The Grass Isn’t Always Greener
By Ellen Rubin
Read on to learn how we’ve been conditioned to think that having a great looking grass lawn is essential to home ownership and why you should abandon this concept.
The iconic image of a well-to-do home has an expansive, beautiful, lush, green lawn, a few shrubs across the house front, the two-car garage, and perhaps some flowers framing the door.
Is this really the best image we should have for the 21st century?
Probably not. That image evolved from 16th and 17th century nobility and started as a defensive concept. The reality is that it’s ecologically and financially wasteful, impractical, and can be psychologically stressful to continually strive for perfection.
Today, we live in a world of increasing water shortages due to drought, rising temperatures caused by climate change, increasing greenhouse gases, and loss of animal and insect habitat. It’s time that we readjust our thinking about what constitutes a good yard and in doing so we’ll save time, money, reduce our and the environment’s exposure to harmful chemicals … and help save the planet.
Once we change our mindset about what’s the “right” look for our homes, we can embrace and enjoy yards filled with lower maintenance, bountiful, and beautiful, native flowers, shrubs and trees that are sustainable alternatives to grass.
Introduction: Why we love our lawns…
I have to admit that I used to feel better about myself when I had a pristine green lawn and embarrassed by raggedy, weed-filled grass — that a great looking lawn was somehow a reflection of my work ethic, responsibility, affluence, and even self-worth.
That’s the type of house I grew up in. Hours were spent every weekend mowing, edging, feeding, watering, and weeding the lawn. There wasn’t a dandelion or patch of crabgrass or clover to be found. It was important to my parents to portray the “perfect” image and have the best lawn on the block. That mindset carried over into adulthood.
Subliminally, we’ve been taught that beauty is a large green lawn; yet ecologically, this is more than unproductive, it can be harmful. How did we get to this place?
Let’s go back and look at the roots of the lawn obsession.
The History of Suburban Grass Lawns
Lawns started out as a practical safety measure. It made sense in the earliest days when an unobstructed view around a European castle meant security — you had a clear view of any incoming enemies and in times of peace the turf served as pasture for livestock. It wasn’t hard to develop or maintain since common grasses used for lawns such as Kentucky Bluegrass and other fescues are native to Europe and Northern Africa and Asia.
The cool and wet-enough climate meant grasses would grow without human intervention and grazing cows and sheep kept the grass short enough.
If human intervention was needed, servants could cut the grass using scythes. In other words, early lawns were self-sufficient and served a security, rather than aesthetic, purpose.
Eventually, when security wasn’t as much of a consideration, status became the impetus behind the lawn. The wealthy were the only ones who could afford to maintain large lawns. It also drew the eye to the statement-making mansion and became a place for leisure activities such as cricket, croquet, lawn bowling, and golf.
Village commons were also planted with grass as a communal area for livestock to graze. This system worked well because the animals kept the area cropped and fertilized it at the same time.
Average homes, however, didn’t have grass lawns. Instead, yards consisted of flowers, herbs, and kitchen gardens. If anything, grass might be found under clothes drying lines.
When Europeans settled in North America, they brought their livestock with them. Needing additional grasses for feed once all the native grasses were consumed, they imported bluegrass seed. Like most invasive new species, it quickly overtook native plants and grasses. The first seed houses were established in Philadelphia in the 18th century for both agricultural grass crops and residential purposes.
The elevation of grass from merely utilitarian animal fodder to aesthetic prominence was helped by George Washington at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Both were admirers of European landscaping and boasted sprawling lawns as a status symbol. Washington hired English landscape designers who installed a bowling green and a deer park. Still, lawns were reserved for the upper classes who could afford the manpower to maintain them.
How Lawns Became Part of the Middle-Class Suburban Lifestyle
Two distinct factors influenced the rise and spread of the lawn: agricultural and technical advancements in the growing and maintenance of grass, and the psychological and societal importance of lawns.
