The problems with lawns

Here are some reasons we reduced the size of our lawn and changed our lawn care practices:

Toxic chemicals

Our dog on the lawn ©Janet AllenOur dog on the lawn

The first ten or fifteen years in our home, we applied the usual weed 'n' feed style treatments ourselves, and even, for a time, contracted with one of those ubiquitous lawn care companies to apply their toxic brew. And we had kids and a dog at the time! I shudder at the thought!

Coincidence or not, our dog did die from cancer.

The toxic mess of pesticides, herbicides, and other 'cides we put on our lawn is reason enough to swear off lawns.

Here are our lawn signs and other information about pesticides in our habitat garden.


In addition to pesticides and herbicides, we had also applied chemical fertilizers (the "feed" part of those "weed and feed" products). This sounds so benign—what harm can it do to just help plants grow?

But when we were fertilizing our plants, the excess fertilizer was going down the sewers into our local streams and ultimately into Onondaga Lake. The extra phosphorus from fertilizers causes some of our lake's many problems.

Air and global warming pollution

Less need for power equipment ©Janet Allen
There's less need for polluting power equipment with a small lawn

Besides the dangers of pesticides and herbicides, our lawn care was also creating a lot of air and global warming pollution. Even with our vegetable garden and some flower beds, we still had quite a bit of lawn … and therefore quite a bit of lawn mowing with a gas lawnmower, which is far more polluting than are cars.

And lawn care itself creates more CO2 than it absorbs, when all the inputs/outputs are considered, and produces far less oxygen than would larger plants that could otherwise be growing in its place.

I've seen articles that tout the benefits of lawns producing enough oxygen for a family of four … but this pro-lawn propaganda fails to take look at the whole lawn care system nor does it consider what could be there instead. Lawn may be better than asphalt or concrete, but how on earth could anyone believe it possibly could be better than herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees?

Water use

Even when we had a larger, "normal" lawn, we didn't often water it. If it browned up a bit, so be it. Browning never killed it. Brown is what you get when you try to grow something that doesn't belong here.

According to the EPA, lawn care and landscaping accounts for more than 30% of all water use in the U.S. I've heard that it's up to 60% in drier parts of the country. Many of these areas are depleting their aquifers, using glacial water to maintain lawns. Depleted aquifers is not the legacy I want to leave our children.

And even though we in Central New York have abundant water resources, it takes a lot of energy to pump water up to the reservoirs, and it takes our sewage treatment plants an enormous amount of energy to clean water.

We're actually using potable water to water lawns! How can this make sense?

Loss of habitat

Once I became involved in the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program and become more aware of the need for habitat, the paucity of habitat in lawn-dominated landscapes seemed pretty obvious. Lawns are biological deserts.

Human costs

The human costs are immense, but seem so normal that few people even realize they exist.

No raking ©Janet AllenNo raking—no leaf blowing, either!

Noise pollution:This is one of the most obvious costs. People in the suburbs just accept as normal the enormous amount of noise lawnmowers, weed whackers, and leafblowers create. Maybe in our machine-dominated society all these noises are taken for granted, but when I start noticing it, it's all I hear. As soon as one device stops, another one or two begins.

As I've become more in tune with the birds singing in our yard, toads giving their mating calls, and insects making all sorts of sounds, the human-caused noise pollution becomes ever more unpleasant. I'm not sure people appreciate silence anymore or even know what it is.

Waterfall in the Smokies ©Janet AllenA waterfall we saw in the Smokies

Disconnect: A huge human cost is the loss of our connection to the natural world. As Edward O. Wilson'sconcept of biophilia indicates, humans are meant to be connected to nature. Albert Schweitzer called it "reverence for life."

We truly don't know what we're missing when we live in lawn-dominated landscapes. Just as lawns are biological deserts for wildlife, they're psychological deserts for people. They're just one more way we've commodified everything and gotten away from valuing life.

A deeper connection to the natural world will serve us well as we negotiate the difficult years ahead, when we come to a time when we can no longer hide the unsustainability of our current lifestyle. As many designers, architects, and engineers are discovering, mimicking nature can point the way to a more sustainable, more satisfying life for people and for all life on earth. We have to first recognize the nature that can be all around us. And lawn isn't it.