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Turf Grass Madness: Reasons to Reduce the Lawn in Your Landscape

Revision Date: 10 March 2010
Rebecca Pineo, Botanic Gardens Intern
Susan Barton, Extension Specialist
University of Delaware
Bulletin #130

Across the United States, it is estimated that turf grass lawns cover 62,500 square miles of ground—more than 31 times the size of Delaware! Most lawns are simply too big to be useful, with high maintenance costs, minimal wildlife value, low aesthetic interest, and negative environmental impact. Though our obsession with immaculate expanses of grass has been long in the making, it is not too late to change.

Why are there so many turf grass lawns?

Some people speculate that the American infatuation with mowed lawns stems back to our ancestral beginnings in the savannahs of Africa, where lower grass provided open sight lines to lurking predators. More recently, in the eighteenth century, close-cut lawns became a symbol of wealth in Europe, a practice that made its way across the Atlantic by the 1800s. Not only did rich landowners have the hired help required to maintain the lawn before the advent of power
tools, but they had the luxury of dedicating a parcel of their land—often tamed at great expense—to something as frivolous as a non-food crop.

Lawns really became all the rage in the 1950s, when the post-World War II American Dream of a owning a house in the suburbs melded with widespread availability of power mowers, improvements in turf grass varieties, and the advent of effective pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. No longer a status symbol of the rich and famous, front lawns became the measure of a middle-class family’s ability to keep up with the Joneses.

Today, lawns are undeniably the norm, blanketing the vast majority of suburban and rural home landscapes as well as commercial and government properties. Heralded for their ability to take foot traffic, they are fundamental to play areas, sports fields, and golf courses – as well as the lawn care industry, on which Americans spend $30 billion dollars a year. A large, uniform, well-kept lawn has become the mark to which many homeowners aspire, without regard for the economic and environmental implications of maintaining such an extensive exotic monoculture.

So, what is the problem with having so many turf grass lawns?

Okay, I’m convinced I have an unhealthy addiction to my turf grass lawn. How can I change?

Additional Resources

Aerating Your Lawn [1]

American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn by Ted Steinberg (W.W. Norton, 2007)

Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglass W. Tallamy (Timber Press, 2007)

The Landscaping Revolution: Garden with Mother Nature, Not against Her by A and S. Wasowski (Contemporary Books, 2000)

The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession by Virginia Scott Jenkins (Smithsonian, 1994)

Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are by Paul Robbins (Temple University Press, 2007)

Looking for Lawns [2]

Bibliography

Eilperin, Juliet. (2008). Emissions Standards Tightened: EPA Sets New Limits for Lawn Equipment, Boat Motors. The Washington Post. September 5, 2008, pp. A04. Retrieved November 17, 2008 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/04/AR2008090403373.html. [3]

Delaware.gov. (2008) . Delaware Geography. Retrieved December 1, 2008 from http://portal.delaware.gov/delfacts/geo.shtml [4].

Jenkins, V. S. (1994). The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Lindsay, Rebecca. (2005) Feature Article: Looking for Lawns. NASA Earth Observatory. November 8, 2005. Retrieved November 17, 2008 from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/ [2]

Robbins, Paul. (2007). Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Tallamy, Douglas W. (2008) Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Wasowski, A. and S. Wasowski. (2002). The Landscaping Revolution: Garden with Mother Nature, Not against Her. New York: McGraw-Hill/The Contemporary Gardener.