The primary technical innovation that made maintaining lawns more accessible to the average homeowner was the invention of the mechanical lawnmower in the late 1800’s. Replacing many people using hand tools with a single piece of equipment made it possible for anyone to keep their lawn groomed.
Middle classes home owners could now reasonably emulate the upper class. Another important innovation was the water sprinkler, patented in the 1870’s. Given that much of the United States doesn’t get adequate rain to maintain grass lawns, some means of watering was essential.
Socially, the late 1800’s saw the rise of the public park movement. In an increasingly industrialized society, towns and cities sought to beautify their spaces through the inclusion of a public park of landscaped lawns, trees, and shrubs.
This movement was championed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture and designer of Central Park, the Biltmore Estate, and the US Capitol grounds. His philosophies greatly influenced the first “created communities” – suburbs such as Tuxedo Park in New York which featured front lawns and open green spaces.
While front lawns create a connective and communal feel to in neighborhoods, American back yards, like their English counterparts, were still largely fenced and private. Landscape architect Frank J. Scott reflected that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home.” The US Department of Agriculture encouraged the concept of a front communal lawn by offering homeowners advice at the first World’s Fair held in the US, the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia.
The next step towards making a grass front lawn essential was the advent of the car. After all, your front lawn had to be perfect because people would be seeing it as they drove past on newly constructed highways. Lawns became even more firmly intertwined with “image”. They are intertwined with the concept of community, showcasing your good citizenship, pride of ownership, and affluence.
A New York Times article published in 1914 reported that Teddy Roosevelt was taking a break from politics to cut his lawn, reinforcing the concept that yard work is a relaxing pastime, and even the country’s leaders think it’s important to present a perfect lawn.
Then (and now), you see perfect swaths of grass on golf courses and sports fields. The US Department of Agriculture started developing lower maintenance grasses to meet the demands of golf courses in the 1920s.
The importance of the perfect lawn even bled into literature. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby sends his gardeners to Nick Carraway’s home to work on his yard when Daisy is coming to lunch: “We both looked at the grass – there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began.” Once again, a green lawn is tied into wealth and prestige.
While suburbs existed beginning in the late 1800’s, they flourished after World War II and Homeowners Associations (HOAs) evolved.
Levittown, a suburban community in New York, built by Abraham Levitt and his sons, was created in 1947 as an iconic symbol of the American dream. The 17,000 homes were meant to bolster conformity; each house had unobstructed grass with no fences. Built into the covenants that homeowners signed was the obligation to mow their lawns weekly from April to November.
Company literature included statements such as: “A fine lawn makes a frame for a dwelling,” “Lawns are the first thing a visitor sees.
And first impressions are the lasting ones,” “The goal is to attain a patch of green grass of singular type with no weeds that is attached to your home. No more than an inch and half tall, neatly edged….[It] means you must be willing to care for it. Watered, mowed, repaired, and cultivated. Hallmark of home ownership.”
Levittowns were built in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Puerto Rico and the HOA sent out newsletters stressing the importance of neat, weed-free, closely shorn lawns. Neatness and obedience were equated with watching for signs of Communism, as well as crabgrass.
Other technical innovations that fostered the rise of the lawn were the formulation of weed-free grass seed, combination fertilizers and pesticides, and the spreaders needed to distribute them.
The herbicide, 2,4-D was formulated during World War II and became a very popular product because it effectively kills dandelions and clover. A side effect of killing these “weeds” is that you are depriving the soil of nitrogen which they replenish. This means that by having only nitrogen-greedy grass growing, you need to spread more synthetic fertilizer.
Unfortunately, we also now know that 2,4-D is a toxic substance that has been used as a biochemical weapon in Agent Orange.
When you really break it down, today, a pristine front lawn serves little practical purpose. The backyard may be a place for our kids to play or our dogs to take care of business, so having some grassy areas makes sense. However, we’ve been conditioned to think that an open lawn in front enhances the look of our house.
