Mow Less, Save Nature

One year our school had an exchange student from Turkey. He was gifted in athletics and darkly handsome. As a blond klutz this meant I had nothing in common with him. But we ended up as science class lab partners, so we chatted regularly. I still remember something he said. He told me it was hard to see people in the U.S. squandering water, fertilizer, and fertile land on the inedible crop of grass when elsewhere in the world people suffered terribly to grow food. Why would anyone take pride in green fields that nourished no one?

I saw exactly what he meant everywhere I went. I also saw the way our elderly next-door neighbors let as much of their lawn as possible grow wild. Somehow they eluded zoning and only mowed their front yard along with a tiny patch near the back door. The rest was a glorious tangle of tall trees and undergrowth brimming with wildlife. It was a lively contrast to the flat monoculture all around us.

Every weekend meant the drone of lawnmowers and the smell of cut grass. I asked my father once if that smell meant the grass was bleeding. He didn’t take me too seriously. Turns out I wasn’t too far off. When plants are injured they release volatile organic compounds called green leaf volatiles which have different functions. Some of the compounds send out distress signals, some speed growth of new cells at the wound site, others act as antibiotics, a few stimulate defensive compounds at intact parts of the plant.

Turf grass in the U.S. overall covers an area larger than the state of Georgia. It is the largest irrigated “crop” in America, even more than corn, wheat, and fruit orchards combined. Americans use an estimated 10 times more fertilizer, per acre, on lawns than are used on food crops. (Fertilizer production as well as its run-off are serious environmental burdens too.)

According to a Penn State professor’s calculations,

Every weekend in the United States, fifty-four million Americans mow their lawns, which uses eight-hundred million gallons of gas per year [Springfels n.pag]. When broken down, that’s about 15 million gallons of gasoline to cut our yards and businesses alone. The eight-hundred million gallons of gas used each weekend is accompanied by the seventeen million gallons of gasoline we spill just filling up our tanks of gas each year, this amount is more than the amount of oil that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

Mowing less, or not at all, is a significant way to help when our planet’s pollinator and bird population are in serious decline. It’s not a radical step. Even state transportation departments are reducing or eliminating roadside mowing in favor of native grasses and wildflowers.

Mowing less frequently, such as every two weeks, helps to provide forage for bees and other pollinators. Mowing fewer overall areas provides even more flowers and seeds for vulnerable populations of bees, butterflies, and birds. And it can look amazing.

Here are some examples posted to the Twitter account of Scottish gardener Brian Cunningham.

In In many communities we may need to ease zoning or HOA rules. But it’s worth it. The reasons are wise, the outcome is beautiful.

On our property we have plenty of space devoted to trees and undergrowth, some former pasture planted in native wildflowers, but we still mow too much. I hope to change that soon.

Here are some wonderful organizations and books to help you find out more.

Wild Ones

We Are The Ark

Xerces Society

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is the author of four books and served as 2019 Ohio Poet of the Year. She's the editor of Braided Way: Faces & Voices of Spiritual Practice. She works as a book editor, teaches writing workshops, and maxes out her library card each week.
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4 Responses to Mow Less, Save Nature

  1. katechiconi says:

    We don’t irrigate our grass at all, although many of our neighbours do. It does mean bare and brown areas, but the water’s too important; I’d rather drink it. We have a rainwater tank and irrigation for the trees, shrubs and food-producing plants, but not every day, and it’s on a timer and rain sensor, and moreover, it’s going to food or carbon-sequestration. The other side of the conversation is that in a climate as hot as ours, grass serves a purpose, in that it reduces heat around the house (and thereby the need for so much air-conditioning), and mowing it reduces the fuel burden in our fire-prone part of the world, and keeps snakes at bay. Many neighbours have replaced lawns with concrete or gravel and native species in a low-maintenance front yard, but we’re keeping the grass as it also slows the run-off from monsoon-level rains in the Wet. Our mower is electric and used during the day when we are generating power from the 6Kw array on the roof. I love the idea of a wilderness back yard, but in a tropical climate it would get out of control in very, very short order!

  2. Jill says:

    I love the look of the clover 😊we had a terrible grass fire in our yard a few years back which taught me the importance of a mowed yard—the terrible wind carried the fire into the trees and the flames could be seen high in the sky over a mile away. Two fire departments and all my neighbours got it stopped behind a neighbours house a mile from where the fire started. It’s one thing in a lush green setting to see clover and wild flowers blooming. But there are also reasons (ticks, for one) to have my yard mowed. We are very prone to Canada thistle and chickweed in my yard as well. I don’t fertilize and I only water one area of lawn when it’s on the verge of dying. I agree we shouldn’t waste resources on lawns. But I have also seen the dangers that result from not mowing or grazing areas of grass in your yard. We’ve since got sheep that help keep the grass down. It’s a good fire break in a yard to keep the grass short. I really enjoy your blog!

    • Sheep are a wonderful solution. I’d love to see neighborhoods share a small flock of sheep. Heck, share livestock as I’ve written about before.

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