RIP: Lawn Manicures

Editors’ Note: While a bit offbeat from our usual offerings, this “lifestyle” piece might be a refuge of sorts from our daily national concerns. Let us know if you enjoy it. Partially sourced from CNN, March 30, 2020.

By Matthew Ponsford

Kronish House 10Lawns are an American obsession. Since the mass proliferation of suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, these pristine carpets of green turf have been meticulously maintained by suburbanites, with grass length and other aesthetic considerations enforced with bylaws and by homeowner associations.
But for nature, lawns offer little. Their maintenance produces more greenhouse gases than they absorb, and they are biodiversity deserts that have contributed to vanishing insect populations. Residential lawns cover 2% of US land and require more irrigation than any agricultural crop grown in the country. Across California, more than half of household water is used outside of the house.
If attitudes toward lawn care are shifted, however, these grassy green patches represent a gigantic opportunity. In 2005, a NASA satellite study found that American residential lawns take up 49,000 square miles (128,000 square km) — nearly equal in size to the entire country of Greece.
According to environmental scientists, transforming lawns into miniature modular bio-reserves could not only boost biodiversity, but could cut water and petrol consumption and reduce the use of dangerous lawn chemicals. 
Yet the question for many homeowners remains: how?
According to environmental scientists, transforming lawns into miniature modular bio-reserves could not only boost biodiversity, but could cut water and petrol consumption and reduce the use of dangerous lawn chemicals.
Yet the question for many homeowners remains: how?
In Western states such as California, Colorado and Arizona, droughts have led to restrictions on water usage, forcing many to reconsider their thirsty lawns. Some inventive families and landscape architects have transformed yards, producing oases of life for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies, by employing scientific insight, design and imagination.
While many residents across the US may want a traditional patch of green carpet, Jodie Cook, a landscape designer from San Clemente, California, explained over email that West Coast homeowners are growing increasingly aware of how innovative models for lawns can benefit natural ecosystems, while providing a new dimension to the family home.
“This new garden model is giving people permission to play,” said Cook, who has redesigned home lawns across Orange County, with an emphasis on “ecosystem-centric” design. Ripping up a generic lawn can reveal a canvas for personal creativity — to plant with food, flowering plants and herbs, or to shape into wildlife habitats that invite in local fauna.
What Cook sees in California reflects an emerging trend across the country. In Minnesota, homeowners have been offered rebates to replace lawns with flowering plants beloved by bees. Cities and municipalities, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, have also offered to pay families and homeowner associations to design gardens that collect storm water in water features and underground rain barrels.

Nationwide trend. The experience in California reflects an emerging trend across the country. In Minnesota, homeowners have been offered rebates to replace lawns with flowering plants beloved by bees. Cities and municipalities, such as Montgomery County in Maryland, have also offered to pay families and homeowner associations to design gardens that collect storm water in water features and underground rain barrels.

Such policies can lead to big changes. Images of intensely irrigated lawns in Phoenix, ringed by the red sand of the Arizona Desert, were once a disturbing case study of America’s lawn addiction. But in recent decades, the state has taken action, charging more for water in the summer and banning lawns on new developments. At the turn of the millennium, 80% of Phoenix had green lawns, now only 14% does.
In a 2018 poll by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), 83% of landscape architects said they were increasingly being asked about native plants, which provide better support for local ecosystems and are more drought-resistant. Last year, NWF surpassed its goal to register a million gardens nationwide to support pollinators.
Changing tastes. Similarly, the nonprofit Green America has launched the Climate Victory Gardens initiative, which encourages people to plant “regenerative” food gardens. Inspired by the Home Victory Gardens that grew millions of tons of fresh fruits and vegetables during World War I and II. More than 2,300 families have started farming patches of garden to sequester carbon and increase soil fertility.
Faced with the choice between a wildlife garden or astroturf — the latter has also become increasingly popular in drought-hit areas — Phillips urges people to consider nature. She refers to recent research that shows wildlife gardens can support bee biodiversity comparable to natural parklands and, as a result, a greater number and diversity of birds, especially songbirds.
Faced with the choice between a wildlife garden or astroturf — the latter has also become increasingly popular in drought-hit areas — Mary Phillips, senior director of NWW, urges people to consider nature. She refers to recent research that shows wildlife gardens can support bee biodiversity comparable to natural parklands and, as a result, a greater number and diversity of birds, especially songbirds.
A few simple rules. Even small changes can make a difference to the environmental impact of lawns. The “entry-level option,” according to Philips, for families that still want room for their kids to play, is to inject more wildflowers into the turf. That includes plants that are typically viewed as nuisances.
“The stuff that people are usually trying to get out of their lawn, we’re saying ‘No, that’s good to have in your lawn!'” said Philips. “So reintroduce native violets — and even dandelions — certain clovers, low-growing thyme and things that flower, which provide pollinator benefits and are better for the soil.”
When one home commits to a wildlife-friendly lawn, others often follow. “(It’s) an unspoken message to their neighbors, it is evidence that they care about the environment,” Cook said. “In many areas, the first house on the block has set off a domino effect, as others take permission to experiment.”
There are lessons to be learned from landscaping projects both grand and small. “There are no rules for what a garden should be,” said LA landscape designer Naomi Sanders. In addition to being a beautiful space, gardens and lawns present opportunities for peaceful refuge, hosting and observing wildlife, learning and exploring, and connecting with neighbors and one’s self. “Perhaps more now than ever, most of us understand the importance of plants and nature and that we function within a larger natural environment.”


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