It certainly immediately draws your eye to the house since there really isn’t much else of interest to look at. This is part of the reason why the affluent maintained lawns and others imitated their example. It was to show off their importance.
For hundreds of years, people looked at lush green lawns as personally and culturally important. They represented an organized society, success, and even lawfulness. This is why some jurisdictions, as well as many, many homeowners’ associations have laws and regulations governing your yard. Some areas take this so seriously that a bad lawn can lead to a prison term in Texas and Florida. When you step back, you may realize that a group is forcing you to grow grass in your yard when you may prefer native shrubs, flowers, or trees.
The Realities of Maintaining a Green Grass Lawn
If you decide that you like the look of a grass lawn, or are required to maintain one by your HOA, it’s important that you understand what the realistic cost of it are, both ecologically and financially. You might decide that looking at alternatives, such as native landscaping, is more attractive. This is above and beyond rebelling against society’s antiquated strictures of compliance if the look of a lawn is not one that you value.
I’m not saying that all grass is bad, rather that you may want to examine what you really want once you have educated yourself and looked at all the options.
It’s generally more difficult to grow a non-native plant than one that is genetically disposed to thrive in your environment. This is the reason why weeds thrive and you struggle to sustain, let alone make, some plants flourish.
The only areas in the US where grass would thrive naturally are the Northeast and Great Plains. These areas have the right temperature, moisture quantity, and soil content.
Everywhere else, grass must be coddled with excessive irrigation, soil amendments, and pest and weed control. That doesn’t even include the mowing, thatching, and aerating that needs to be done to create a consistently lush lawn. If you don’t make this continuing investment in grass, you’ll end of with a brown, scrawny, patchy, weed-filled plot of land. That’s your time and money being spent.
So, what is the true cost of having a green lawn vs. relying on native plants?
We’ll break it down in terms of time, money, water usage, and environmental damage caused by this non-edible crop. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for grass: it’s where our dogs are used to doing their business, and it’s perfect for games such as golf, croquet, football, soccer, and baseball. It just doesn’t need to be the primary focus of our front and back yards.
Yes, we’ve been convinced that there is a psychological/emotional benefit to showing off the perfect lawn, but if we change our outlook about what is beautiful, we might find that other types of gardens give us an even greater sense of satisfaction.
First, let’s consider apples to apples and lay out the size of yard we are talking about. Since there is no “one size fits all,” it’s good to have an idea what the average is. While primarily looking at US house and lot sizes, we’ll quickly look at how lot sizes vary by country. The average house size in the US is 1,761 ft2 set in a lot of 12,632 ft2 so there’s 10, 871 ft2 of yard available. This average varies greatly by state. Listed below are the largest and smallest 5 state averages.
States with the largest yard sizes: Yard / house
- Vermont 73,979 / 1,815
- Montana 71,576 / 2,040
- Mississippi 54,749 / 1,879
- New Hampshire 47,019 / 1,768
- Maine 42,768 / 1,663
States with the smallest yard sizes: Yard / house
- Nevada 4,386 / 1,712
- California 5,575 / 1,625
- Arizona 6,514 / 1.763
- Texas 7,552 / 2,031
- Utah 7,714 / 2,031
These figures are slightly different depending on which source you use. If you are curious where your house or state ranks, you can check out these two sites: The United States Ranked by Yard Size – HomeAdvisor or The Average Yard Size by State and City (todayshomeowner.com).
The average Canadian home is about 1,900 ft2 and New Zealand 2,175 ft2. Australia’s average house size is 2,032 ft2, although houses in the East (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) average between 2,600-2,734 ft2 and are larger than those in the West (Adelaide, Perth) which are only 2,368-2,303 ft2.
In England, houses are much smaller, averaging only 818-1,123 ft2. Yard sizes also vary by country. The average English garden is 2,033 ft2, yet in London they are only 1,506 ft2. Yards in Scotland are larger, averaging 2,450 ft2.
While lot and house sizes are trending down because of building costs, loan rates, and even concern for the environment, houses and yards still account for an astronomical amount of land.
