Spectacular Japanese Fountain Grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), indeed, but it would be so much less without the Bent Grass (Agrostis stolonifera), an Asian native beloved in the Pacific Northwest and considered a weed in the Atlantic Northeast. Photograph taken at Heronswood’s original test and display gardens in Kingston.
Get rid of your lawn? Plant it with flowers and vegetables? I’m for that! But not at the expense of my Brother Lawn. Rather, I wish to add to his beauty, as well as his many years of service. Thus, “In Defense of Lawns”.
In a New York Times Op/Ed Classic from 1991 and reprinted last month to demonstrate its relevance and timeliness, the best-selling food and environment writer Michael Pollan says:
“We Americans have traditionally looked on our front lawns as nothing less than an institution of democracy. Beginning in the 19th century, at the urging of such landscape designer-reformers as Frederick Law Olmsted and Andrew Jackson Downing, we took down our old-world walls and hedges (which they had declared to be “selfish” and “undemocratic”) and spread an uninterrupted green carpet of turf grass across our yards, down our streets, along our highways and, by and by, across the entire continent.”
My guess is most folks have never heard of Olmsted and Downing or, if so, only in passing. Pollan’s provenance of lawns is news to 99.9% of Americans. I doubt highly that anyone conceives of his lawn as the “institution of democracy”. People take pride in their lawns because they are handsome and functional, providing places for children to play, athletic fields, a buffer between the house and the street, a fire break in the western half of the country and a place you can accidentally drop a plate of BBQ ribs or spill a glass of wine without care. Lawns are fun and look pretty—I believe that is how they are “looked on”. Their elegance and beauty stir our imaginations rather than politicize our identities.
“The democratic symbolism of the lawn may be appealing, but it carries an absurd and, today, unsupportable environmental price tag. In our quest for the perfect lawn, we waste vast quantities of water and energy, human as well as petrochemical . . .
But the deeper problem with the American lawn, and the reason I believe the White House lawn must go, is less chemical than metaphysical. The lawn is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with our relationship to the land. Lawns require pampering because we ask them to thrive where they do not belong.”
As I say, I don’t believe that Americans are aware that their lawns and playing fields constitute an “institution of democracy”. Their conception of their lawns is not stuck in the 1950s, when the apparently traumatic incident took place that Pollan describes in which his “free spirit” father, after being pressured by his neighbors to cut his lawn, mowed only his initials into the two foot high grass.
Over the past 40 years, awareness of the effects of air and water pollution on the quality of our lives has grown. In response to this, local, state and federal governments have set guidelines and passed laws to limit or ban many pollutants. For example, phosphates have largely been eliminated from lawn fertilizers. In addition, Americans have long ago come to appreciate water as a limited (and increasingly expensive) resource—something the rest of the world has never forgotten. Many alternatives to the “traditional lawn” have sprouted up over the past 30 years. They involve the use of native species that require less input of time (mowing), chemicals (fertilizers and herbicides, both organic and non-organic) and irrigation. Currently, there are many alternatives to the so-called “traditional lawn” that are diverse as well as regionally adapted.
Perhaps, over the last 10 years, Pollan and others such as the late Sarah Stein helped to raise folks’ awareness of these alternatives. However, political correctness doesn’t earn anyone, in my book, the right to tear up the White House lawn.
But what, after all, is this “traditional lawn”?
“Turf grasses are not native to America, yet we have insisted on spreading them from the Chesapeake watershed to the deserts of California without the slightest regard for local geography.”
This is a straw man as well as untrue. The non-native species that are used in lawns aren’t invasive ones that hitched a ride in a cargo container a couple of decades ago, as he implies by lumping them in with controversial or truly destructive invasive species.
For example, we use Perennial Rye and Meadow Fescue at Fordhook. They originated mainly in Northern Europe and are almost perfect for our Atlantic maritime area, fifty miles inland. This classic mixture can be found in domestic usage from 30° N latitude at high elevations to 62° N—an extraordinary range.
Another example is Kentucky bluegrass, the quintessential turf grass. It is native to most of Europe, Northern Asia and the mountains of North Africa. The climates of these regions are similar to the cool humid parts of the U.S. where Kentucky bluegrass has been extensively planted. It is particularly well suited to many parts of North America. The early European colonists brought all these grasses to this country over 200 years ago where they’ve become thoroughly adapted. Such a horticultural success should be celebrated rather than scorned. What other “foreigners” should we stop growing? Lettuce? Carrots? Beets? Melons? Send the cow and the horse packing? “Back to Eurasia with you!”
Furthermore, there is also the issue of cool- vs. warm-season grasses:
Cool-season grasses are those that develop most rapidly during spring and early summer when cool nights follow warm days. They are dormant during the hottest parts of summer and begin to grow again in late summer and early fall. These grasses include timothy, orchard grass, and brome grass—all introduced species—as well as native species such as Canada wild rye, redtop, and June grass. They do well in the northeast and Midwest but poorly in hotter, drier climates.
Warm-season grasses are “bunch grasses” that develop most rapidly during summer when warm nights follow hot days. They include native prairie species such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass.
Pollan would have us believe that the lawns grown in Connecticut are the same as those grown in southern California. He tells us that all lawn grasses are homologous across the country. This is both false and misleading.
The untrue part of Pollan’s invasive statement is that he fails to mention a large number of lawn and turf or sod grasses that are, in fact, native. Buffalo grass is one of these (Buchloe dactyloides). Researchers have developed many cultivars at the University of Nebraska that are suitable for golf courses and home lawns throughout the U.S. A warm-season grass, it grows well and even forms sod from Alberta, Canada, to northern Mexico. Furthermore, it is drought-resistant, thus conservative in its use of water.
