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July 17, 2008  |  The green, green grass of home  |  4964 hit(s)

Where I live, a homeowners association keeps tabs on your groundskeeping.[1]. They don't insist that you have a lawn, but if you do, you have to make sure that it's looked after.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the lawn, its history, its upkeep, and its possible future. Such interesting things we learn.

The stereotypical suburban lawn is a product of entirely unnatural horticulture. None of the grasses used for lawns are native to the US. If left alone, grass goes through a natural life cycle in which it develops seeds. We thwart this natural lifecycle in various ways. One is to mow:
Mowing turfgrass quite literally cuts off the option of sexual reproduction. From the gardener’s perspective, the result is a denser, thicker mat of green. From the grasses’ point of view, the result is a perpetual state of vegetable adolescence. With every successive trim, the plants are forcibly rejuvenated.
Grass also goes dormant when conditions are not favorable. In its dormant state, it gets brown. People don't like that, so we have a way to prevent that. One is to pour hundreds of millions of gallons of water onto the lawn. Another is to use chemicals:
[...] repeated applications of synthetic fertilizer could counteract turfgrasses’ seasonal cycle by, in effect, tricking the plants into putting out new growth. Sensing a potential bonanza, lawn-care companies began marketing the idea of an ever-green green. The Scotts Company recommended that customers apply its fertilizer, Turf Builder, no fewer than five times a year.
Fertilizer is non-discriminating; it will happily feed grass, weeds, whatever--in short, anything that can use nitrogen. But wait; we want grass, but we don't want "weeds". (Further) better living through chemistry:
With the advent of herbicides, in the nineteen-forties, still tighter control became possible. The new herbicides allowed gardeners to kill off plants that they didn’t care for with a single spraying. One of the most popular herbicides was—and continues to be—2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4-D, as it is commonly known, a major ingredient in Agent Orange. Regrettably, 2,4-D killed not only dandelions but also plants that were beneficial to lawns, like nitrogen-fixing clover.
Oops. Well, if you can't solve the problem, redefine it:
To cover up this loss, any plant that the chemical eradicated was redefined as an enemy. “Once considered the ultimate in fine turf, a clover lawn is looked upon today by most authorities as not much better than a weed patch” is how one guidebook explained the change.
Ah, at last: a beautiful, unsullied carpet of green grass. Alas, you're not done yet:
The greener, purer lawns that the chemical treatments made possible were, as monocultures, more vulnerable to pests. The answer to this chemically induced problem was to apply more chemicals. [...] the first pesticide popularly spread on lawns was lead arsenate. Next in line were DDT and chlordane. Once they were shown to be toxic, pesticides like diazinon and chlorpyrifos. The insecticide carbaryl, which is marketed under the trade name Sevin, is still broadly applied to lawns; it is toxic to tadpoles, salamanders, and honeybees. In “American Green” (2006), Ted Steinberg, compares the lawn to “a nationwide chemical experiment with homeowners as the guinea pigs.”
Your pristine green lawn is poisoning you, your kids, and your pets. But it doesn't end there:
Rain and irrigation carry synthetic fertilizers into streams and lakes, where the excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms that, in turn, produce aquatic “dead zones.” A 2002 report found traces of thirty-seven pesticides in streams feeding into the Croton River Watershed. A few years ago, Toronto banned the use of virtually all lawn pesticides and herbicides, including 2,4-D and carbaryl, on the ground that they pose a health risk, especially to children.
Or in the case of the Northwest, a health risk to, among others, salmon, which spawn in small streams that are the first to get runoff.

I used to have neighbors who kept an immaculate lawn and garden. One of their secrets, so to speak, was periodic visits from a company that unblushingly named itself ChemLawn. (Since acquired by the more benign-sounding TruGreen.)

In case you're wondering, I do have a lawn. In our 1/4-acre plot, we have 600 square feet of grass. I cut it, but I don't water it or feed it. Nonetheless, like my fellow Americans, I like the look of a neat clipped lawn. There you go.

I wonder whether we will see a cultural change in our attitudes toward lawns. If so, it will take a while ... several generations have grown up believing in the aesthetic -- yea, verily, moral[2] -- superiority of a perfect lawn.


[1] Less vigilantly, it seems now (based on the evidence of various neighbors' yards), than it did 30 years ago when the houses were all new.

[2] Also from the article: "The appearance of a lawn bespeaks the personal values of the resident," a group called the Lawn Institute declared. "Some feel that a person who keeps the lawn perfectly clipped is a person who can be trusted."