Because of this, grass lawns are the single largest irrigated crop in the US at 63,000 square miles (128,000 square kilometers). That’s the size of either Greece or Texas.
According to a 2005 study by NASA, lawns covered 2% of all US land (Lawn Surface Area in the United States (nasa.gov)). There are 3 times more acres devoted to lawns than growing corn in the US.
Given the increasing sprawl of suburbs in the last 20 years, that figure is likely higher. This is land whose only purpose is to look good at the expense of the environment, rather than produce food, or even act as a habitat for pollinators or wildlife.
The average American household spends about 70 hours a year on their lawn and garden care. Grass, as opposed to ornamental trees, shrubs, or flowers, requires the most intensive care: mowing, edging, fertilizing, watering, periodic aerating and dethatching, leaf raking or blowing, and weeding when necessary.
Growing a variety of native plants (and that can include ornamental grasses) eliminates almost all that work. There may be some occasional watering and pruning needed, and perhaps a spring and fall clean-up, but that’s about it. If you want to get picky, the time spent working to earn the money needed pay for the maintenance of your lawn (equipment, water bill, and chemicals) could also be included in the cost.
Personally, I’d rather have the extra time and money for other things.
Overall, people in the US spent $105 billion on lawncare in 2021. $32 billion of that is spent on chemicals: herbicides fertilizers, and pesticides, and $7.1 billion was spent on lawn mower sales.
The lawn mower market is expected to reach $9.7 billion by 2027. For an average sized lawn (12,000 square feet), you can plan on paying $200-500 per year on just fertilizer. These figures are increasing yearly, especially now that inflation has skyrocketed.
Synthetic Maintenance: Pesticides, Herbicides, Fertilizers
Non-native plants need help, especially lawns. Biologically, they are not suited to where we expect them to grow so their needs probably won’t be met naturally. That means we have to add chemical supplements. Unfortunately, anything you add to your lawn will inevitably also run-off into local waterways.
Fertilizers contain up to 30% nitrogen — far more than your grass needs. This is not only a waste of money, but also damages the environment by poisoning fish and other wildlife.
Excess nitrogen causes unrestrained algae growth, affecting water quality. Algae blooms block sunlight from reaching other aquatic organisms, deplete oxygen levels in the water, release harmful gases and even dangerous toxins. This creates dead zones in waterways killing fish by clogging or harming their gills, and raises the cost of treating drinking water.
In people it causes skin, eye, nose, or throat irritation, and even neurological symptoms. For more information on the effects of algal blooms see: Researchers Study the Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms | NOAA Fisheries or Algal Blooms (nih.gov).
The irony is that fertilizing our lawns also harms the grass. It has a hard time accessing and absorbing water when it’s fertilized which just means increasing your watering (and wasting more water). Fertilizing encourages the above-ground blades to grow and become dense while the root systems become more compact, reducing the soil’s ability to hold water.
Additionally, grass, especially in drought areas, dries out the soil through evapotranspiration. This process gets worse as temperatures rise.
If you are going to have grassy areas in your yard, you can minimize environmental damage, and save some money and water, by only fertilizing with time-released water insoluble nitrogen products no more than twice a year using a regular schedule of spring and fall (i.e., April and August).
Once you have a healthy, established lawn, you need less fertilizer to maintain it. This may not be what the fertilizer companies are advertising, but remember, their goal is to sell product — even when it is more than you need.
If you choose to use a “weed and feed” fertilizer, you are adding pesticides and herbicides to your lawn. Many times, these are toxic to us and any other living organisms that are exposed to it. Your grass may also need insecticides to thrive.
The Japanese beetle is a non-native insect that found its way to the US in early 1900’s in some sod. Not only do the larvae, or grubs, feed on the roots of your grass, but the adult beetles ravage landscaping plants and vegetable gardens. Any way you look at the insect, whether it’s how it was introduced to the US or the harm that it does, it’s a double insult that is controlled by toxic chemicals in furtherance of a green lawn.
