like that.” Meaning that it was one of the only rentals, but I got the underlying message: She noticed. Everyone noticed.

In a strange twist of fate, my husband and I ended up buying the house next door to our rental, and we’ve been making improvements here and there. We got rid of the ugly kitchen carpeting (seriously, who carpets a kitchen?); we updated the ancient musty-smelling master bathroom. We also cleared out the years of overgrowth in the yard…and then we started watering.

And watering. And watering.

You’d think that living in Oregon would mean you’d never have to water the grass, but you definitely do during the summer months if you want a green lawn. All the velvety greenness of May turns to prickly straw by August unless you’re running the sprinklers on a regular basis. 

Of course, all those green lawns aren’t linked to green living. While outdoor water use varies depending on geographic location, the average American household uses 320 gallons of water per day, with 30 percent of that devoted to outdoor use. Nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for nearly one-third of all residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day.

Cutting the grass is even worse for the environment, unless you’re using an electric mower or the old-fashioned variety that runs on elbow grease. According to a 2001 study, “Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline-powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100-mile automobile ride.” In the U.S., the EPA estimates that gas-powered mowers may be contributing as much as 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution. 

So, what to do if you want to live an eco-friendly lifestyle but aren’t willing to let your lawn run wild? The best course of action is to use regionally appropriate plants to create a water-savvy landscape: Native plants can mostly get by on normal rainfall. Also check that you’re not overwatering your lawn, which in addition to being wasteful is pretty much the worst thing you can do for your grass. Overwatering creates shallow root systems; increases a lawn’s vulnerability to weeds, insects, and diseases; reduces drought tolerance; and reduces tolerance for environmental stress. 

Overwatering can be the culprit for the lawn damage that people end up treating with pesticides and other lawn care chemicals. More than 100 million pounds of pesticides are used by homeowners in homes and gardens each year, and these poisons are absorbed through the skin and by breathing sprays, dusts, or vapors. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system.

Of those same pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to seep into sources of drinking water, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 11 are toxic to bees, and 16 are toxic to birds.

Children are particularly at risk, because their bodies are still developing—and they’re the ones most likely to be running, crawling, and rolling in the grass.

Environmental advocates recommend swapping chemicals for natural lawn care practices such as using local grasses, weeding by hand, controlling thatch, and watering deeply but not too often. Those suggestions all make sense to me, but I think the real shift in thinking has to do with letting go of the suburban competition for Best in Lawn.

We overwatered last summer simply because everyone else was running their sprinklers on a daily basis, so we figured we were supposed to do that too. I definitely didn’t want to be the neighbor with the unsightly dormant lawn—but really, why should that be so important to me? If my yard gets dried out during the dog days of summer, who cares? It’ll green up again in the fall when the rains return, and in the meantime, how much of a visual burden can it really be for my landscaping-obsessed neighbors?

The truth is, I can say all of those things, but I’m not sure I’m ready to wholeheartedly embrace the laissez-faire lawn approach quite yet. I am ready to say no to lawn chemicals and make water conservation (and thus, lawn preservation) a priority this summer.

What tips do you have for maintaining an eco-friendly yard? 

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