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Our Obsession with Grass Lawns is Killing Native Ecosystems and Guzzling Resources

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

Humans have a tendency to live in natural paradises. Before New York and San Francisco were cities, they were thriving ecosystems that supported numerous plants, animals, and other living things. Now they are mostly concrete and asphalt. No species in the history of our planet has put more pressure on other life forms than humans. We just don’t leave much space for other organisms to exist. Our expansive nature seems never-ending as suburbs continue to sprawl out from city centers. Next time you are in a plane look down. The human footprint is unmistakable and seemingly everywhere.

Most of us are familiar with and very sad about the destruction of the earth’s rainforests. Not generally sad enough to take action. But usually sad and often angry at those cutting down pristine forests for lumbar and to make way for food crops like palm oil and development. At the time of this writing > 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed. This destruction continues at an accelerating rate. But what about the destruction taking place in our own back yard?

Every American dreams of having a big house. To fill this demand, we have built millions of homes. Each home has a footprint that was formerly occupied by plants and was available for use by other living species. In 2012 the United States Geological Society estimated that > 50% of earths land surface had been modified by humans. A number that perpetually grows.

Surrounding every home is a beautiful green lawn and behind every green lawn is human that slaves over it. In fact, the amount of time and resources we spend on our lawns is mind boggling. At baseline the lawn must be mowed every week. But on top of this it has to be aerated, seeded, and most of us utilize chemicals to keep other types of plants out. We work hard to have only grass in our yards. Not to mention how thirsty grass is. From an ecological perspective, grass is a resource hog and the amount of water a perfect lawn requires can drain rivers on a civilization scale. Aside from beauty, what benefits does grass bring? More importantly, what benefits are lost when utilizing grass in landscaping?

Sure, grass makes a great athletic field and is fun to play and sit on. Many animals even eat it. But most of us are not feeding our lawns to livestock and the vast majority of yards are not needed for play. We know humans like grass, but what are its effects on the rest of the environment?

I must admit, I have a home surrounded by grass (among other trees and plants). In fact, I worked hard to get my grass to look as good as it does now. But after talking with my friend, Danny, Boise, Idaho Park’s sustainability coordinator, I realized that maybe grass is just as harmful to the native ecosystems as the houses themselves. This made me question the billion-dollar industry built around the perfect green lawn. It has also driven me utilize plants native to Boise, Idaho, and omit grass from a 1.4-acre recreational development I am working on.

Remember that our houses and yards use to be an ecosystem that contained various native plants, fungi, insects, birds, mammals, and other life forms. These life forms have evolved over thousands of years to cohabitate with one another, and like most all terrestrial ecosystems, plants are the foundation. Many of these plants and creatures are still around. But they have very little space because they have been replaced by grass, houses, roads, and sidewalks. By removing some of the grass in our lawns and planting native plants, we can provide the foundations for a native ecosystem. This will then support pollinator insects, to which we owe a tremendous debt for pollinating our food crops. This will bring back native birds, mammals, and reptiles that feed on the insects the plants support as well as the plants themselves. This will even bring back a whole host of fungi and other forgotten underground lifeforms. By removing grass and planting native plants we can bring back diversity of life. We can support the very ecosystems which we are directly responsible for destroying. Best of all, native plants are beautiful and will add great value to the aesthetics of any home!

So maybe instead of having grass everywhere, we should think about adding some native plants. Maybe instead of fixating on the destruction happening thousands of miles away in the amazon, we should take action against the destruction that we have created in our own backyard. Maybe instead of all doing the same exact thing (striving for a perfect grass lawn), we should try a little creativity and get our garden game on. The native plants and the natural creatures they support will thank you! Moreover, native plants will likely require much less water, life’s universal ingredient! This will further benefit the natural world as we stop draining rivers to feed our grass lawn obsession.

People should always remember that the ecological crisis occurring on our planet is not a faraway problem. It is occurring all around us. What we do and how we do it matters. Changing small behaviors on a population scale can make a world of difference. Doing what is right is contagious and makes a big difference!

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