The Suburban Lawn Must Die

restore nature
"A perfect neighborhood. Luxury houses with nice landscaping" says the marketeer's caption
Luxury house with freshly mown grass lawn. Home exterior.

The mowers and the gas powered leaf blowers start up at 7:30 AM. Could be next door, could be three blocks away. The din is nearly constant as the landscaper’s trucks make their way around the neighborhood. It’s horrible work, vibrations, the exhaust, the sweat and dirt. It’s a job few local youth would opt to do.

One of the great challenges the landscapers face is getting non-native plants to thrive. Some may need more water, or fertilizer. Some will be prone to diseases where pesticides come into play. Long Islanders use 50% more water than the average American (150 gallons per day versus 100), and that is largely attributable to our lawn fetish — watering and watering to get that perfect iridescent cartoon green color.

The lawns get mowed every three days like clockwork, rectangular grids. The grass clippings, like the leaves in the fall, are left in a neat row of Hefty bags at the curb to be tossed into a landfill. The very best food for lawns of course is mulched grass or leaves. Remove that and you are back to fertilizing and more watering. The homeowner labors to achieve that neon green again, but soon enough the lawn starts to burn out from overwatering, over-mowing, over- fertilizing. You are on the suburban treadmill now.

Your Lawn is Non-Native

The thing about it is, the grasses growing on our lawns are from elsewhere mostly. The first settlers brought with them grasses from Europe along with their cattle.

“By 1672 twenty-two European species of weeds had taken up residence around Massachusetts Bay

These foreign grasses quickly spread across the continent—they may have initially been immigrants in their own right but within a few generations, they were definitely naturalized American citizens. For example, Guinea grass and Bermuda grass from Africa spread throughout the south. The latter became important for levee stabilization. And Kentucky bluegrass, which hailed from Europe and the Middle East, spread throughout the Appalachian Mountains and the Midwest. It’s now the most favored American lawn grass. In the west, grasses that originated in the Mediterranean took root as Spanish soldiers and missionaries settled there. “

The American Obsession with Lawns, Scientific American, May 3rd, 2017

I do take issue with the notion that these grasses were “naturalized.” Calling a European grass Kentucky Blue Grass doesn’t make it so. It takes millions of years for a plant to adapt, millions of years for the insects that would feed on that plant to develop the ability to digest them. Most every plant has toxins as a defense against being eaten by insects and herbivores generally. Kentucky Blue Grass then, like all non-natives, fits very poorly into our local “food web.” These so-called “introduced” plants are in fact ecological dead zones.

At 40 million acres, the lawn today is the largest “crop” grown in the U.S. But why this fetishizing? Why do people care so much about them? Certainly the massive ad campaigns from Scotts and others connected to the lawn care industry are a large factor. There is also the typical impulse towards conformity that we see in the tract housing of suburban development. God forbid a lawn is unkempt. That can even trigger fines in many places. Fear of shame seems a part of it. People seem so anxious as they mow and and water. I am reminded of the Thoreau quote: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” No where is that more true than in the case of a suburbanite behind his mower.

Lawns have little function, ecologically and even as useful spaces. Rare is it today if you see someone on their lawn unless they are mowing or moving a sprinkler. No kids playing, no lawn chairs. Again, what are we doing, at great cost and effort? Why the din and the exhaust? We are promoting the unnatural. All this effort — it can’t work. The bizarre amalgam that most yards end up with just won’t hold together. Using a simple plant identifier app — I like PictureThis! — will tell you that about 90% of what is growing in our yards is non-native or invasive. My half acre has about 100 weeds from all over the world, which I am constantly removing in favor of natives.

Your Lawn Is Ecologically Useless

Not coincidentally, as we are destroying what little native plants we have left and replace them with whatever we picked up at Lowes or Home Depot or at the garden store, or with whatever was chosen out at some nursery (non-native most likely), we are seeing animal populations collapsing — birds, amphibians, reptiles, and most importantly insects. No native plants mean no native insects. How many birds are we seeing on these pool table lawns? This is far worse than a “Silent Spring.” It is the story of ecological collapse, played out locally and globally.

We have lost 45% of our insects since 1974 — well maybe “lost” is the wrong word. “Eradicated” is maybe the better term. See “Welcome Bugs Into Your Yard, You Might Just Change The World,” by Prof. Douglas Tallamy, writing for the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Homeowners use on the average of 10X the amount of pesticides that a farmer does. As we wipe out insects whether through consumer products or via industrial agriculture, we are consigning countless species to extinction. Many will vanish before we even have the chance to identify them.

As a species, we continue to sleepwalk towards disaster. It’s not that people don’t know. Most are terrified of the future Earth that is taking shape, a far more violent one environmentally, and then inevitably socially. As environments tip over, as water grows scarce, as we are enveloped in fire and flood, civilizations unravel. Our response to this existential crisis are range from tepid to gestural to of course outright denial.

