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“Natural” Lawns

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Author Topic: “Natural” Lawns  (Read 303 times)
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Having fun in the hills!

« on: August 05, 2015, 02:10:03 pm »

from The Washington Post....

My township calls my lawn ‘a nuisance’.
But I still refuse to mow it.

Manicured lawns are ruining the planet.

By SARAH BAKER | 5:59AM EDT - Monday, August 03, 2015

Sarah Baker and her partner stand in their yard outside Alexandria, Ohio. Town officials have declared it “a nuisance.” — Photo: Amanda Taylor.
Sarah Baker and her partner stand in their yard outside Alexandria, Ohio. Town officials have declared it “a nuisance.” — Photo: Amanda Taylor.

A MUTILATED garter snake, a sliced frog and countless slashed grasshoppers. That was the scene of carnage in my yard in September, after local officials ordered me to mow my overgrown lawn or be fined $1,000. Three months earlier, I had stopped mowing my nearly one acre of country land in a rural Ohio town. A diverse potpourri of plants began to flourish, and a rich assortment of insects and animals followed. I had essentially grown a working ecosystem, one that had been waiting for the chance to emerge.

So this season, I took a stand and refused to mow at all.

In June, my partner and I received an official written warning from the trustee board of St. Albans Township, stating that our yard had become “a nuisance.” Ohio law allows local governments to control any vegetation on private property that they deem a nuisance, after a seven-day warning to the property owners. But the law does not define what “a nuisance” is, effectively giving local leaders the power to remove whatever grass or plants offend them. In our case, the trustees decided that our lawn was too tall and thick and would attract “nuisance animals” such as “snakes and rodents”. If we didn’t cut it, they would hire someone to do so and bring law enforcement with them.

But the main point of growing a natural yard is to attract wildlife and build a self-regulating environment.  The un-mowed plants in our yard attract plant-eating bugs and rodents, which in turn attract birds, bats, toads and garter snakes that eat them. Then hawks fly in to eat the snakes. Seeing all this life emerge in just one growing season made me realize just how much nature manicured lawns displace and disrupt.

There are 40.5 million acres of lawn in the United States, more than double the size of the country's largest national forest. We disconnect ourselves from wildlife habitat loss by viewing it as a problem caused by industry and agriculture. But habitat loss isn’t a problem happening out there somewhere; it's happening in our own back yards.

This has serious consequences. About 95 percent of the natural landscape in the lower 48 states has been developed into cities, suburbs and farmland. Meanwhile, the global population of vertebrate animals, from birds to fish, has been cut in half during the past four decades. Honey bees, which we depend on to pollinate our fruits and other crops, have been dying off at an unsustainable rate. Because one in three bites of food you take requires a pollinating insect to produce it, their rapid decline is a threat to humanity. Monarch butterflies have been even more affected, with their numbers dropping 90 percent since the 1990s. Butterflies are an important part of the food chain, so ecologists have long used them to measure the health of ecosystems.

Nature preserves and parks are not enough to fix the problem; much of wildlife is migratory and needs continuous habitat to thrive.  Natural yards can act as bridges between the larger natural spaces.

Habitat loss isn't the only consequence; maintaining a mowed and fertilized lawn also pollutes the air, water and soil. The emissions from lawnmowers and other garden equipment are responsible for more than 5 percent of urban air pollution. An hour of gas-powered lawn mowing produces as much pollution as four hours of driving a car. Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline every year for lawn equipment, and 17 million gallons are spilled while refueling mowers — more than was leaked by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops, chemicals that can end up in drinking water and waterways.

I decided to tackle the issue by letting my yard grow wild, and I'm not alone. Homeowners across the country have latched on to the natural lawn and “no mow” movement.

At first I felt guilty. The stigma that comes with the look of an un-mowed lawn was hard to push through (no pun intended). I was afraid of what people would think, because Americans have been deeply conditioned to see their manicured lawns as status symbols. But after we started explaining to people why we had stopped mowing, they were much less critical. If we allow ourselves to truly see a mowed lawn for what it is — a green desert that provides no food or shelter for wildlife — we can re-condition ourselves to take pride in not mowing.

For me, growing a natural lawn doesn't mean just letting it go. I spend a lot of time weeding out invasive, non-native plants — like thistles, burdock and garlic mustard — that can take over and create a destructive monoculture of their own. But I also think it is wrong to vilify all invasive plants before we fully understand them. After all, a weed is just “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,”  Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

I've been a gardener for years, but since I stopped mowing, I not only feel more connected to nature, I also see the interconnectedness in nature.  Never before have I had so few pests in my vegetable garden thanks to my yard's newfound biodiversity, including predators that keeps crop-damaging bugs in check. When you stop mowing, you get it; you not only see first-hand all the nature that we have lost start to come back, you get to interact with it.

To prevent the mowing company hired by my township from coming in and flattening everything, my partner and I used a scythe to cut the height of our lawn down to 8 inches.  The trustees were satisfied enough to call off the abatement of our lawn for now. It was a compromise, but it bought us some time to figure out our next move.