It’s clear that Pollan doesn’t like lawns, to say the least. This accounts for his not looking at them very closely. They differ quite a bit, as do roadside forests of deciduous trees. In any case, if he doesn’t enjoy lawns and the chores involved with their maintenance, he’s free to live in an apartment, to replace his lawn with a flower,
vegetable or perennial garden. (Please do!)
However, in other places in his books and essays, Pollan repeatedly suggests that lawns represent a dysfunctional relationship between humankind and nature, and symbolize environmental neglect or, worse, destruction. Again, this is untrue.
For example, lawns do a good job of sequestering carbon. A well-kept lawn is not only a pleasure, but also an excellent “carbon sink”. The photosynthetic process—sunlight turning carbon dioxide into sugar, cellulose and other plant constituents—fixes or “sinks” carbon into grasses, lawns, gardens and the soils that support them. If anything, a lawn is an ecological flag—even more so, ironically, than a vegetable garden. A lawn resists soil degradation much better than a veggie patch, which gets torn up each year, decomposing and thus releasing the plant carbons from the soil by exposing roots and debris to microbes. No more carbon sink—the carbon goes back into the atmosphere.*
While an annual flower or vegetable garden fixes less carbon than the lawn, it is also true that a recreation of a prairie grass meadow, with big and little blue-stems, coneflowers and other long-lived native perennial plants, will fix either more or the equal of a typical well-maintained lawn. So, certainly, a meadow is as good as a lawn for the environment—maybe even better. But to suggest that lawns are bad for the environment is nonsense.
Indeed, recent research suggests that lawns are not merely carbon sinks but also “pollen traps”. This is yet another advantage of a lawn over a backyard prairie.** In his article, “The Pollen-trapping Power Of A Lawn”, T.L. Ogren states that an average, well-kept lawn removes “far more pollen than it will ever produce itself” as well as “hundreds of millions” of grains from surrounding trees and shrubs, by snaring them in its brushy surface. Then, after rains and lawn sprinklings, the pollen is pushed down into the lawn even further, making it almost impossible to dry out and become air-borne again.
The most obvious problem with home prairie grasslands is, to me, critters—from mice, squirrels and chipmunks to skunks and snakes. And how will you know a trespasser isn’t an opossum or raccoon? There’s also the issue of insects. I, for one, love them. However, I prefer them in the wild or the vegetable and flower garden—not on my porch. For example, wasps and yellow jackets commonly nest in meadow soils. Ridding a recreated tall grass meadow of them would be, literally, a pain in the neck.
One example of the prejudice against wild grasses: As I was recovering from being nudged awake, one of several times, during the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I noticed a reference in the story to the “grasses”—being tall species—of China’s “wild west”. They symbolized the rude, crude and uncivilized. Not so absurd, then, that the Chinese adore lawn and turf grasses and reckon that they represent the finer things in life.
The chord “Crouching” touches is probably universal. Meadow or pasture grass, whence our lawn species originate, is one of the first “biophilic” organisms (to use Edward O. Wilson’s term)—the first life forms we lived with. No pasture, no cattle. No cattle, no meat, milk, leather, etc. Little wonder green grass is associated with heaven in religious art, as in “Sheep May Safely Graze” by J. S. Bach. Trace your pets, too, back to meadow grass, man’s first best friend. Indeed, it was likely a key factor in domesticating us. It certainly makes sense: Poacae, the universal grass family, was found where we were.
Also, there’s the aesthetic interest. While I adore the reclaimed farms and restored prairies of my native Midwest, I’ve become attached to lawns, especially large ones. The landscape architect Arthur Edwin Bye was the Rembrandt of the sweeping lawn. Once you see this type of beauty, you never forget it.
Finally, much as I love gardens, fields of crops and formal city parks, I’m most fond of golf courses. In my childhood they were mysterious—even a bit scary. They came as close to a dragon’s lair as I wanted to get. But now I adore them. Each is unique and some are dazzling. All do at least a fair job of revealing the essence of the surrounding landscape or cityscape. And, except for those requiring carts, you always get a good walk. Some in the Southwest are dreamily beautiful, like something out of a Star Trek scene. Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe is a perfect example, and public to boot.
Perhaps, as his father was stuck in the 1950s, Pollan is a bit lost in a 1970s view of chemical lawns. Pity, because he’s an effective spokesman when he is not making erroneous statements in his Romantic, quasi-Wendell Berry mode. I rather wish he’d adopt a Wallace Beery mode and tumble around with his kids on the White House lawn.
*Specifically, tillage decreases soil organic carbon levels over time. Lawns of long standing, like that at the White House, are highly productive and are effective sinks of atmospheric carbon. That is atmospheric carbon (CO2) is incorporated into the roots and leaves of grasses. In a study of golf courses (see Argon. J. 94:930-935), where the oldest was 45 yr old and the newest 1.5 yr old, non linear regression analysis of compiled historic data demonstrated that total C sequestration continued for up to 31 yr in fairways and 45 yr in putting greens. The most rapid increase occurred during the first 25 to 30 yr after turf grass establishment, at average rates approaching 0.9 and 1.0 t ha-1 yr-1 for fairways and putting greens, respectively. Note that the most actively managed areas (putting greens) sequester the most carbon.
**Thomas Leo Ogren is the author of Allergy-Free Gardening. He can be reached at his website,
Lawn As Margin (Fordhook Farm)
Lawn As Partner (Fordhook Farm)