Why Traditional Grass Lawns Are Bad for the Environment and Your Wallet

Why Traditional Grass Lawns Are Bad for the Environment and Your Wallet

January 8, 2024

The quintessential American suburban home often conjures up images of a perfectly manicured green lawn, neatly trimmed hedges, and lush borders overflowing with colorful flowers. But while picture-perfect grass may scream “curb appeal,” it comes at a major cost to the environment – and your wallet.

Drawbacks:

Across the United States, there are estimated to be over 40 million acres devoted to growing grass for lawns. All that lawn coverage would take up a land area larger than the entire state of Ohio! But the environmental impacts of traditional turf grass lawns extend far beyond just their massive land usage alone. Let’s explore the drawbacks of traditional grass:

Excessive Water Usage

Lush green grass requires a lot of water to thrive. In fact, grass is the single largest irrigated “crop” in America, consuming an estimated 9 billion gallons of water per day. That’s more than hydro-intensive crops like corn and wheat used for irrigation across the entire country!

Most experts recommend watering lawns with around 1 inch of water per week during the growing season to keep them healthy. But in many parts of the country, lawn irrigation accounts for 50-75% of total household water usage during summer months.

And unfortunately, nearly half of that irrigation water is wasted due to inefficient watering techniques like sprinklers. Switching to more targeted watering methods can help curb waste, but the bottom line is grass will always be a major water hog compared to alternative types of landscaping.

Reliance on Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides

The perfectly manicured, weed-free turf that lawn enthusiasts strive for requires regular applications of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.

U.S. homeowners dump around 70 million pounds of synthetic fertilizers and 30 million pounds of pesticides onto their grass each year! Runoff from those products pollutes waterways and poses dangers to pets, children, and beneficial organisms like pollinators.

They also dump salt and chemicals like glyphosate into local watersheds, creating toxic conditions for many forms of aquatic life. Excess fertilizer in waterways can also trigger algae blooms which choke out oxygen and create “dead zones” inhospitable to most marine organisms.

Air and Noise Pollution from Mowing and Maintenance

It takes a lot of work to keep a lawn looking pristine! All that mowing, trimming, watering and applying various chemicals adds up in terms of environmental impact.

Gas-powered lawn mowers and other landscape maintenance equipment generate tons of air pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and volatile organic compounds. Using a standard gas mower for 1 hour produces as much air pollution as driving a typical passenger car for over 300 miles!

Gas mowers also utilize dirty fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that accelerate climate change. And all that mowing creates noise pollution that disturbs wildlife and neighbors. Battery-powered or manual reel mowers are far cleaner options, but require more physical exertion to operate.

Lack of Biodiversity

Nothing grows in a traditional lawn except grass. This uniform “monoculture” landscape provides no habitat or food sources to support birds, pollinating insects and other wildlife. Monocultures are far more prone to devastating pest outbreaks and plant diseases as well.

Replacing grass with diverse flowering plants, bushes, and trees that provide ample sources of seeds, berries, nectar, and foliage greatly enhances biodiversity. It also creates much-needed habitats for essential pollinator species like bees that are under severe threat from habitat loss.

High Costs and Labor Requirements

When you add up all the costs of regular mowing, fertilizing, watering, applying weed/pest treatments and replacing worn-out grass, maintaining a picture-perfect lawn gets very expensive.

The typical suburban household spends thousands of dollars annually to sustain their turf grass lawn. And keeping it looking flawless requires devotion of significant time for regular mowing, watering, and other lawn care chores.

Paying a professional landscaping company to handle all that work will burn an even bigger hole through your wallet! For what essentially amounts to a purely decorative living ground cover with no practical uses, conventional grass lawns are a massive waste of money and effort compared to lawn alternatives.

Eco-Friendly Lawn Alternatives

Why Traditional Grass Lawns Are Bad for the Environment and Your Wallet

The good news is there are numerous sustainable lawn alternatives that retain green spaces for recreation without the waste, expenses, and environmental harms of high-maintenance turf grass.

Native Grass Meadows

Converting traditional lawns to native meadow grasses and wildflowers nurtures biodiversity while eliminating the need for irrigation, mowing or fertilizers once established. Site-appropriate native grasses have deep root systems that require little to no water beyond natural rainfall and thrive sans chemical additives.

