Rethinking the Perfectly Manicured Lawn

Printed in Green Living Journal, Summer 2017


By Eden Powell, Communications and Campaign Assistant
and Ashley Chesser, Communications & Development Director

Do you wish that reducing your environmental footprint was as accessible as your front yard? Well it turns out that it is!

In Eugene, Oregon, where NCAP is headquartered, there are many residential neighborhoods bursting with manicured yards and perfectly trimmed green lawns. The abundant winter rainfall makes for an effortlessly lush, green color to accentuate houses. But in the summer, those lawns are still bright green. Even in late August when it hasn’t rained in weeks, the gleam of vivid, wet grass remains, unbroken by clumps of yellow dandelions or even a patch of clover. These lawns exist year ‘round, despite the usual absence of frolicking children, pets or sunbathers. 

For many, lawns have become a status symbol rather than utilized space. In exchange for a sea of green, homeowners are expected to provide water, gasoline for mowers, time for maintenance, and often herbicides.

Based on satellite photography, NASA estimates that lawns are the United States’ most irrigated crop, beating out corn (yes, corn!) by three times.[1] According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average family in the U.S. uses an average of 30 gallons of water a day on outdoor use. Fifty percent of the water used on lawns ends up as runoff, spreading pesticides and fertilizer into waterways.[2]

Aside from water, Americans use 800 million gallons of gas in lawnmowers each year to maintain their lawns. One hour of mowing produces the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving 350 miles in a car. Additionally, 17 million gallons of gas are accidentally spilled onto the ground while refueling mowers every year–more gas than in the Exxon Valdez spill. This fuel is then washed into storm drains by rain or sprinklers, or baked into the atmosphere on a hot day.[3]

Many proud lawn-tenders also rely on herbicides to keep their lawns unmarred by “unfavorable” plants. Roundup, Monsanto’s glyphosate product, is the most common lawn herbicide, used to directly kill weeds on contact. Five million pounds of Roundup are used in lawn care each year.[4] You may recognize glyphosate from the news, as it was recently classified as “probably carcinogenic” by the International Association for Research on Cancer, an independent group of cancer researchers.[5] It has for a long time been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.[4]

Other common lawn-care chemicals have been shown to demonstrate health risks as well. If a lawn is to be actively enjoyed by one’s family, the risk presented by direct spraying is considerable. More sustainable options exist. 

The Lawn Institute, a pro-lawn, informational website, cites noise suppression, visibility and carbon sequestering (among many other things) as benefits to having a turf grass lawn.[6] What many homeowners may not consider is that most every benefit to having a traditional lawn can be achieved through the smart use of alternative plants. One good option is planting a lawn that is partially or entirely made up of clover. Clover will stay green year-round with very little need for watering and is a great food source for bees. It introduces nitrogen into soil very efficiently, making it a natural fertilizer.[7] Clover sustains foot traffic and can outcompete weeds. Micro clover (Trifolium repens L. var. Pirouette) grows low to the ground so that little or no mowing is required. Clover spreads easily though, so keep that in mind when planning your lawn.

Various wildflowers and mosses can also provide good ground cover that do not require as much water, and no mowing. Planting anemone, lily of the valley, creeping Charlie, sweet woodruff and thyme will yield a lower-maintenance lawn and provide for your local pollinators. Moss is also a good option, as it can be walked on, spreads easily and grows well in shade.[8] Sedge lawns look much like traditional turf lawns but do not require mowing and will do well in a variety of moisture and shade conditions.

If you are one of the many people who maintain a turf grass lawn year-round, ask yourself for what purpose you really use your lawn. If you like having somewhere to sit on summer evenings, perhaps a combination of flowering plants and a patio space would suit your needs. If your kids and pets need open space, try a hearty native grass or clover. Alternative lawn options allow lawns to become useful ecosystems for insects and small animals, instead of a man-made ecological desert. Plus, they will save you time and energy that could be spent enjoying your yard!





4.     NCAP Factsheet