By Victoria Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Let’s contemplate the ubiquitous lawn for just a second. They are such a common sight in our everyday lives that we rarely stop to give them any thought whatsoever. They’re just there. But how and why did our society get so addicted to these patches or expansive vistas of mowed grass?
Well, the origins go back to long before there even was an America, in centuries long ago. Back in medieval times, those fortunate folks who lived in castles would keep their surroundings free of trees so that guards had an unobstructed view of approaching (possibly hostile) visitors.
By the 16th or 17th century, lawns were more deliberately cultivated by the wealthy homeowners as a mark of status and affluence, as they were the only ones that could afford the tools and manpower it took to maintain such manicured perfection.
Early immigrants to the U.S. brought grass seed with them to continue the tradition in the new land. And at first it was only the rich who could sport the very desirable rolling green fashion here too.
But then something happened to change all that. WW II ended and G.I.’s came home in droves to marry and settle down to start families. And where were they all to live? Enter William Levitt and his revolutionary development of the modern American suburb. Now everyone could have the American dream! A chicken in every pot, and one’s very own little patch of aristocratic front lawn surrounded by a white picket fence. And we never looked back. Lawns were here to stay! Or are they?
After 70 years of mowing, weed-whacking, watering, artificial fertilizer applications, pesticides, and herbicides, it’s becoming apparent that maybe there is a better way. Maybe it’s time to lose our obsession with the almighty lawn.
What’s wrong with lawns? They’re just grass, right? And grass collects carbon. So how can that be a bad thing? Well, in and of itself, that’s true. But it’s when you look at the aforementioned practices in keeping that pretty green patch that the trouble begins.
First, there are all the chemicals to maintain that greenery. The fertilizers and weed killers leaching into our ground water. The pesticides harming not only the “bad” bugs but so much more precious life on our planet–including we humans. Then there is all the pollution from the mowers, weed-whackers and leaf blowers. And all the water wasted to maintain that beautiful color. It’s been estimated that there are approximately 40 million acres of lawn in the U.S. today. That’s a lot of pollution and chemicals, and water waste. Are you still feeling as desirous of your little parcel of turf?
There is a flourishing movement among the environmentally conscious to ditch the boring lawn. That monoculture of grass is doing nothing for our invaluable environment. Yes, lawns capture the CO2 that we’ve been spewing indiscriminately into the air for decades, but trees will sequester four times as much.
A biodiversity of plants will do so much more than that by providing habitat and nourishment to a multitude of living organisms that our very existence depends upon. So, save the planet and enjoy something more beautiful in your yard than a monochromatic swath of green. It’s a win-win all around. Even if you live in an apartment, you might have a terrace that you can spruce up with some potted plants. You may be surprised at the diversity of wildlife, such as beautiful butterflies that can find you there. Or you might be able to take part in (or start!) some community projects to add some horticultural biodiversity to your city.
We here at the Rolfe household, are doing our best to find better uses for our land other than lawn. We repurposed about 35’ x 75’ of our side yard to grow vegetables in, and have also planted raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries beyond that. Each year we continue to carve out other sections of lawn to plant a diversity of trees, shrubs and flowers, and even a tiny meadow of native wildflowers (which we are hoping to expand through the years).
And as I look around our neck of the woods, I am happy to see others doing the same. One of the lawns in our town has been converted to a field of sunflowers, another to a gorgeous wildflower meadow.
Xeriscape gardening has caught on as a popular practice to avoid excessive watering. This practice involves devoting a part of your property to plants that require little water other than what nature provides. A quick Google search will tell you how to set this up and which plants would work in your particular area.
Fall is a great time to get started in transforming a part of your yard into a rich, ecologically friendly environment. If you would like a refresher course on how to convert lawn to garden see my Insider story from last year, “Weed it and Reap – Getting Down in the Dirt”
You don’t even have to go for a high maintenance garden if that’s not your cup of tea, just replacing the lawn with some easy-care ground covers will eliminate some of that nasty mowing, fertilizing, pesticide and watering.
Whether you just replace a small patch of your lawn with some shrubs, trees, flowers, or a veggie or herb patch, or you go all out for a full lawn replacement, whatever you can do helps. Every square foot of those 40 million acres of lawn that is eliminated goes towards reclaiming our healthy environment. Together we can save our beautiful blue orb, one less lawn at a time!
A long, long time ago, after the birth of her third child, Victoria made the life-changing decision to leave the work world behind and devote herself to being a full-time mom and homemaker. Along with her new title of Domestic Engineer, she took on the role of the Chief Home Economist for the family.
At first, it was scary to try to live on less than half their income, but Victoria found that she not only rose to the challenge but thrived in the enjoyment of learning to live their best life with limited resources. She embraced this new frugal lifestyle of the at-home-mom and went on to add a fourth child to the mix. And their family was complete.
Along the way she acquired a great deal of wisdom in how to not only avoid debt, but pay off mortgages early, buy cars for cash, travel on a shoe-string budget, and send kids to college with no student loans, all while also saving a tidy nest egg for retirement. She currently educates others in these skills through her business Bright Future.
Now living the life of a modern homesteader in the Hudson Valley, New York, Victoria has added gardening to her list of skill sets as she grows many of her own vegetables to supplement her family’s primarily vegan diet. And she has come to realize that this waste-not, want-not, carbon-friendly, sustainable life she is living is not only benefiting her own family but also our Mother Earth, and that each of us has the obligation to live a responsibly sustainable life not only for ourselves, but for the greater good of our community, and our planet. We can all do this one household and backyard at a time. We are the world! And it all begins right at home.
Victoria can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org