The Lawn to Die For

Updated on February 17, 2017
M G Del Baglivo profile image

The author holds a degree in Zoology and Physiology from Rutgers University.


My lawn was treated by a commercial company a few days ago and looking at the receipt the guy stuck in my front door, I’m wondering why I need a perfect lawn. The cost is exorbitant and the stuff they use on it is just, well, toxic. The answer is simple – we all want to keep up with the neighbors. We pay to have dangerous chemicals applied to our soil throughout the year. Then we let our children and pets play in carcinogens we would never let them touch in any other circumstance. (Here’s a ball of pesticide for you to play with, Timmy. Sure, Fido, roll on the carpet soaked in herbicide.)

We fertilize the grass and use gasoline and time to mow it because we fertilize it! I just don’t get it. I’m convinced it’s a horticultural arms race. How did this madness begin and where is it leading in a world more and more interested in green practices and sustainability?

The Origin of an Environmental Nightmare

The Middle English word “laune” described a glade or opening in woodland. Eventually it came to mean a place artificially designed to be free of trees and planted with ground cover. These “launes” served to protect the castle by allowing tower watchman to see oncoming danger before it reached the walls of the fortress. Later medieval towns had treeless commons where animals grazed.

During the Renaissance, 16th century wealthy French and English landowners purposely cultivated sections of their estates with ground covers like clover. These were planned portions of their estates used to highlight the beauty and expanse of their properties. They wanted everyone to know they were not serfs.

In the 17th century grasses replaced the herbs and the lawns required height control, usually accomplished with grazing farm animals. The fertilizer was free. The wealthy could hire men with scythes to keep the lawn closely mowed and this too was taken as a sign of their pecuniary success. Another theory is that the first manicured lawns were found at medieval monasteries where they aided contemplation. How nice for them. The monks obviously had a lot of time on their hands to graze animals and use scythes.

The desire to copy these estates is the fault of American visitors to Europe who admired the expansive lawns and brought the bad idea back with them. They used open areas surrounding their manors to keep low-mowed grass in what were then rural areas of the country. The temperate climate of the eastern states offered perfect conditions for growing grasses. Of course, the open acreage was usually created by cutting down trees.


Everyone Can Mow More Lawn. Wonderful.

The Industrial Revolution made grass mowing by mechanical means possible. An Englishman (of course), Edwin Budding, invented the rotary mower in 1830. It had multiple blades that could be adjusted for height. First animals and subsequently steam supplied the power to move both the mower and its blades. A gasoline engine was added to the rotary mower in 1914 by the Ideal Power Mowing Company of Lansing, Michigan. The age of the modern “laune” had arrived; future suburbs were doomed.


A Great Way to Waste Hydrocarbons, Clean Air and Water

Do you want to hear some depressing statistics? According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, measured from the International Space Station, 49,000 square miles of the US is lawn. Each year Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline to mow their yards. Over 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled annually refueling lawn mowers and other garden machines (I’m not sure how one would calculate that statistic.) This gas evaporates into the air creating ozone. It’s also washed down sewer drains or soaks into the ground.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), grass mowers contribute 5% of air pollution. They emit carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and nitrous oxides that add to the ozone load of the planet. In an hour, a 3.5 horsepower mower releases as much of these pollutants as 40 new cars.

Seven billion gallons of water are used to irrigate residential lawns each year. The United States Department of Agriculture asserts that lawns are the fifth largest irrigated crop in the country after corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay.

Surprise! Lawn Pesticides and Herbicides Are Poisonous

[Statistics on these two toxic agents lump herbicides in with pesticides.]

The EPA estimates that nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides are applied to urban lawns each year. The agency also reports that homeowners annually apply an average of 5 to 7 pounds of pesticides, the largest source of toxins contaminating urban streams.

A study reported in 2013 in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found growing evidence of the relationship between exposure to pesticides and diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and the neurodegenerative disorders Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).The same study implicates pesticide use in causing birth defects, reproductive disorders, asthma and emphysema. These chemicals often contain more than one ingredient and each one may have a different toxicity.

According to the EPA, because children are still developing, their immune systems are less able to protect them from damaging pesticides. Kids are also more likely to play in areas that expose them to chemicals, such as rolling on the lawn.

Additionally, pets and wildlife are poisoned by pesticides. They walk through treated areas absorbing the toxins through their mouth, nose, eyes and skin. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, dogs exposed to pesticides are four to seven times more likely to develop bladder cancer. Cats absorb more chemicals than dogs due to their grooming habits. They’re especially sensitive to organophosphates and permethrin both of which are used in lawn and garden products.

I think you'll find the video included below interesting.

Fertilizers Also Grow Problems

According to the EPA, due to overuse, 40 to 60 percent of the fertilizer homeowners apply to their lawns contaminate surface and groundwater. Phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from lawns cause algal bloom eutrophication of water bodies. This algae blocks sunlight to plants below the surface and uses oxygen, both necessary for aquatic life, and fosters the growth of harmful cyanobacteria. Nitrates are highly soluble and readily leach into groundwater. Water with over 10 parts per million of nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia, an inability to use oxygen in infants.

Death to the Tyrant Lawn!

So, what do we do about the environmental problems manicured lawns pose? Simply get rid of as much of the stuff as possible! I don’t want to be a farmer of this ecological disaster any longer. The lower forty can be put to a much safer and sustainable use.

Where possible the grass should grow into a beautiful meadow. If that’s not workable let’s install native perennial plants, trees, ground covers, wild flowers, organic vegetable patches and rock gardens or xeriscape. Get an electric mower. If your property is too large for one you should definitely be using several of these alternatives.

For example, when I moved to my home twenty years ago, I thought my neighbor was crazy to have planted most of the back of his property in white pine trees. He had to mow around them for several years, but he now has a beautiful woodlot that requires no upkeep (trees with falling needles acidify the soil beneath them choking out weeds) and provides privacy and a great place for wildlife.

If your community organization requires part of your property be kept as lawn, ask why and show them this article or other anti-grass information on the Web. Have builders of new homes maintain as many existing trees as possible. They cool the air, add oxygen to the atmosphere, remove carbon dioxide and their shade stops or slows the growth of grass and weeds surrounding them. If you absolutely must have some grass, use organic pesticides and fertilizers.

Remember that none of us needs the largest and best lawn in the neighborhood. There are no more fortresses to defend.



Beyond Pesticides, Pesticides and You. “Pesticides and Pets.” Accessed October 21, 2015.

EPA. “Pest Control.” Accessed October 20, 2015. “Pesticides and human chronic diseases: evidences, mechanisms, and perspectives.” Accessed October 20, 2015.

Wikipedia. “Lawn.” Accessed Oct 20, 2015.

Wikipedia. “Lawn mower.” Accessed October 20, 2015.

Courtesy of the Watershed Institute

© 2015 M G Del Baglivo


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