Another example that we’ve all heard about are the RoundUp lawsuits and its link to lymphoma. A simple rule is that any chemical that was manufactured to kill plants, insects, or animals is probably also toxic or hazardous to humans. You can’t pull out one link in the chain without affecting all the others. If this is of concern to you, you can find more information at:
- Phytotoxicity, environmental and health hazards of herbicides: challenges and ways forward – ScienceDirect
- Human Health Issues Related to Pesticides | US EPA
- Environmental and Health Impacts of Pesticides and Fertilizers and Ways of Minimizing Them | UNEP – UN Environment Programme.
Watering your lawn uses 50-75% of a household’s total water consumption. Personally, you use just over 50 gallons a day but your lawn uses 200 gallons of filtered drinking water — that’s what it takes to sufficiently irrigate the average lawn. This is more water than any other agricultural crop uses.
Depending on location, your lawn might require even greater amounts. Using a 1,500 square foot lawn in California as a base measurement, 22,000 gallons are needed per year. If the lawn is in Southern California, you need 43,000 gallons and in Palm Springs (desert environment) you need 63,000 gallons.
The average California lawn isn’t 1,500 square feet, but over 5,000 square feet, so these water usage numbers multiply quickly until you get the average house using a minimum of 73,300 gallons. Comparing that the human consumption of 19,000 gallons/year, the 9 billion gallons used to water grass is astounding. This is even more shocking if you use the Natural Resource Defense Council figure of 3 trillion gallons consumed by watering grass.
The truly wasteful aspect about watering lawns is that about 50% of the water doesn’t even reach the roots but is lost through evaporation, wind, and water running off the surface of the soil. Furthermore, frequent watering (daily or several times per week), rather than intermittent deep watering, creates shallow root systems making grass more susceptible to drought.
You would think that anything green growing would improve air quality. That’s not quite right. Trees and shrubs are much better air cleaners than grass.
The exception to that is if you leave mulched grass clippings or leaves on your lawn to decompose. If everyone did this, 16.7 teragrams of carbon dioxide would be released yearly. Doing so would also halve the amount of synthetic nitrogen needed to fertilize our lawns because as the green material decomposes it releases nitrogen.
If, on the other hand, grass clippings are dumped into landfills, even using paper bags, the oxygen poor environment in the landfill increases the production of carbon-containing methane (greenhouse gas) which is worse for climate change than carbon dioxide.
Even if you leave your cut grass on your lawn, you will decrease air quality because of the maintenance equipment (lawnmowers, edgers, blowers) needed to achieve that look of perfection.
Lawn mowers alone use well over 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline yearly. An additional 17 million gallons is spilled filling them. Mowers also create 26.7 million tons of pollutants annually.
This EPA figure includes 461,000 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOC), 5,793,200 tons of carbon monoxide, 68,500 tons of nitrogen oxide, 20,700 tons of particulate matter greater than 10 microns, and 20,382,400 tons of carbon dioxide (US EPA Study).
Carcinogens create health issues such as lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems.
All these pollutants also contribute significantly to the climate crisis and drought. Operating a lawn mower for an hour creates approximately the same emissions as a car driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, according to the California Air Resources Board.
|Lawn & Garden Equipment Fuel Consumption in 2008 (million gallons)
|Soil & Turf Equipment
|Blowers & Vacuums
|Total All Equipment
Your answer to this issue may be, “so, I’ll use electric.” That is a bit of a help, yet people seem to forget that generating the power to charge electric equipment still uses some sort of energy and there is the issue of battery pollution (both making and disposing).
Besides, electric mowers, blowers, and hedgers don’t yet have the type of power needed by professional landscapers. Two possible solutions to this problem are to 1) trade out turf lawns with native plants, or 2) ban the use of gas-powered lawn equipment.
To some extent, California has embraced both solutions, but more on their planting programs a bit later. They have become the first state to ban gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers.
