Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mowing Up with the Joneses Part III

My mother-in-law Sharon just sent me a link to this blog last week in the Washington Post arguing that we ditch our lawns. It provides even more interesting information about our obsession with lawns and the various kinds of harm that it does. (Mind-blowing fact: more than 20% of the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts is covered in lawn!) Following up on Parts I and II of this series on my own blog, if our desire for a neat, green lawn is the result of history and culture and chasing after prestige, then can it be changed in favor of something that is more environmentally friendly, less dangerous for humans, and easier to keep by homeowners who are already sufficiently busy and stressed?

There are all kinds of substitutes for a green lawn that are beginning to make headlines today. Some people plant gardens in place of lawns. Some people in rural areas let their lawns revert to what they were intended to be, such as woods or a little piece of wetland. Some people grow grass and wildflowers to attract birds and butterflies and other pollinators. Some people grow food forests. It's particularly exciting when businesses on large plots of mowed lawn make a switch. For example, the Audubon Society local chapter to which I belong is now working with the National Humane Education Society in Charles Town, WV, to convert twelve acres of lawn to wildflowers and native grasses.

Will these efforts continue and expand? I predict that they will because they push our prestige button in much the same way that organic food has done: once it became more widely prestigious to eat organic food and shop at farmers markets, and just a little bit more affordable, the movement took off. Now even Walmart attempts to sell mostly organic produce. Such processes trickle down from the wealthy to the Joneses, and then Americans in general begin to aspire to those markers of status. Today there are people taking workshops on growing monarch way stations or planting native species in their backyard. Sales are increasing on books explaining how to grow enough food for one's entire family on one acre of (previous) lawn. People may not be ready to convert their entire lawn into a micro-farm just yet, but lots of them are putting in greenhouses or small gardens.

There are also government efforts afoot in many places. My above-mentioned mother-in-law lives in Montgomery County, Maryland, and the county government is converting a portion of the lawns of neighborhood residents into rain gardens to help capture rainfall that would otherwise carry more pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Top-down government solutions such as these are controversial and sometimes create other problems, but they are also a sign that local government policies, which have long been pro-lawn, may be changing.

The key to these efforts, in addition to wrapping them in what I would call "attainable prestige", is changing our aesthetic values. We have to make messiness visually pleasing. The eyes that have been trained by culture to appreciate a neat, green lawn will have to be retrained to love the look of bright wildflowers buzzing with bees and butterflies. The rural landowners who mow all their fields to keep them neat will have to learn to feel good about letting a few of them go to grass and milkweed, knowing that there are grasshopper sparrows and meadowlarks and monarch butterflies thriving because of that decision. And we will all have to stop complaining about that neighbor’s messy yard.


  1. Oooh do a more in depth look at food forest, garden type former lawns. Neat stuff!

  2. I love the alternatives that are out there. Thank you for including the links. It is exciting to see businesses make the effort to convert the lawn space... they have more acreage than the average homeowner. Whenever Andy and I buy property my goal will be to have no manicured lawn space whatsoever. The trick is creating that in a way that doesn't add more maintenance than mowing would be.