A Crop of Contradictions
On what crop do we spend $6.2 billion a year to grow on 25 million acres of land and then throw away when we harvest it?
The answer to this peculiar question is grass for our lawns. Granted, in reality, we grow this crop for its appearance, not for harvest. Nonetheless, our American love affair with lawns has a variety of cultural and environmental contradictions built into it.
There is nothing like the clean, even greenery of a freshly
mowed lawn. It nicely accents our house, and it feels good to step back and survey it when the mowing is done. Grass is even known to affect people's moods by creating a feeling of serenity. It blends our yard with other neatly mowed lawns on the block, and we join our neighbors in criticizing anyone in the neighborhood who lets their lawn go weedy and unmowed. We want our lawns green, weed-free and closely mowed.
Our fascination with lawns has a long history, perhaps even buried a bit in our genetic make-up. Primitive man had a better chance of survival in short grass where he could see potential predators. The first lawns were created around castles of aristocrats in 17th century Europe. Lawns let the neighbors know that the landowner was so wealthy that he could use the land as a playground, not a place to grow food. In the mid-1800s, the masses began to imitate the English upper crust, and books and articles on lawns began to appear. Lawns took a big jump forward with the invention of the push lawn mower in 1830 and another big jump forward after World War II with the appearance of chemicals and gas-powered lawn mowers. Thus, we entered the mega-business and mass marketing of large immaculate swaths of green grass. [2,3]
The numbers behind this love affair are a bit staggering. One-third of all water used from public sources is for landscaping, mostly lawns.  Lawns use 10 times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farming.  Each year, we spend $5.25 billion on fertilizer and apply 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides.  Add to this list the environmental impact of 44 million gas-powered lawnmowers using 580 million gallons of gasoline per year. One hour of driving a gas-powered lawnmower equals driving a car 45 miles, according to the EPA. 
An example of creating functional lawn areas in your yard.
Photo provided by Joy Stewart
Concern for the environ-ment has brought into question whether we really need "wall-to-wall" grass. Lawns can be very functional, but we need to ask ourselves where lawn is most needed in our yards. Lawn provides an excellent area for outdoor recreation and a place for children and adults to play games. It is also excellent at surrounding and highlighting the entrance to our homes.
Lawn is a poor planting for other important functions. Grubs and sod webworms, two common critters attracted to lawns, are a sad contrast to the diversity of bees, butterflies and birds that are attracted by native wildflowers and grasses. Our steady replacement of natural habitat with sterile lawn composed of alien grasses is a big part of why we are losing our birds and butterflies. We have had nearly a 50 percent reduction in population size for many of our bird species in the last 50 years.  Habitat loss is the number one cause of decline in butterfly species. In the U.S. we have 23 butterfly species designated as threatened or endangered, and even our beloved monarch butterfly appears to be sliding into a long-term decline. [9,10]
Lawn is also poor at controlling stormwater runoff. Lawns absorb between zero and two inches of rain per hour. A native planting of wildflowers and grasses can absorb up to seven and one-half inches per hour, four times the maximum capacity of a lawn. Undergrowth in a mature forest can absorb up to 21 inches of rain per hour, 11 times the maximum capacity of lawn. Leaves slow the speed and impact of rain drops, and the deep root systems help rainwater penetrate the soil. 
This yard has no problem absorbing rain water and provides a great place to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings and wildlife.
Photo Courtesy of Prairie Moon Nursery
There are numerous alternatives to lawn that will reduce our use of water, chemicals, and mowing. These include big planting beds of low-water use plants, areas of native plantings including woodland and wildflower meadows, mulching, groundcovers, and using paths of gravel, mulch or permeable pavers. Native plants are an especially good alternative. They are naturally adapted to Tennessee soil and climate, do not need fertilizer, are pest resistant, and need minimal watering. For example, if you have a large shade tree in your yard, replace the lawn beneath the tree with native understory trees and shrubs and stop mowing and raking leaves. In the fall, let the leaves fertilize and enrich the plantings underneath.
Imagine strolling through wildflower meadows in your back yard. Extra privacy, less mowing, and great for the environment!
Photo provided by Joy Stewart
When we think about possible changes to our yard, it challenges our addiction to lawns and may make us a little nervous, wondering what our neighbors might think. On the positive side, making your yard more nature-friendly and biologically diverse can be an exciting learning process. It challenges us to redefine beauty in our yards. It is an opportunity to experiment and express our creativity. It can make a great family activity and provide a chance for our children to learn more about nature. In addition, it saves money and work, reducing the amount of mowing and maintenance. These changes are a win-win proposition for both the homeowner and the environment.
1."Frequently Asked Questions." Ask the Expert. The Lawn Institute.
2."History of the American Lawn." By Cameron Donaldson. The Limpkin. Newsletter of the Space Coast Audubon Society of Brevard County, Florida.
3."The history of the lawn mower from inventor to today." the.lawn.mower.
4."Advanced Concepts in Water Smart Landscape Design." Cory Tanner. Clemson University Extension. Household Water Use. Averages per day, source American Water Works Association Research Foundation.
5. Bill Chameides. "Statically Speaking: Lawns by the Numbers". The Green Grok. Duke University; Nicholas School of the Environment. July 25, 2008.
6."Green Landscaping: Greenacres." Environmental Protection Agency.
7.Ron Barnett. "Gas lawn mowers don't cut it." USA Today. 4/28/2010.
8.Douglas Tallamy. Bringing Nature Home. Portland OR: Timber Press, 2007.
9.Heather Millar. "Restoring Rare Beauties." National Wildlife Federation News and Magazine. June 1, 2008.
10."Monarch Butterfly Populations Tumbling". Discovery News. April 5, 2011
11.Data from Luna Bharati, "Infiltration Studies Along Vegetated Riparian Buffer Zones." Iowa State University MA Thesis. From presentation "Naturally Engineered Landscaped Solutions for Water Quality and Stormwater Management" Tennessee Department of Agriculture; Water Resources.