Illinois and New York are both considering similar laws and scattered municipalities have enacted seasonal bans on gas-powered leaf blowers, including Brookline, Massachusetts, Montclair, New Jersey, and Burlington, Vermont. Electric powered lawn equipment is a growing business expected to reach $14.1 billion by 2024.
Lack of Biodiversity
Even if you’re using electric maintenance tools, controlling the amounts and types of weed and feed you are using, and minimizing supplemental water usage because you accept some browning in the heat of the summer, you still have to consider that grass lawns inherently cause some ecological damage.
A lawn is a monoculture, which means that it boasts only one type of plant. Monocultures are called a biological desert for a reason — they don’t support biodiversity or natural ecosystems because they have very limited habitat potential.
In the case of grass, it’s mostly inedible, with a few exceptions like Japanese beetle grubs eating the roots, and doesn’t support any pollinators.
When you plant a mixture of native plants, you support a variety of wildlife like birds, and pollinators like butterflies and bees. If you have some lawn, one of the easiest ways to increase your biodiversity is to allow “weeds,” like clover, to grow alongside your grass.
If you want the look of a lawn, but don’t want to grow grass, flowering ground covers, such as creeping jenny, red creeping thyme, moss, chamomile, and yes, clover, give the appearance of a lawn, yet support pollinators. Historically, many lawns were comprised of these ground covers.
In addition to purchasing potted ground cover plants, you may be able to find clover seed at your local nursery alongside the grass seed. It naturally replaces nutrients, such as nitrogen, in the soil. This is why people use it as a cover crop.
Are there any Benefits to a Lawn?
With all these negatives, are there any benefits to growing grass?
There are a few, although they aren’t as strong as growing native plants. First, there is the aesthetics of a lush green lawn. It also provides grazing for hooved animals. It does convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and becomes a carbon sink when you allow mulched grass clippings to decompose on your lawn.
Compared to hard surfaces such as cement or artificial turf, it reduces the heat that’s reflected into your house, keeping it cooler. Finally, having a lawn does help with erosion control; even though the roots are fairly shallow, grass prevents topsoil from washing away in the rain. If you routinely aerate your lawn, it will absorb even more water.
Regions Promoting Lawn Alternatives
Aside from the psychological and emotional reasons to have a lawn, the benefits are vastly overshadowed by the negative environmental, chemical, and monetary impacts. This has been recognized in several areas of the country, especially in the west and southwest, where drought conditions have affected already water-poor communities.
Some other areas are simply very environmentally conscious and the community and/or individual homeowners want to create greater habitat friendly pockets. Some municipalities have taken very successful steps to encourage people to switch from solid grass lawns to those that feature native, arid-friendly plants.
So, what are the benefits of a non-lawn yard?
In addition to being more visually interesting, this type of landscaping is much better for the environment. Normally, it requires little or no fertilization, pesticides, or herbicides; you save time by eliminating weekly mowing, save huge amounts of water, and aren’t required to purchase equipment such as mowers, edgers, and blowers.
Psychologically, many people find planting and tending a garden, such as cutting flowers for indoor display, to be calming and fulfilling. This is very different than stressing about having to mow, fertilize, etc., and the horror that comes from finding inevitable weeds growing.
Yes, there are some places that have laws that punish homeowners for poorly kept lawns and HOA’s in every state that will dictate lawn requirements. Increasingly, however, the trend is shifting toward encouraging homeowners to embrace native plantings by offering monetary incentives to remove grass and replace it with something else, or set limits on the amount of water allowed per household.
This issue is so important that there are states, like Maryland, that have protected the right of homeowners to plant native plants instead of grass despite HOA regulations. Seeing front yards filled with xeriscaping, native plants, clover lawns, or even flower gardens is jarring to many. Owners who want to embrace non-lawn yards sometimes need legal support to counteract neighborhood and HOA hostilities.
Below are some examples of how different localities are embracing non-grass gardening.
