The nuances of a well-manicured lawn

For many, the American dream calls to mind an image of 1.5 kids and a golden retriever playing catch within the confines of a white picket fence, the fresh-cut grass beneath them hardly longer than a child’s index finger. Of the elements of this image, it is the well-manicured lawn that irks me to no end.

Although the ubiquity of grass in the United States is something we take for granted, I aver that these quotidian green blades beneath our feet and around our homes demand more attention mostly negative attention. 

The most concerning thing about grass is by far its negative impact on the environment. Maintaining a lush, verdant lawn requires that you regularly water your grass. A quick Google search will recommend that you use an inch of water for every square foot of your lawn once a week. Although an inch sounds like a trivial amount, multiplying that inch by every square foot of every lawn in the country turns that inch into a massive source of water waste — all for a plant that serves little to no purpose. 

The environmental impact of the prevalence of grass lawns is not limited to water usage. Another problem with filling our lawns with grass and grass alone is just that: grass is just one single type of plant. As humans have developed the Earth, biodiversity has decreased. This decrease has haunting implications for the well-being of numerous ecosystems, as we are deeply dependent upon the natural balance of different species for our food production, air quality and water quality. 

Replacing native plant species with grass lawns may look tidier, but it directly harms the pre-existing ecosystem, creating a domino effect that will undoubtedly come back to bite us on the (gr)ass. If not for our own selfishness, we must stop replacing native plant species with grass for the sake of the bees, the butterflies and other pollinators, for we have these humble beings to thank for the sweetness of our fruits, the vibrance and color of the flowers we give to our loved ones and, whether we care to see it or not, for our survival. 

Also worth noting are the fertilizers and pesticides used to maintain lawns — when chemicals are applied to the grass, they do not remain strictly on the grass, but instead seep into the soil and pollute both ground and surface water. This affects the water quality of our lakes, streams and oceans and can cause a number of issues such as algal blooms and the poisoning of aquatic species. 

What makes the careless contamination and waste of water for residential lawn care in the United States particularly appalling is that water is in desperate demand for many Americans. The Western United States regularly experiences droughts, leading to ballooning water bills and the imposition of restrictions on water usage, violations punishable by hefty fines. 

When water consumption is regulated by increasing its cost and the threat of fines for going over a set amount, only those who have to worry about money are truly being restricted. I would probably cry if I was harshly fined for accidentally using more water than I am allowed, whereas the wealthy have the privilege to ignore how much they pay for water at all. 

Considering these costs — both financial and environmental — associated with the maintenance, I am no longer charmed or impressed by a bright green lawn. Rather, the image of the ideal American front yard I have described has become a symbol of ostentatious bourgeois wastefulness. I lament the social expectation to keep one’s lawn tidy, uniform and identical to every other buzzcut patch of grass all around the block. 

Moreover, the expectation is not strictly social; it is a requirement of many homeowners associations. HOAs impose strict regulations on your landscaping, which may include how often you cut and water your lawn, what you can plant on your property, how often you use pesticides and more. Although having standards or expectations for a community’s appearance sounds mostly harmless, that is kind of part of the problem: it is all for appearance. 

Beyond the classism I have already discussed, HOAs also perpetuate a very specific ideal of conformity, something which, in the United States, has always been closely tied to patriarchal white supremacy. As American cities industrialized and expanded, urban areas saw massive white flight, the movement of white people to suburban areas specifically to “escape” the higher concentration of people of color in the cities. Suburban life is thus founded on inequality and white social hegemony. 

Although the racial composition of suburban neighborhoods has come to include more people of color over time, I would argue that dismantling white supremacy involves dismantling the imagery which underpins and covertly perpetuates it,  regardless of if there is in fact a clear or direct connection between having a grass lawn and being racist.

For the sake of our planet, we must pursue an alternative to the standard of grass lawns. To address the issue of water usage, we must explore xeriscaping, which is a style of landscaping that makes use of drought-resistant native flora to save water, in dryer climates. In areas like ours, we should be filling our lawns with plants that naturally sprawl across the ground but do not require vertical maintenance, like mint or clover.

As a frequently barefoot person, I dream of having a lawn of moss, nature’s velvet rug. As an environmentalist and member of humanity, I dream of a society in which we do not unwittingly fill our land with the same bland plant at the direct expense of the well-being of the planet, but instead plant the seeds of a future in which we are all conscious of our responsibility to caring for the Earth.