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What does the American dream look like? Close your eyes and picture it for a moment. What do you see?
The typical vision: a couple smiling in the sunshine, standing proud in front of the house they own. A dog frolicking in the background with their 2.5 kids. And soft, lush, green grass under their feet. But there is a dark side to this perfect “green” image. This post explores our American obsession with lawns and their economic and environmental impact.
Pop Quiz: how much total land area in the United States do lawns cover? Keep reading to find out!
Our Perfect Yard
Growing up in the suburbs, I remember my dad’s obsession with having a perfect yard. Our grass was weed-free, spot-free, and cut to the proper length. We displayed beautiful flowers throughout the summer. Our trees were always well pruned – not a dying branch in sight. And come fall, we raked almost every day to keep those pesky leaves at bay.
It took a lot of expense and effort to maintain this state of perfection, especially when it came to the lawn. We had an automatic underground sprinkler system installed, so we wouldn’t accidentally under-water. Every few weeks, a company called “ChemLawn” applied a cocktail of fertilizers and herbicides. After each visit, they’d post a little sign warning us to keep children and pets off the grass for a couple of days.
And of course, there was the mowing. Every week, my dad would toil for a couple of hours behind our loud, stinky lawn mower. The timing had to be just right. Too early on a Saturday and we’d risk waking neighbors who hoped to catch a few extra weekend zzz’s. It couldn’t happen during or after a rainstorm. And as a busy family, we had a lot of other commitments to work around. All these constraints meant that some weeks, Dad would have to mow on a weeknight after a long day of work. Regardless, I remember never wanting to hug him when he came back in because he stank of the exhaust.
Dad never seemed to mind this chore. It was part of being a responsible homeowner, and he took pride in the result. My siblings and I begrudgingly took over the lawn care duties as we got older. The extra $20 in our pockets helped.
The Wrong Side of the Tracks
Across the street, our neighbor’s yard stood in stark contrast. My parents would wrinkle their noses at the sorry state of that lawn. There were brown spots from the dog and from under-watering. The edges weren’t neatly trimmed. There was (gasp!) visible crabgrass. And the most unwelcome guest? Dandelions. This made it harder for us to keep our own lawn weed-free, as those pesky seeds could drift over to our yard. The nerve of them!
But the worst part, in my parents’ view? This neighbor was single-handedly bringing down property values for the entire neighborhood.
Occasionally we had to drive through rougher neighborhoods in our city. My mom would point out the peeling paint, the unkempt or nonexistent flowers, and the visible weeds. This is a really bad area, she would say. Quick! Lock the car doors and avoid eye contact.
An American Obsession
My mom and dad were far from alone in “needing” to maintain a picture-perfect lawn. Somewhere along the line, lawns became a requisite part of the American dream. You know you’ve made it when you own your own home surrounded by lush, green grass.
This wasn’t always the case. For anyone but the ultra-rich, lawns weren’t even possible until the 1900s. That’s when gas-powered mowers started being marketed to individual homeowners. By the mid-20th century, subdivisions had risen up with by-laws that mandated well-maintained lawns. Before long, the health of one’s lawn was seen as a reflection of one’s character.
If you enjoyed that brief history lesson and want to learn more check out:
- Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are
- The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession
- American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn
You may be thinking: what’s so bad about lawns, anyway? Especially coming from the blog SuperGREENER? Aren’t all plants good for the environment? Don’t you love feeling soft grass under your toes? And what are you going to scoff at next: apple pie?
Despite its green appearance, a lawn’s environmental footprints are bigger than they appear.
Land Footprint. Lawn grass makes up the single largest irrigated crop in the United States, and it’s not even edible! This brings us to the answer to our Pop Quiz: lawns cover over 63,000 square miles in the continental US. That’s three times the area devoted to growing corn, our largest food crop. While the average lawn size is only one-fourth of an acre, all those patches add up to an enormous land footprint.
Water Footprint. It’s no secret that lawns need a lot of water. Watering an average-size lawn every day for 7 days is like taking more than 800 showers. That’s an entire year’s worth of showers for an average family. In arid regions in the summer, turf irrigation can make up 75% of household water consumption!
Carbon Footprint. Because they’re made of plants, lawns are a net carbon sink. That means they remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce. Makes sense! So what’s the problem? The equipment needed to mow and trim them. It may seem like mowers and trimmers only use a little bit of gas. But added up, lawn care equipment in America uses 800 MILLION gallons each year. Worse yet, each year we spill 17 million gallons just filling the tanks. That’s more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez!
Lawn Care Costs
Lawn care costs vary wildly based on a variety of factors. How much maintenance are you able and willing to do yourself? How particular are you about your lawn’s appearance? What area of the country do you live in?
Your answer to the first question has the biggest impact on your costs. Paying for labor will more than double your lawn maintenance costs. You might justify this expense if you despise mowing and trimming. Or you may be physically unable to mow. In either case, average mowing prices range from $30 to $80 per visit. Trimming and leaf cleanup usually cost extra. Assuming a once per week service for four months, your total cost for mowing alone could range from $480 to $1,280.
Mowing the lawn yourself will save you money, but it’s far from free. You’ll need to invest in a mower, a weed-whacker, and fuel for both. Then there’s the intangible cost to your time.
Time is arguably your most limited resource – you can never make more of it. Some people actually enjoy mowing. For others, it’s a drudgery. In fact, it’s the least-liked chore for 1 in 5 Americans. The average American spends over 65 hours per year on “lawn and garden care”. There’s no way to know how many of those hours were spent on mowing. There’s also no way to know how many of those hours were enjoyed or despised.
No matter how you cut it, lawns are expensive to maintain. Especially if you don’t like doing it.
So What’s Next?
If I’ve done my job right, by now you’re convinced that your beautiful lawn impacts our planet more than you realized. You’re also wondering, what’s the alternative? Stop maintaining it, let the weeds take over, and face the wrath of neighbors? Tear it all up and let the kids play in big piles of dirt?
The good news: there are quite a few options for having a beautiful yard that’s also lower stress, with a lower impact on the environment and your budget. Continue on to our Lawn Alternatives post to learn more!
Thanks for reading, and for taking the next step to becoming SuperGreener!
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