Las Vegas, Nevada
It’s only logical that if you’re living in the middle of the desert with few water resources, you shouldn’t try to grow great swaths of water intensive, non-essential grass. All their water comes from the Lake Mead Reservoir created by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, which supplies 90% of the water for Colorado, Nevada, and California. Yet, until recently, this is precisely the pattern that Las Vegas followed. New suburban developments offered homes with grass front and back yards, plus grass parkways.
Having run short of available water, they now have laws regulating the removal of “nonfunctional” (purely aesthetic) grass. This law is the first of its kind in the US.
Much like many other areas, outdoor landscaping uses ½ of all their water. Most of it is lost through evaporation even before it can feed the root systems of plants. New legislation addresses this problem by encouraging drip irrigation and replacing sprinkler-fed grass with drought-tolerant plants so that water usage should be reduced by up to 70%, saving 9.5 billion gallons of water annually.
The city is offering a rebate of $3 per square foot of grass removed to help property owners recoup some of the cost of replacement. Their hope is to have all non-functional grass removed by 2027. Examples of exempt functional turf include “pet relief turf” outside of pet-centered businesses, cemeteries, and sports fields.
Water consumption has already been reduced by about ½ since 2000, and Las Vegas is on its way toward being less of a water drain on local resources.
We’ve already looked at how much lawn requirements differ in the widely divergent climates of California. In the north there are heavily forested areas that get enough rain, yet parts of California are desert. Most of the state is dependent on limited water resources, including the Colorado River.
In Los Angeles, indoor consumption of 51 gallons/day contrasts with the yearly 43,000 gallons need for lawns and the city-wide total of 45 billion gallons. In addition to restricting yard watering to one day a week, Los Angeles is offering a $5 per square foot rebate (up to $25,000) to replace grass with drought-tolerant landscaping.
This can include xeriscaping, certain ground covers like clover or yarrow, and low-water grass species like buffalo grass, blue grama, or sheep fescue. You can choose any native plants and non-native succulents. Since 2009, 53.4 million square feet of turf has been replaced for a savings of 2.3 billion gallons of water per year.
This is the equivalent of drinking water for 28,800 homes. In addition to water savings, these yards create little sanctuaries of native biodiversity.
San Diego is offering $4 per square foot rebates to replace turf grasses with water efficient desert plants. They have already replaced 42 million square feet.
Local groups have created workshops and resources that can help homeowners transform their yards into native havens. For informative advice, watch videos at: G3 Green Gardens Group or Waterwise Community Youtube videos. You can also contact the Department of Water and Power’s “Lawn Be Gone” program at https:/lawnbegone.ladwp.com for workshops and resources.
Along with Nevada and California, Arizona is one of the states whose primary water source is the Colorado River. Scottsdale has banned natural grass in front yards on new construction. 86% of survey respondents in the area supported the ordinance.
Phoenix imposed limits on water usage in June, 2023 because of overuse of resources and climate-driven drought. They’ve asked residents to decrease their water usage by 5%, and government usage by 9%, saving the city 657 million gallons of water. In the last 20 years they have gone from 80% of the houses having green lawns to only 14%.
Albuquerque has some suburban areas that are mandated as lawn-less. They are embracing trees which provide greater cooling effects and more air purifying properties than grass.
Tucson residents have adopted the native landscaping aesthetic and are proudly showcasing their new yards. More Arizona cities, like Tempe and Mesa, are offering rebates for grass removal.
Other Locations in the US
While some of the most notable, and oldest, projects have occurred in the West because of their long-standing drought and lack of water sources, they are certainly not the only areas who have embraced the trend toward non-lawn yards.
Minnesota offers rebates to homeowners who replace their lawns with flowering plants to support bee populations.
Portland, Oregon has master gardeners who will certify that your front yard is wildlife friendly or attracts butterflies.
Montgomery County, Maryland offers subsidies to families and HOAs who design gardens that collect storm water in water features and underground rain barrels.