Fearing The End of Nature, Keeping Our Lawns

The more nothing happens, the more dire the warnings become. As if throwing out more terrifying scenarios, as if people would start to see if only the flames blazing from one’s hair were just a bit higher. And so people become more despondent, indifferent, and more incapable of action.

Few things are as soul-sucking as the suburban yard, a 50’s Post-War phenomenon that we hope has about seen its day. It is unsustainable, destructive, and frankly ugly, especially when you start to be able to identify the plants and come to see their ecological uselessness. We have agency though. We can — and must — change the aesthetic to one that honors beauty in its purest form. People have to learn to how to reconnect with Nature. And you don’t have to do that by going to a park. It can — and should — happen right in your yard via native plantings, as Prof. Tallamy advocates.

Natives don’t need extra water, fertilizers, pesticides. Long Island natives are well acclimated to the island’s sandy, nutrient poor soil. There is nothing one needs to do but stand back. Native plants flourishing under native conditions. What a concept! And when we seek beauty, we look for Nature — untouched, with all its intricacy and vitality. And as you create native habitat in your yard, you will not only witness Nature’s return, and it’s thriving. You will be changed through this encounter as well.

Your Yard Needs To Go Native — Do It For Local Nature

Black Gum, Purple Cone Flower, and Chokeberry

The trouble begins when we divide ourselves from nature in pursuit of some artificiality, which often of course requires we spend the money. It all ends up looking plastic and cheap, but it seems we are at the point where no one knows any better. The estrangement from Nature has gone on too long. Fewer and fewer remember when our local wildlife was perfuse, where the fish were abundant, before the sound of croaks and chirps began to dim.

Do your part then. Create some native habitat in your yard. Engage in “outdoor placemaking” so that you can be amidst Nature without leaving home. As you reconnect, you will find you had no idea what you were missing. We are all suffering to one degree or another from Plant Blindness. We are oblivious to what we are actually seeing, don’t know the species or its purpose. And with the plants come the insects and birds. I am seeing a lot of butterflies these days. They are signs of hope.

Invasive Plants Are Taking Over Our Yards and Parks

Still, it’s a bleak picture — and I haven’t even discussed what is right now our biggest problem — the invasive plant crisis, where again we are sleepwalking our way to disaster as English Ivy, Wisteria, Porcelainberry, Japanese Knotweed, Bamboo, Kudzu, Grape, Oriental Bittersweet and many others overwhelm our public lands. We’d need an army in every community for a decade to fix this. But what are the alternatives? Give up and live forever in a lifeless degraded habitat?

The Yard As Native Habitat

There are though ‘green shoots.’ A Rewilding movement has begun, on Long Island, nationally and globally. Increasingly, people are coming to understand the importance of ‘Going Native,” of restoring healthy food webs in ones community, starting in one’s yard.

Professor Tallamy

Probably the best known advocate for rewilding, at least here in the U.S. is Prof. Douglas Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware, and author most recently of the NYT Best Seller “Nature’s Best Hope,” which advocates for our planting native habitat in our yards in order to help ensure the local survival of various species as The Sixth Great Extinction, The Holocene, gains momentum. Each of us must stand as a bulwark here. The threat is monumental, but if we all just changed our yard care practices, it would have an enormous impact.

Recognizing this, Prof. Tallamy launched Homegrown National Park, where native planters can log their native plantings on a map of the U.S. Professor Tallamy calls for 20 million of the 40 million acres of lawn to be converted to native habitat. By his calculation, this is what it will take to blunt this wave of extinction, and in so doing preserve ourselves.

We Were Ignorant. Will We Choose to Stay That Way?

We began this all in ignorance. We didn’t know what the implications of “introducing” foreign species to our land. Centuries of gardening, of seeking the exotic for our yards, followed on by a globalization of plant production and distribution, have rendered our native landscapes unrecognizable. We need to change that. We need to rebuild our natural infrastructure and quickly. Count on this though — if you plant the natives, they will thrive, and you with them.
Here is a yard that went native starting June 21, 2020. The growth has been phenomenal.

It will take an army a generation to recover from all the bad planting decisions we have made. Let’s rebuild our nation’s “Native Infrastructure.” It’s an investment that would be well worth it, an investment in community an a boon for local hiring. How else can we possibly confront this? We have to literally remake Nature from the soil on up.

7 comments

  1. wish your link went to what it said ( ” Here is a yard that went native…” ) I get affiliate marketing but…

  2. I would like to make this change in my yard. Where do I start? How do I make it still look good to the “Jones’s”? It still needs curb appeal in LI. Plus, the weeds are invasive too. I need help and a plan. Who can I talk to?

    1. Spadefoot construction and design. We design and plant landscapes exclusively with native plants. You can achieve great curb appeal by using natives and eliminating large swaths of your traditional “lawn”

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