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The arguments for swapping lawns for more natural landscaping


For many homeowners and businesses, it is that time of year to roll out the lawnmower and trim the yard. Those neat plots of green are part of an ongoing debate over traditional grass yards, more natural landscaping and the impact on the environment. Harvest Public Media contributor Teresa Homsi reports.


TERESA HOMSI, BYLINE: In the summer, Denise Whitebread Fanning's yard is filled with flowers like zinnias, black-eyed Susans and milkweed. Her overgrown garden sticks out among the rows of tidy lawns here in Mount Pleasant, Mich. But she says she's never understood the desire for manicured green grass.

DENISE WHITEBREAD FANNING: It's so beautiful to come out here and witness this, like, evolving ecosystem and to see all of the new life that is finding home here that didn't exist on this land two years ago.

HOMSI: Fanning is among a growing group that's reimagining lawns. Dozens of municipalities across the country, including Mount Pleasant, are considering loosening restrictions on the height of grass or even what can be grown. There are strong feelings about what lawns should look like.

MICHAEL BARNES: A lot of people really view their yard as, like, an extension of themselves.

HOMSI: Michael Barnes is a horticulture social scientist at the University of Minnesota. He says lawns are often synonymous with the American dream and homeownership. They're welcoming spaces to gather and play.

BARNES: Having a nicely maintained yard is, like, part of feeling good about not only your contribution to the neighborhood but also, like, fitting in with the rest of the community.

HOMSI: He says lawns have been around for centuries. As early as the 1200s, people were already making guidelines on how to cultivate a grassy space. They later became popular with European elites around their intricate gardens. But the modern American lawns we know are a more recent invention.

BARNES: It's really that postwar suburbanization that drew lawns into the de facto form of vegetation in urban areas.

HOMSI: Lawns are also now highly industrialized. The landscaping service industry in the U.S. has a market value of around $150 billion. Think fuel for mowers, fertilizers and more.

ZACH SCHUMM: There's nothing that is natural about a lawn or a landscape that is completely turfgrass.

HOMSI: Zach Schumm, an entomologist at Iowa State University, says monoculture lawns are essentially ecological dead zones.

SCHUMM = ENTOMOLOGIST, IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY: Not many insects are utilizing turfgrass spaces for food, water and shelter. A lot of them tend to be pests. All of the pollinators we think of, a lot of the beneficial insects, utilize flowering plants, larger trees, shrubs, things like that.

HOMSI: And it takes tons of water to keep lawns green. According to an EPA estimate, landscape irrigation accounts for nearly a third of all residential water use, about 9 billion gallons a day. Water usage is what caught geographer Cristina Milesi's attention when she moved to Montana from Italy and noticed how her new neighbors watered their lawns.

CRISTINA MILESI: At times, they would just keep watering, even maybe when there is thunderstorm. And so I said, oh, interesting.

HOMSI: Her 2005 study for NASA estimated lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the U.S., three times that of corn.

MILESI: That captures where generally most of us live in cities, and that's where we can maybe have an impact on changing our behaviors.

HOMSI: By using less water or having smaller lawns - Milesi says she doesn't know, nearly 20 years later, whether lawns take up more or less space. Urban sprawl has increased, but yard grass is also becoming impractical in places prone to drought, like California, where she currently lives. So in some places, there's been a shift to more resilient landscapes, and in others, a transition from grass to plants, like in Denise Fanning's yard, which she calls a pollinator haven.

FANNING: Even the smallest thing, like planting one beneficial pollinator plant right in your yard that wasn't there last year, is going to feed more pollinators this year than before. If - making a choice to not put pesticides on your lawn anymore - small, little things matter.


HOMSI: Fanning understands that her busy, colorful lawn is an acquired taste and a taste that seems to be growing as more people take into account the impact a manicured lawn can have on the environment. For NPR News, I'm Teresa Homsi in Mount Pleasant, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Teresa Homsi
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