Salt Lake City, Utah is offering incentives to replace lawns with xeriscaping.
Colorado is considering a state-wide voluntary program to replace ornamental and non-native grass with “water-wise landscaping.” This would supplement the almost 20 local programs that already exist in the state.
Sourcing Grass Alternatives for your Home
There is a place for grass in our lives. It’s really a matter of picking the right type of grass for your location, using it in moderation, if you choose, and not going overboard about its care — accepting limitations on the amount of watering and chemical additives you use in your quest for the “perfect” lawn. We are so used to seeing fescues and Kentucky Bluegrass that are native to areas like Europe that have cooler and wetter climates than most of the US.
There are other varieties of grass available that are low-water.
Many local nurseries sell grass seed in bulk, including lesser known types. You might see names like buffalo grass, blue grama, sheep fescue, or zoysia japonica. These are all more drought-tolerant. If you live in warmer climates you might want to choose St. Augustine or Bermuda grass, as well as buffalo or centipede grass.
Some nurseries also offer clover seed if you decide to forego grass completely. There is even microclover available which is a good option if you’re allergic to bee stings because there are fewer flowers. You may need to mow a clover lawn a few times a year, but you shouldn’t need fertilizer and they require little or no irrigation.
A growing trend is meadowscaping your yard: planting native grasses and wildflowers in a way that mimics natural prairies or meadows. It’s also be referred to as wildscaping or rewilding. Using plants that are native or drought-tolerant, you end of with a colorful and natural looking area that requires very little care but is a great habitat for pollinators and local wildlife. There’s little to no watering, fertilizer, or tools needed, yet these ecosystems enhance soil health and prevent erosion. They are reminiscent of English cottage gardens.
If your aesthetic needs something that is more contained, structured, or regimented, yet still want an alternative to a grass lawn, there’s an unlimited variety of options. Many include some combination of xeriscaping which uses rocks, mulch, pavers, sand, etc., and drought-tolerant native plants to create gardens that can be sparse to full, regimented to freeform and natural looking.
There are so many options once you move away from thinking that the vast majority of your land needs to be grass that it can be overwhelming. If you aren’t knowledgeable and don’t want to study landscape design, or even lack creativity, there are local resources and university extension programs, government advice, or local landscapers who are all happy to help you make a change.
There are lots of resources available if you are ready to trade some of your grass for alternative landscaping. Make sure you check local and state ordinances to see what rebates or help is offered.
- If you are especially interested in habitat conservation the Conservation in America report lists resources by state.
- The National Wildlife Federation offers educational programs and has a native plant finder database that is location specific and beneficial plants for your habitat along with buying resources. They have surpassed their goal of registering a million gardens nationwide that support pollinators.
- The Planet Natural Research Center offers over 1,000 articles from organic gardening experts including articles on ground cover alternatives to grass, xeriscaping, landscaping design, pest control, products, and growing guides.
- The American Society of Landscape Architects website has numerous resources including articles on Improving Water Management at home and plant design help.
- Atlanta landscape designer Brandy Hall of Shades of Green Permaculture offers advice and webinars on regenerative landscaping.
- Green American offers advice for replacing your lawn, especially with meadow plantings or victory gardens.
Final Thoughts on Grass Lawns
I’ve always embraced a combination of trees, shrubs, and flowers, and xeriscape elements, in addition to grass, to create a balanced yard.
Starting on the learning journey into the subject of non-lawn yards made me examine my attitudes toward landscaping. I was upset that I had been convinced that perfect grass was essential. I wasn’t happy that I’ve used fertilizers and weed killers, and that a scraggly looking lawn made me feel less worthy.
I no longer look at huge swaths of perfect lawn as beautiful. No, it’s not ugly, but it’s uncreative, environmentally detrimental, a poor use of resources, and a lost opportunity to improve aesthetics. I’d rather spend my time, energy, and money nurturing plants that enrich soil, are diverse and creative, and help protect habitat and the environment.