Your lawn would really rather be a meadow

Beautiful as a dandelion-blossom, golden in the green grass,

This life can be.

Common as a dandelion-blossom, beautiful in the clean grass, not beautiful

Because common, beautiful because beautiful,

Noble because common, because free.

― Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Conversation at Midnight”

Humans can be culturally attuned to accept and even embrace things that we don’t really need or that can in the long run be harmful to us.

Take lawns, for instance.

A drive through the suburbs covered by The Enterprise shows acres of carefully tended lush green grass.

We accept this as natural — but it’s not.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 70 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients are applied to suburban lawns each year, helping to make polluted runoff the single largest source of water pollution nationwide, affecting ground water, lakes and streams, wildlife, and human health.

And the use of gas-powered lawn mowers contributes 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution; a gas-powered lawn mower emits 11 times the air pollution of a new car.

We had an awakening last month when an octogenarian in Altamont, Ellen Howie, called to tell us about the beauties of her unmown lawn. She likened her lawn to a prairie or to undulating ocean waves. As she named many wildflowers flourishing there, she declared, “I just think it’s beautiful.”

Howie, it turns out, is part of a quietly growing movement: No Mow May.

Launched by the charity Plantlife in Great Britain in 2019, No Mow May increases plant diversity as well as nectar for pollinators. It has caught on in many places in the United States, with some entire cities signing on.

We urge the boards in the towns we cover to adopt resolutions in support of No Mow May. As with any movement, the more people who participate, the greater the effect.

Not only will it help the pollinators that are crucial to agriculture and indeed to all life on our planet — a quarter of all bee species in North America are in danger of extinction — it could change our societal perceptions of what is beautiful.

No mowing increases biodiversity as well as food for pollinators. A study in Massachusetts, which notes lawns blanket half of urban and suburban landscapes in the United States, compared lawns that did not use chemical pesticides or herbicides with those that did. The researchers found 63 plant varieties in the untreated lawns with nearly a third of them native plants.

In Appleton, Wisconsin, which participated in No Mow May, researchers there found “No Mow May homes had three times higher bee richness and five times higher bee abundances than frequently mowed greenspaces.”

Attitudes were changed in Appleton as the tall grasses grew in May 2020. “A post-No Mow May survey revealed that the participants were keen to increase native floral resources in their yards, increase native bee nesting habitat, reduce mowing intensities, and limit herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer applications to their lawns,” the study said.

A monoculture lawn that is heavily manicured with frequent mowing, and chemically managed is not what is best for the long-term health of our planet. Climate change exacerbates the problems of shrinking biodiversity.

Lawns filled with what many consider weeds — even non-native plants like dandelions — can support native bees.

The history of lawns in America — one thoughtful piece was written by Krystal D’Costa for Scientific American in 2017 — makes it clear the green carpets we see everywhere aren’t inevitable; we can, and must, create a different landscape.

D’Costa describes the way early European colonists settling in New England brought cattle, sheep, and goats with them. Pasture grasses were not native to New England; rather, annuals like wild rye and broomstraw grew. Once the Europeans’ livestock had eaten through those native annual grasses, many starved or died of the poisonous plants they had eaten.

Seventeenth Century supply ships then brought grass seed from Europe to America, along with weeds, which spread across the continent. Guinea grass and Bermuda grass from Africa spread throughout the south, D’Costa writes, while Kentucky bluegrass, which hailed from Europe and the Middle East, spread throughout the Appalachian Mountains and the Midwest. Grasses from the Mediterranean grew in the west as Spanish soldiers and missionaries settled there.

Unlike today, grass was primarily a crop. Before the Civil War, few homes in the United States had front lawns. A few very wealthy Americans, following the European tradition, had sweeping lawns, some of them used for grazing. In France and Great Britain, lawns had been cultivated since the 16th Century by the uber-wealthy who could afford the laborers to scythe and tend them and who had the leisure to play lawn games.

Until the mid-1800s in America, most homes were built close to the street with small closed private gardens in back. With the rise of automobiles, coupled with the public park movement led by Frederick Law Olmsted, middle- and upper-class Americans started beautifying the front of their homes, which were viewed by those passing by.

After World War II, as the federal government financed low-cost mortgages, tract housing for the working class sprung up. “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns,” wrote Abraham Levitt who with his sons built more than 17,000 homes between 1947 and 1951, including Levittown, New York, the quintessential mass-produced suburb.

Although Englishman Edwin Beard Budding invented the lawnmower in 1830, his invention was largely used on grand estates and for sports grounds. It wasn’t until the 1860s that manufacturing of improved mowers increased; gasoline-powered mowers were first manufactured in the United States in 1914.

So here we are — living in a time and place where more surface area in the United States is devoted to lawns than to individual irrigated crops such as corn or wheat. This is according to satellite calculations done by Cristina Milesi for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Milesi’s calculations show that 200 gallons of fresh, usually drinking-quality water per person per day is required to keep up our nation’s lawn surface area.

Fifty to 70 percent of residential water in the United States is used for landscaping, with most used to water lawns.

This is in a time when water supplies are increasingly under pressure nationwide as populations grow and climate change wreaks havoc.

“The water table has dropped hundreds of feet in many locations, and rivers and streams go dry for long stretches in various seasons as water is siphoned off for agriculture, industry, and individual residences,” says NASA’s Earth Observatory. “All along the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to New York, saltwater is flowing into formerly freshwater aquifers and wells because we are pumping freshwater out faster than nature can put it back.”

Given these pressures, says Milesi, it’s important to think about how society uses the available water.

Watering lawns is not the best use of our limited resources. 

Here in Altamont, after the two wells on Brandle Road were closed because of unacceptable levels of manganese — taking 30 percent of the village water supply offline — the problem is acute. The village has put water restrictions in place with even-numbered homes and businesses allowed unrestricted water use on even calendar days, during two two-hour intervals, and odd-numbered homes and businesses having unrestricted use during those same intervals on odd calendar days.

Over the years in the town of Guilderland, when water has been in short supply because of, say, a water main break, the town has implemented a ban on lawn sprinkling.

Certainly citizens should follow these rules for the good of all: Having water to bathe and cook and drink takes precedence over having a green lawn.

But really, we should use a crisis like this as a chance to look at the bigger picture: Why do we need our collective acres of lush green lawns?

Shouldn’t we move to a new aesthetic? In the short term, we could stop fertilizing with harmful chemicals; we could stop watering with a resource that could best be used elsewhere; and we could mow less, letting the natural plants return to our yards.

And we could leave our grass clippings where they fall to help stem climate change. If people let their clippings decompose on their lawns, the lawn area in the United States could, according to Milesi’s calculations, store up to 16.7 teragrams of carbon each year, which is equivalent to about 37 billion pounds. The growth boost provided by the recycling of nitrogen from the decomposing grass clippings, she found, more than makes up for the carbon being released.

If we still felt the need to have a lush natural space surrounding our homes, we could plant thyme or chamomile, which is likely what some of the original 16th-Century lawns in Europe were made of. These plants wouldn’t need mowing and would help pollinators, not to mention their use in the kitchen.

For the longer term, we could plan for development where houses are more tightly clustered — no need for sweeping lawns — and recreational spaces are shared while use of the automobile, which spawned suburban sprawl in the first place, gives way to healthful walking or cycling.

This would be better for individual health and for the health of our planet.

We thank Ellen Howie, a quiet revolutionary, for opening our mind to these possibilities. Leadership from our local governments could help us take the next step forward. Failing that, each of us, as individuals, can let our lawns run wild and look for the beauty that Edna St. Vincent Millay found in a dandelion — Noble because common, because free.

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