There’s a water crisis. Why do we still have lawns?
An American dream meets a changing landscape
By Dan Zak
Lawns, still, somehow.
The planet has accelerated its revolt against us and still we tend our lawns, one part of Earth we can control. Society falters, resources dwindle and, still, lawns.
Lawns: burned out, blond and dead, in the air fryer of August. Lawns: emerald green — no, alien green — and kept that way by maniacal vigilance and an elaborate system of pipes and potions, organic and otherwise, in defiance of ecology. And for what? To have, in this chaos, dominion over something? (Lawn and order?) To drape a veil of verdancy over a world gone to seed? To feel equal or superior to Ron, across the street, whose lawn always looks like the 18th at Pebble Beach?
We’ve been sweeping our anxieties under these green comfort blankets for quite some time. A “smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home,” wrote Frank J. Scott in 1870, around the time of the first lawn mower patent, in a book titled “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent” (Chapter XIII: The Lawn).
“For ‘setting off’ both the house and the landscape, planting a good lawn is of vital importance,” declared a caption in the New York Times in 1937.
Around that time, during the Great Depression, the Mattei family in Cincinnati did not have a lawn. They had a yard, and the yard was functional. It was for the chickens and tomato plants. It was not for grass. One of the Matteis, Vic, used the GI Bill to get to graduate school and become a research scientist. He made a family of his own in the Philadelphia suburb of Cinnaminson, N.J., in a subdivision that paved over Quaker farmland to accommodate Americans who were tinkering with the Aegis radar system for the nearby RCA Corp. Everyone in the subdivision had a lawn, of course. What was the American Dream, in the 20th century, if it wasn’t aproned by a quarter acre of Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue, which is good for recreation and admiration and not much else?
Vic had some token vegetable plants on the property, but the yard was not for survival. The yard was for lawn, and the lawn was for mowing.
“He was mowing the lawn every Saturday,” says Vic’s daughter, Edamarie Mattei. “And that was success: Having the lawn. Mowing the lawn.”
That was the 1970s.
It is now a half-century later. Specifically Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. Mattei, a landscape designer, is standing on a lawn in a leafy crook of Bethesda, Md. She is talking to the owner of the lawn about getting rid of it.
“It contributes nothing,” says M.J. Veverka about her lawn, which she’s watered and weeded and mowed for 31 years — and for what? The lawn is static, nonfunctional, tedious. Last year Veverka filled in her backyard pool, removed the surrounding lawn and enlisted Mattei’s company to turn the space into an oasis of native plants, a “homegrown national park,” in the words of a grass-roots movement for regenerating biodiversity. Veverka so loves the backyard — which is now an evolving work of horticultural art and a functioning component of the surrounding ecosystem — that she wants to do the same thing with her front yard.
Step one: Get thee gone, lawn.
Mattei used to spend more time educating clients about the benefits of turf removal and native plantings; in the past two years, for whatever reason, new clients have started coming to her with those very ideas. Maybe quarantine amplified the sameness of lawns. Maybe, in this climate-conscious era, we are thinking outside the strict geometry of the lawn, which Mattei describes as “ecologically dead” — a “monoculture” in a world that needs biodiversity.
Over a century, from around the 1870s to the 1970s, Americans slowly fell in love with lawns. Lawns were a sign of taste, calm, power, privilege, order, discipline, especially in the aftermath of World War II.
“On the American front lawn men use power machinery and chemicals, the tools of war, to engage in a battle for supremacy with Mother Nature,” writes Virginia Scott Jenkins in her book “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession.”
Over the past 50 years, we’ve slowly fallen out of love with lawns. They began to signal waste, disregard, disharmony, homogeneity, gentrification, zombie Boomerism.
“Wasn’t there something a bit decadent about millions of Americans applying millions of pounds of fertilizer and pouring millions of gallons of water on the ground to grow something you couldn’t eat unless you were a Jersey cow?” columnist Ellen Goodman wrote in the Boston Globe all the way back in 1977. “Wasn’t there something bizarre about their spending millions of gallons to cut it off?”
“I think we’re growing up as a country,” Mattei says. “For a lot of American history, it seemed like we had boundless access to land, and we kept extracting from it and building on it. I see a real change from looking at land as a demonstration of power or success to looking at land as a precious resource.”
She adds: “When we are lawn people, we are one thing. When we are not lawn people, we are another thing.”
