Michael Pollan is known for writing about food, but his first book still stands as a classic gardening autobiography. One of the enduring premises of Second Nature (and an earlier NYT feature) is his eloquent description of the strangeness and pervasiveness of American lawn culture: those sheer-cut acres of the same Kentucky Bluegrass layering the ground from coast to coast. Today, there are burgeoning lawn reform movements among gardeners to question the convention.
Research has measured the total acreage of lawns in the U.S to be about 40 million (and growing), making turf grass the number one irrigated crop in the country. Although yards may literally be green, there is very little environmental benefit to them. The compacted soil functions as an impervious surface for stormwater run-off, and grass under six inches does little good for erosion control. The species monoculture of most lawns creates habitat dead space. A large chunk of household water use goes to lawn upkeep. Although they may sequester some carbon, the methane released by trashed grass clippings cancels a lot of this out. And the big one is the pesticides and fertilizers applied and washed into surrounding waterways.
Pollan asks: Why do we still do this?
The easy answer is because we have to. Many HOA covenants and zoning laws prescribe specific requirements for mowing and upkeep. If this doesn't do it, the often intense social pressure to mow will get the message across. But, sure, how did that regime come into existence? According to Pollan, the lawn conveys a number of important social messages:
"The American lawn is an egalitarian conceit, implying that there is no reason to hide behind hedge or fence since we all occupy the same middle class."And
"We are all property owners here, the lawn announces, and that suggests its other purpose: to supply a suitably grand stage for the proud display of one's own house."The lawn also represents, and dramatizes on a weekly basis, our dominance over nature:
"For however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one's neighbors, with respect to nature it is authoritarian. Under the Toro's brutal indiscriminate rotor, the landscape is subdued, homogenized, dominated utterly."His recommendation is to convert the lawn into a garden, that is, to subdue our patch of nature artfully, working with the rhythms of time and particularities of place. Sounds good, but this is where a sense of urban scale may help this transition along. It's hard for me to imagine the average large-lot suburban homeowner finding the time to creatively arrange a significant portion of his plot. Short of a sizable landscaping budget or loads of free time, most people will opt to simply fire up the riding lawnmower. You can even set your beer in the cup holder.
Small-lot homes on well-appointed streets are a much more manageable scale for most people. And there will be plenty of passers-by stopping on the sidewalk to admire the handiwork. A move toward more thoughtful and ecologically beneficial lawns is unlikely to be successful without a concurrent reform in overall land use patterns in America.
The accompanying pictures are of front yards that I found attractive on a quick ride around Charlottesville yesterday. Some are from more affluent neighborhoods and some less so, but they are all fronting a good street.