Act: Inspiration

Lawns to the Rescue

June 21, 2019

It seems that every day I read more news about the climate reality that our home planet is turning into a hot house. Fires, flooding, melting ice, oceans dying. It can be overwhelming personally when it seems that changes need to occur on a global scale that leave me feeling powerless. What can I do?

Well, I’ve found one solution that I love and that gives me joy, something that can work for every suburbanite: reducing or eliminating lawn mowing. It’s easy to get frustrated at the problems of the global scale and to forget that our own actions may be adding to the problem. According to the EPA, in 2011 over 20 million tons of CO2 emissions were produced by lawn equipment. So why continue to burn fossil fuels for a lawn? It’s one thing to drive your gas guzzler if there are no good alternatives but for landscape maintenance there are lots of other options. Lawns can become flower gardens, a mix of grasses, veggies and berries, or small forests. Plus, it provides habitat for wildlife.  

mowed lawn

It’s an amazing experiment to leave a lawn alone for a couple months and to watch what happens. Nature comes back fast. Trees, flowers, and all the critters return. On my own suburban yard that used to be mowed, we now see turtles, rabbits, many kinds of birds, bats, opossums (I caught one by accident), the unwanteds (groundhogs, deer) and, during this time of the year, fireflies, which love long grass!

My neighbors cut their lawn regularly so the contrast between their lawn and our yard (below) is drastic. In only three years our one acre lot is on its way to becoming an early successional forest. By the way, I’ve probably planted about ten trees, while the rest (I’d guess 200 or so) have seeded in themselves. Watching the yard regenerate is amazing. The Earth is relentless at coming back, as if to say, “I won’t quit.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to put away the mower for most people is the instinct to cut and clear everything away to be able to see property unobstructed. It’s time we think about this instinctual fear because it’s actually hurting us. To flourish, nature needs to take up space; to grow roots down to support plants that go up, and to drop piles of debris. And the debris is used by nature. Turtles need piles of leaves or depressions with soft material for protection over winter. Fireflies are nocturnal and need moist dark places to hide out during the day. Bunnies need rabbit holes that are protected by brush. Birds feed on grass seeds all year round. The growth that we cut down when we mow undermines the natural process of life, and further constricts available natural habitat, which translates to species disappearing.

The U.N. produced a report developed by almost 150 authors over 50 countries that states that almost 1 million species are threatened by extinction. Their findings point to a hotter planet and an over-extraction of natural resources that other species depend upon. Life around us is collapsing and yet we continue to fire up lawn mowers.    

Mowing can make sense around walking paths and in places the lawn is used for activities, like for throwing a frisbee or to have a place to lay out in the sun. If you use the lawn, great! But most of our lawns have no sign of activity. We copy our neighbors and the image we’re sold to keep a clean cut lawn. In the suburbs, fitting into the culture is more important than providing life itself. The pressure of fitting in is more powerful than taking an actionable step to save the planet. There is a very sad disconnect when we continue to maintain an unnecessary social norm that is self destructive.

Lawns are a big business. According to the National Association of Landscape Professionals, lawns see annual revenues of about $92 billion a year. I’m not proposing that we put the landscape industry out of business but that it can transform into a new culture, aligned with climate change mitigation, the flourishing of wildlife habitat, and a creative tradition that reconnects us to the pulse of the earth: more tools to support natural yards, a shift to electric motors, products to retain and repurpose rainwater on site, yard art, etc.

The images below demonstrate some of the variety you can see from no-mow lawns:

Front yard flower garden

Dry landscape front yard garden

Modern no-lawn landscape

Creative sideyard landscape without lawn

Wild and free front yard

Admittedly, this last image of the completely wild front yard is not as appealing to most people (and may be against your city regulations), and I’m not implying that this should be anyone’s end goal. But when the standard practice is to mow away all habitat and add more CO2 emissions, it’s a clear sign that our priorities are way off.

Vaidila Satvika

Vaidila Satvika is an Urban Planner with the City of Asheville

Tags: grass lawns, Solutions