Meadow grasses flower beautifully in spring and summer, providing ample nectar for pollinators. Their long seed heads also deliver winter food to birds. Infrequent mowing just once or twice annually keeps native meadow grasses neat and tidy.

Clover & Low-Growing Grass Mixes

Dutch white clover and creeping red fescue make an attractive sustainable lawn alternative to environmentally-damaging turf grasses. As a legume, clover pulls ample nitrogen from the air to stay green and fixes it into the soil to fertilize itself and surrounding fescue grass.

This mutually beneficial relationship cuts down the need for synthetic fertilizers. Hardy fine fescues also require one third less water than traditional turf grasses to remain lush and green. Just mow the clover/fescue mix 2-3 times per month to maintain a neat weed-free lawn with minimal resource inputs.

Ground Cover Plants

Easy-care spreading perennials like sedums, ajuga, wild ginger, creeping phlox and spurge quickly blanket areas with foliage and charming blooms. Once established, they choke out weeds and form lush evergreen carpets that require practically no mowing, watering or maintenance.

Some varieties tolerate moderate foot traffic, but most are best suited for strictly ornamental areas of landscapes. Mixing several types of tough, low-growing ground covers adds unique textures and seasonal flowers.

Edible Landscaping

Converting all or part of a lawn to edible gardens eliminates grass entirely in favor of waterwise perennial fruits, veggies and herbs. Focus on drought-tolerant native edibles like currants, blueberries, raspberries, asparagus, rhubarb and the many aromatic Mediterranean herbs.

Beyond producing free homegrown food, edible gardens boost regional food security, provide pollinator habitat and build soil health through regenerative growing methods. Well-designed, intensively planted edible landscapes can feed families and nourish ecosystems all while eliminating lawns.

Hardscaping

Replacing grass with mulched, planted or gravel-covered beds surrounded by durable yet permeable hardscapes like flagstone patios, paths, and walls makes sense for properties desiring minimal maintenance. Hardscaping concentrates foot traffic onto designated areas, limiting soil compaction around ornamental plants and preventing erosion issues.

Using regionally-sourced stone, sustainably harvested wood and recycled-content building materials for hardscapes also greatly reduces the greenhouse gas emissions associated with concrete and emphasizing plantings over lawns slashes water usage dramatically.

Synthetic Turf

For residential or commercial sites focused on practicality over ecology, synthetic turf can fill certain lawn needs without demanding resources. Installing artificial turf eliminates mowing, watering and all lawn maintenance tasks besides occasional rinsing.

Modern “Recycled Turf” products made from repurposed plastics and manufacturing waste divert tons of plastic from landfills annually across North America now as well. Just take care to select eco-friendly turf without toxic infills and containing at least 50% recycled plastic content.

Give Your Lawn the Boot!

In spaces designed purely for recreation, alternatives like low-growing native grasses and clover or synthetic turf might still work well. But for most properties, eliminating excessive lawn areas in favor of sustainable landscaping options offers multiple benefits for both homeowners and the environment.

Beyond slashing wasted water, eliminating fossil fuel usage across the board and reducing greenhouse gases, replacing lawns allows regeneration of healthier, biologically diverse ecosystems better equipped to withstand climate change and urbanization pressures. And nurturing more sustainable, eco-friendly landscapes at home creates invaluable opportunities to rebuild declining pollinator, bird and wildlife populations one yard at a time as well.

So consider joining the increasing ranks of sustainable homeowners that are pioneering attractive, ecologically-beneficial alternatives to thirsty, maintenance-hungry conventional lawns. Your wallet, local ecosystems, and the global environment will thank you!

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    About the Author

    Cameron

    Melissa is a writer in Colorado, where native-grass landscaping trends and increasing concerns about water conservation sparked her interest in grass-lawn alternatives including astroturf, clover, and native grasses. Melissa focuses especially on trends in landscaping, the aesthetics of a wild lawn, the benefits of native plants for at-risk pollinators, and anti-grass legislation, advocating to leave grass-free lawns behind.

    RELATED READING

    SPECIES SPOTLIGHT

    NATIVE PLANT OF THE MONTH

    LEAFY LETTERS

    Join our Newsletter

    Become an integral part of our community of fellow plant lovers, where every edition is a botanical adventure waiting to unfold. Discover exclusive gardening tips, stay updated on the latest plant trends and answering readers questions on Ask Seeds!

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