We are still, largely, lawn people. The biggest irrigated crop, by area, in the United States? Not corn, or soybean, but lawn. Unproductive, ornamental lawn: around 40 million acres of it, or 2 percent of the land area of the Lower 48, according to multiple estimates cited by Garik Gutman, program manager for NASA’s Land-Cover/Land-Use Change Program.
Forty million acres: The entire state of Georgia couldn’t contain America’s total lawnage. And we pour 9 billion gallons of water on landscaping every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile the Southwest United States is enduring a megadrought; the past two decades constitute its driest period since the year 800. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought state of emergency in October. In a world thirsty for water, lawns are a sneaky siphon.
These days we have “No Mow May,” where neighbors test each other’s tolerance for nonconformity. We have Twitter users sharing before-and-after photos of their “war on lawns,” which turn flat slabs of sickly green into colorful kingdoms of billowing flora. We have a channel on Reddit called NoLawns and TikTok hashtags such as #antilawn, which might direct you to a performance of a profane anti-lawn song by a 27-year-old Nashville musician named Mel Bryant.
“At the time, all of my neighbors were obsessed with their lawns,” says Bryant, who wrote the song on Earth Day 2020. “Everyone was mowing constantly, every day. At any point in time you’d hear lawn mowers going. And it drove me fricking insane. I still have this one neighbor who, I swear, on the Fourth of July he was mowing at 7:30 p.m. What are you doing, dude? This can wait.”
Bryant’s song racked up tens of thousands of views, spreading through TikTok’s #cottagecore hashtag, where younger people advertise their cozy, quaint, sustainable, back-to-nature ethos.
“Everyone’s got the perfect lawn,” Bryant says of her street, in the Rosebank area of Nashville. “They seed their lawns. They have sprinklers and s---. I think it’s attached to a more old-school, boomer generation of the idea of what an American life is. And our lawn …” Well, Bryant has let it grow wild. “I do think it’s pretty generational. I’ve definitely noticed in the past few years that so many people around my age are getting into gardening, and taking their lawns and turning them into gardens.”
Walt Whitman wrote of grass in 1855: “I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful greenstuff woven.”
Said Hank Hill, fictional Texas propane salesman, in 1997: “Look, some people hoist a flag to show they love our country. Well, my lawn is my flag.”
But lawn has become a liability — or in some cases an asset, on the condition of its removal. California’s main water utility is paying customers between $2 and $5 for each square foot of living turf that they remove. Last year Nevada outlawed certain types of lawn; rather, the state legislature prohibited the use of water from the dribbling Colorado River to feed certain types of “nonfunctional turf,” which in southern Nevada slurps up to 12 billion gallons of water every year (more than 10 percent of the state’s usage of the river). The law created a committee to sort “functional” turf from “nonfunctional”; discussions were had about how to categorize “pet relief” areas and “wedding lawns at golf courses.”
Before the law passed, Sun City Anthem, an active-adult community in Henderson, Nev., had already removed almost 40,000 square feet of grass, which nearly halved its water bill. Larry Fossan, facility manager and landscape supervisor, replaced the lawn with xeriscaping: native plants like lantana, cactuses, Mexican feathergrass. Last year on the property Fossan saw something he’d never seen before in Nevada: monarch butterflies, about 25 of them, migrating through.
“There’s flowers, color, butterflies, hummingbirds,” Fossan says of lawnless living. “Different parts of the day you see different things. We have boulders so people can sit and be part of the landscape. When we had grass, people just walked into the building, but now they’ll stop and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah.’ Landscaping is meant to be interactive. It’s meant to be part of your life.”
Lawns, of course, are part of your life. You throw a football on them, you picnic on them, you lean and loaf on them. Some years ago Dave Marciniak penned a polite defense of lawns on his landscape company’s blog: “Why the anti-lawn movement bugs me a little.” Turf serves a purpose, he wrote. It’s soft and durable for recreation. It provides visual relief for the eye, and contrast for landscaping.
Marciniak welcomes changing landscaping tastes, but notes that they are changing slowly.
“As much as Americans like to call themselves rugged individuals, there’s a lot of looking around to see what other people are doing,” says Marciniak, who lives in Culpeper, Va. “I explain to people advocating anti-lawn: Look, it’s not going to happen overnight. If you want to get people away from lawns, we have to show them it can be beautiful, it can be desirable.” And perhaps, most importantly: “It can make the neighbors jealous.”