People should be allowed to live out their values on their own property as long as they are not causing a true nuisance that hinders their neighbors' use of their own properties. In May, the White House released a strategy to protect pollinators by increasing wildlife habitat. But while the report encourages homeowners to set aside natural habitat for wildlife, it offers them no legal support to do so. We need local regulations of private lawns to reflect science, not the whims of town officials. They should be developed in consultation with ecologists and botanists, to set standards for natural yards that are safe and healthy for both humans and wildlife.

Society needs to adjust its cultural norms on lawn aesthetics. For the health of the planet, and for our own health, we need to start letting nature dictate how we design our outdoor spaces. We need to reassess how much mowed space we really need. By the size of most people’s lawns in my area, you’d think they were hosting a weekly lacrosse match. But the only time I ever really see them on their lawns is when they are mowing them.

Instead of putting nature in its place, we need to find our place in nature. Local officials have told us countless times that our lawn looks bad and is a nuisance. In one public meeting, a brave young boy, Max Burton, stood up and told our critics, “What you are saying is that life itself is a nuisance.” As the planet’s environmental problems mount, the real nuisances are mowed lawns and the laws that enforce them.

Sarah Baker lives outside of Alexandria, Ohio. She works and plays at her family's garden center, Baker's Acres Greenhouse.


Further reading:

 • Having kids is terrible for the environment, so I’m not having any

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Posts: 31645

Having fun in the hills!

« Reply #1 on: August 05, 2015, 02:10:21 pm »

from The Washington Post....

Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and
most of us would be better off without them

By CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM | 12:30PM EDT - Tuesday, August 04, 2015

You see an immaculate lawn. I see hours of sweaty soul-crushing labor. — Photo: Adam Kerfoot-Roberts/Flickr.
You see an immaculate lawn. I see hours of sweaty soul-crushing labor. — Photo: Adam Kerfoot-Roberts/Flickr.

A RECENT ESSAY by an Ohio woman who refuses to mow her lawn has struck a nerve. Thirteen hundred people have weighed in with a comment on Sarah Baker's tale of flouting a neighborhood mowing ordinance in the face of a $1,000 fine.

As Baker notes in her essay, lawns are a big part of contemporary American life. There are somewhere around 40 million acres of lawn in the lower 48, according to a 2005 NASA estimate derived from satellite imaging. “Turf grasses, occupying 1.9% of the surface of the continental United States, would be the single largest irrigated crop in the country,” that study concludes. Conservatively, American lawns take up three times as much space as irrigated corn. The authors mapped the entirety of the nation's turf grass, below. You'll notice that it's basically a population density map of the U.S. — where there are people, there are lawns.

Source: A Strategy for Mapping and Modeling the Ecological Effects of U.S. Lawns.

You'll notice, if you look closely, that the colors start at light green in the urban cores and get darker as you move outward — lawn density increases in the suburbs.

In some states, a significant chunk of the landscape is covered in turf grass — meaning residential lawns, commercial lawns, golf courses, and the like. Delaware is 10 percent lawn. Connecticut and Rhode Island are 20 percent. And over 20 percent of the total land area of Massachusetts and New Jersey is covered in grass, according to that 2005 NASA study.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the traditional American lawn has come in for some scrutiny in recent years. Some, like Baker, are abandoning regular lawn maintenance out of environmental concerns — lawns require fertilizer to grow and gas to mow, and they take up space that could otherwise be used for animal habitat.

Other folks are ditching their lawns because of the amount of water they soak up — 9 billion gallons of it per day, according to the EPA. Think of the miracle that is the modern water supply — pristine water pumped hundreds of miles, passed through shiny state-of-the-art filtration systems, treated with miracle chemicals that keep our teeth from falling out of our heads, and available on-demand at the twist of a knob. And then consider that we intentionally dump billions of gallons of that water out on the ground!

These reasons are all well and good enough. But if you're an average lazy American like me, with kids and a dog and maybe a mortgage and probably a job too, these may seem like valid concerns but they're probably not worth changing your behavior over. So consider the most compelling reason to ditch your lawn, or to at least scale it back: time.

The average American spends about 70 hours a year on lawn and garden care, according to the American Time Use Survey. Considering that this is an average figure that also includes people who don't spend ‘any’ time mowing, the number for people who actually have a lawn, and actually mow it, is going to be considerably higher than that.

Some people take pride in their lawns, and get a lot of fulfillment by keeping them immaculately-manicured. So for these folks, this is time well-spent. But for many of the rest of us, mowing a lawn is nothing more than a chore, and a despised one at that. A November 2011 CBS news poll found that for 1 in 5 Americans, mowing the lawn was their least-liked chore — ranked lower than raking leaves and shoveling snow. Interesting aside: Democrats (25 percent) were considerably more likely than Republicans (16 percent) to say mowing the lawn was their least-favorite chore.

Again, in some cases the time investment may be worthwhile — some families use their lawns all the time. But think of your own neighborhood, and of the number of houses where the only time you see somebody out on the lawn is when it's getting mowed.

It doesn't need to be this way — there are plenty of low-maintenance alternatives to turf grass out there. But some homeowners associations require residents to keep a lawn. And plenty of municipalities, like Sarah Baker's, have strict guidelines on how a lawn should be maintained.

But in the end, much of the pressure to keep and maintain a lawn is self-imposed. Freeing yourself from all those hours on the lawnmower might simply be a matter of realizing that there are alternatives.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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