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.
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.