It is unclear exactly when the initial concept of lawn came about. Whether it was back in Mesopotamia with the onset of animal husbandry or hunters in the African Savannah having better oversight over the shorter grasslands, we aren’t totally sure. We do know that the first time the idea of ‘Sodding’ (covering with grass) was recorded was in early Japanese writings ‘Sakuteiki’ (or ‘Records of Garden Making'), which was written around 1159.
Then, around the 12th Century, a more true form of the manicured Lawn became known, maintained by grazing livestock and scythes, but still somewhat functional rather than purely aesthetic into medieval times. This eventually evolved into the status symbol we still know today. What started in France and England during the 16th century Renaissance as a symbol of wealth continued on through the 17th and 18th centuries.
Fast forward to North American colonization, where this idea was brought overseas in the form of seeds. It actually wasn't until the 20th century that the rich deep green lawn you’re picturing became the status quo. In fact, in the context of American history, that lawn is a relatively new idea. After World War 2, soldiers returning from Europe recreated the idea at scale in the US, especially as urban sprawl began to take hold, technology boomed, and parks were developed. Every family longed for their own property, and of course, that included the perfect patch of green grass. This, along with a few other factors, boomed into the massive lawn adoption that still persists today, taking up 2% of US land, which is equivalent to about 40 million acres!
The lawn as we know it today is extremely problematic, especially when viewed at a macro scale. It’s a threefold issue: water use, toxic footprint, and carbon footprint.
Primarily, in the SouthWest and Western United States, we may already know the immense amounts of water required to keep this unnatural phenomenon alive, especially true in drier climates where these grasses do not thrive or occur naturally.
What may be less common knowledge is the toxic footprint that is created by both the production and usage of the large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides. These are required to keep the human-dependant lawn looking as healthy as it does naturally in say, England or Scotland. This makes them quite a dangerous concept for human and environmental health, especially when multiplied by the amount of lawns on your street, neighborhood, town, city, state…you get the point. The downstream consequences of these chemicals that often end up in the environment (through runoff or even groundwater movement) can have detrimental effects on the natural ecosystem, from toxic algae blooms to killing the native pollinators, fish, and birds we depend on.
Finally, the carbon footprint associated with the physical upkeep and maintenance of lawns is often overlooked as well. Exhaust fumes from a variety of mowing techniques, to gas-powered weed whackers to get those edges looking crisp, and using a gas leaf blower to keep the fallen leaves off that emerald carpet all contribute many harmful emissions that actually exceed that of cars per capita. Not only are these emissions speeding up climate change, but they are terrible for your personal health, too, since most yard maintenance equipment has different (and less stringent) emission standards than vehicles. Yet homeowners spend large amounts of money, time, and effort to keep up with the Joneses, potentially not even knowing the detrimental drawbacks of this green monster surrounding their house.
On the other hand, beyond the historical status symbol, we also know lawns can be very functional from a recreation point of view. We understand some of the primary functions of lawn are for playing with friends and family, sports, hanging out, or perhaps just to picnic. Rather than just removing all lawn entirely, you may opt to shrink the surface area of the space instead and use different ground covers. Some options I recommend are No-mow meadow lawn that require less maintenance, chemicals, and water, walkable groundcovers like Creeping Thyme, Kurapia, moss, or clover (depending on where you live), or even non-vegetative surfaces like Decomposed granite or gravel.
What we are suggesting is that there is more than one option in terms of removing lawns; it doesn't all have to transform into garden space alone. In fact, the best gardens have a variety of spaces and functions. Lastly, there are alternative ways of caring for your lawn in organic, pesticide-free ways.
We think the list of reasons not to have or keep that lawn is already quite convincing. However, the list of positives in the alternatives is even more exciting! From water conservation to reducing your energy bill to increasing biodiversity and improving the planet's health, there are so many upsides to removing or reducing the lawn from your home landscape. Who knows, it may even convince your neighbor to do the same. Below are a few of the categories that we love the most:
By substituting your lawn with a climate-resilient garden, not only are you reducing your water consumption, but you are giving back to the land in so many other ways, too. You will be building healthier soil, creating more biodiversity through growing a variety of plants, which in turn also creates habitat for local critters and pollinators. Furthermore, you will be reducing your carbon footprint due to the fact you won't be using gas-powered machines for mowing and other maintenance (we recommend electric equipment or human-powered tools where possible), you will be able to stop using toxic chemicals (assuming you use organic compounds and compost instead). Lastly, although grass is considered to be somewhat of a carbon-sink, it is largely offset by the negative aspects of owning a lawn. In contrast, gardens or lawn-alternative and garden combinations, can still have the same carbon sequestering function, without the downsides.
Here’s the big kicker: Americans collectively currently spend a whopping $30 billion annually for lawn care! Removing or reducing the green monster from your home will save you cash on general upkeep costs by requiring fewer tools, less gas, chemicals, and water, and over the long term, time. You will need to invest in the removal and re-installation of the new garden upfront, but this can be done in a variety of ways to fit your budget, schedule, and personal goals.
Additionally, you should know that a well-designed landscape also increases your property value and curb appeal, so although the upfront cost for overhaul might require some money, it is a worthwhile investment when you go to sell or move. Some states even offer incentives (like this program in Utah and this one in California) for removing that thirsty lawn.
If you are in a warm or dry climate, the cost savings of water reduction alone is one of the biggest chunks of cash you’ll save. Additionally, removing lawns will make room for you to design a well-thought-out garden. This, in turn, will then allow for the possibility of some additional shade trees, which can help lower your heating and cooling costs in different seasons.
Removing all damaging toxic garden chemicals from your lawn-dominated yard will have huge health benefit implications for your family and pets, too. Curbing the emissions from the maintenance regimen will also improve your health as you won't be exposing yourself and/or others to those harmful exhaust gases anymore. Removing the lawn may even give you the option to grow your own healthy food in addition to the garden-hey veggie/herb garden planters! Lastly, spending more time outside and in the garden has been proven to increase mental and physical health for a variety of reasons.
We may be biased, but we think a well-thought-out garden looks exponentially better than the outdated lawn of the past. Whether you opt for a drought-tolerant landscape, a native plant garden, or have an epic pollinator meadow in mind, they all will add aesthetic value to your yard. A new garden will not only visually bring the space to life, enhance the architecture, and improve the overall curb appeal but also make you feel great, knowing that the environmental implications are not only less than a lawn but actually reversed. Beyond the visual benefits of the lawn, and depending on your new hardscape and planting choices, you may even notice improvements in the smell and sounds. Your new garden will be more resilient in the face of a changing climate, demand less from you, and provide many benefits to its contextual surroundings.
In closing, we do want to add that we understand and are aware that certain HOA and other jurisdictions may still require some amount of lawn by their laws (so it's always good to check before ripping out that grass out of pure excitement!) Local and state governing bodies are slowly but surely coming to terms with the idea that the traditional lawn needs to go away, so we are hopeful that things will change over time. Additionally, talking to professionals about your options and potentially working with them to discuss flexibility with an HOA is always a good idea.
Lastly, we also want to reiterate that not all grasses/lawns are bad, especially if managed and implemented correctly. There are many ways to mitigate the bad side effects of toxic and thirsty lawns, depending on where you reside. And there are a variety of options in terms of how you want to replace, reduce, or rethink that grass. However, we are excited about a future with fewer traditional lawns and look forward to seeing more gardens and habitat popping up all around us!