An earlier post on That Blog explained why lawns don’t function as habitat for very many species. They do, however, function as excellent habitat for Canada geese. This is because lawns provide two things that geese need: food, and safety.
Canada geese are relatively small grazing animals. They like to spend their time in areas with low-growing vegetation, where they can eat the plants and keep an eye out for danger. Conversely, they avoid areas where the plants are too tall for easy snacking, and where they can’t see any predators that might be trying to sneak up on them. In other words, geese see a big lawn as a great place to relax and have a meal.
In the early 20th century, Canada geese were actually near extinction across North America. Today, their numbers have rebounded to well over 3 million. This is in part due to active efforts to increase their population – for example, by moving birds to other areas to start new flocks. But mostly, the Canada goose’s recovery was caused by habitat restoration. As people planted lawns in their yards and on golf courses, they inadvertently created perfect goose habitat, and geese promptly multiplied to fill the available space.
As we create habitat in our yards, it is wise to think about who we are creating habitat for. Wildlife will show up to use the resources we provide, and it may be the case that not all species are welcome visitors. We can edit the guest list by mindfully not providing for the needs of animals we don’t want nearby. For example, if we don’t want geese hanging out in our yard, we can simply garden with tall plants that don’t provide the geese with food and sightlines. As they fly over, the geese won’t see anything they like, and they will go elsewhere.
By understanding the needs and preferences of different species, we can invite in the ones we want to see more of, while discouraging those we would rather not have around.
We’ve all seen them: signs asking us not to walk on the grass. Some property managers even put up fences to keep people off the lawns.
Why is this? Lawns are good at very few things. They don’t clean the air as effectively as other types of plantings. They don’t absorb as much water. They aren’t especially pretty and they don’t do much for our health. They provide habitat for very few animals, and they take a lot of work. But one thing lawns do excel at is putting up with being walked on.
Lawns, by their nature, invite people to walk on them, to play soccer on them, to spread out a blanket and have a picnic on them. Lawns are an excellent landscaping solution for any area that is meant to be used in that way. Any area that is not meant to be walked on, sat on, and played on, quite simply, should not be lawn.
When an area is planted with anything taller and denser than a lawn – be it prairie plantings, a row of shrubs, or closely-spaced trees – people instinctively don’t try to walk over it or through it. A few dedicated hikers will cheerfully plunge in, but most casual pedestrians will stick to the nearest path without even thinking about it.
Therefore, to stop people from walking on the grass, plant anything other than short grass.
A lawn that is not meant to be walked on is a kind of landscaping oxymoron. Anyone who finds themselves with such a lawn should ask themselves one question: What is this area for? If it is for strolling and sunbathing, take down the signs. If not, plant it with something people can enjoy walking alongside… and still take down the signs. You won’t need them.
Lawn service companies often say in their advertisements that a well-maintained, average-sized lawn produces enough oxygen for a family of four. A popular political fact-checking website might rate this claim as “mostly false.”
It is true that if you count up all the oxygen molecules that an average-sized lawn puts into the air, that number is approximately equal to the oxygen needs of four humans (at least, if the four humans sit very still, and avoid engaging in any activity that might increase their oxygen demands). However, doing the math this way assumes that the system of interest includes a lawn, four humans, and nothing else.
The companies that promote this claim surely intend for the system to also include themselves and their services. In other words, they mean for it to include lawnmowers. And it turns out that the amount of oxygen produced by an average-sized lawn is somewhat less than the amount of oxygen that is consumed by the internal combustion engine of a lawnmower in the course of cutting that lawn.
So, a more realistic calculation finds that lawns result in a net loss of oxygen from the atmosphere.
Even if the claim were completely true, the savvy consumer would ask themselves how much oxygen is produced by lawn alternatives. A prairie planting or forest garden produces more oxygen than a lawn of the same size, while sacrificing less of that oxygen to motorized maintenance equipment. A homeowner who wants to be sure their family has enough air to breathe would be better off going with a natural yard than a lawn.
But in the end, it is somewhat strange to evaluate landscaping options on the basis of how much oxygen they produce, since our planet is not suffering from a shortage of oxygen. Running out of breathable air is not a problem we are going to face in the foreseeable future. If a company is trying to promote lawns by claiming that lawns solve a problem that does not exist, we should wonder why this company doesn’t have anything better to say about its product.
A candidate in this year’s Wisconsin gubernatorial race has named lawns as an issue he would address if elected. In a post on his campaign website, Jeff Rumbaugh says that if he becomes the governor, he will not ban lawns, but will work with municipalities to make alternative forms of gardening more accessible to property owners.
As a reason for this position, Rumbaugh focuses on the wasteful water consumption associated with lawns. He also mentions the connection between lawns and climate change, and the amount of work involved in maintaining a lawn. He proposes wildflower plantings, vegetable gardens, and gravel as more environmentally-responsible kinds of yards.
Rumbaugh’s campaign promise follows California’s statewide restrictions on lawns – effective as of December 2015 – and Madison’s easing of its regulations on natural yards. Meanwhile, a governmental task force in Delaware has recommended phasing out the use of non-native plants, which currently make up more than 70% of the plants sold at garden centers around the state.
Evidence is gathering that the era of the lawn as a dominant element in American landscaping is at an end. Natural yards are likely to become much more common over the next several years. There is still time for savvy homeowners to be part of this mainstream movement, rather than being the last on their block to adopt new gardening practices.
That Blog does not endorse political candidates. This post is simply a commentary on the continuing emergence of lawns as a political issue.