Nearly 5,000 square miles of the United States is sheathed in ornamental turf grass. What a tragic waste. To care for it we use billions of tons of natural resources. 10,000 gallons of water are used per summer on the average 1,000 square foot lawn. That comes to 7.9 billion gallons of water used per day on landscapes. 5.2 billion dollars is spent on fossil-fuel derived fertilizers for lawn.
For decades the lawn care industry has marketed the idea that lawns are "good" for the environment. I still hear the argument that vast acres of turf provide carbon sinks and produce oxygen. While this is relatively true, the comparison is apples to oranges. The woodland that once prevailed in that spot--rich in biodiversity, home to countless ecosystems--is profoundly better for the environment than a monoculture of non-native, input intensive lawn.
Americans at the local level appear to making some sane decisions regarding the regulation of phosphorous fertilizer--a known pollutant of surface waters--in home lawns. While this is progress, banning phosphorous in lawn fertilizer should have come decades ago, and does not begin to seriously address the many major ecological problems caused by stripping out forests to put in housing and then surrounding them with sterile lawns.
There are still widely held attitudes that a home with anything less than a water and fertilizer-drenched, weed-free lawn is a sign of irresponsibility. But when a homeowner is not legally permitted to plant a native meadow in his front yard and does not care to spend precious income on mowing, watering and fertilizing, what then? Those who attempt to plant alternatives to ornamental turf grass are regularly fined and punished by misguided ordinances and neighbors who insist that a well-kept lawn is the only correct way to property management.
We need to begin to radically change how we view and define "landscaping." Somehow we've come to equate, without question, environmentally unsound practices as defacto homesteading. Questioning and challenging these unsustainable practices sometimes unleashes suspicion, mockery and even outright hostility toward those who oppose the standard lawn. Therefore, it is our job to lead through education and the re-writing of needlessly restrictive ordinances.
It is also officially time to re-evaluate the fantasy of the lawn, and to begin to see it as an indulgent vanity of past ignorance. In its place we will bring back the native plants that offer real value by contributing to the local food web and do not require fertilizers, pesticides and underground irrigation systems.
Once we see with our own eyes the return of now rare butterflies, moths and once-common songbird that eat them, when algae blooms in ponds and lakes are no longer annual events, we might actually have the opportunity to see our beautiful country the way the pioneers did--with utter awe at the natural beauty that now, 250 years later, is a pale shadow of its glorious past.