Is brown the new green?

An acquaintance of mine (not coincidentally, an irrigation supplier) brought to my attention a recent editorial from USA today by Laura Vanderkam, entitled ‘’Out of Fashion: Green Lawns.”  The basic premise of the editorial is that we Americans are ruining the environment by maintaining lawns.  Now, to be sure, there is plenty of room for improvement in lawn and landscape maintenance, particularly in terms of water management and pesticide use.  But, for better or worse, Americans love their lawns.  I love my lawn, imperfect though it may be.  We’ve got a couple of big oaks in the backyard and I love to lay a blanket in the shade and read a magazine on Sunday afternoon or just doze with the Tigers game on in the background.  Love to play croquet and bocce.  Love to kick a soccer ball around with my daughter.  In the interest of full disclosure, my lawn will not win any awards.  At this moment about 75% of my lawn is brown, panting in the heat of our first true summer in several years.  I water a small portion of the lawn for the aforementioned croquet/bocce playing, and magazine reading/ Tigers’ game snoozing.  For most part, however, I take a lazzez faire attitude to lawn upkeep; I keep a 3” mower height, apply a little bit of Weed-b-Gone every other year in the section nearest the house when the dandelions are ready to drive me to distraction and, if I remember, put down a half rate of fertilizer in the spring.  Nevertheless I was taken aback by Ms. Vanderkam’s assertion, “Few parents would light a cigarette at a playground anymore, even if it’s not illegal, and we should start treating the presence of a vast, green, cropped grass lawn in the middle of summer the same way: as a weird and antisocial thing.”

Let the games begin. Mrs. Cregg scores again on the opening day of Cornhole season 2010.

Wierd and antisocial? Really. From May to September, our lawn is the most social part of our place.  What’s really needed, and often the hardest to find, is some middle ground.  It’s easy to resent people that belong to homeowners associations that require perfect lawns and hire ‘Chemicals R Us’ to maintain their pristine turf.  However, lawns and landscapes can provide an array of benefits, some tangible like oxygen produciton and cooler air temperature; and some less tangible, like a perfect croquet shot..  We can, and should, look to reduce water and chemical use on lawns.  But Ms. Vanderkam will get me off my John Deere riding mower when she can pry the steering wheel from my cold, dead fingers.


13 thoughts on “Is brown the new green?”

  1. Our whole neighborhood is mostly lawn and consequently, this year is a toasty brown wasteland. I have kept one part the lawn watered around the kids’ swing set and every time we are outside, kids of all ages from the neighborhood come and join us. They like to sit in the grass. It is cool and delightful.

  2. I think its a matter of average annual rainfall. Back in Chicago our lawn was easy to keep going without supplemental water. But now I’m in dry Southern California and it seems like keeping a lawn is just bad human etiquette.

  3. Not only is it annual rainfall, but seasonality of rainfall. In Buffalo (with its abundant summer rain and higher humidity), we had a lush green lawn that never required irrigation, fertilizer or pesticide. (I should mention that it was an unofficial “ecoturf” with primroses, creeping thyme, and other assorted groundcovers that found their way in). In Seattle, there is virtually no rain and low humidity through the summer months. You either spend a fortune keeping it green in the summer or let it go dormant. Or in our case replace the whole thing with landscaping.

  4. I have a “good enough” lawn. I mow high with a mulching mower. I never rake leaves, I mow them into the lawn. I never feed it. I don’t use pesticides or herbicides on it. The vast majority of it is allowed to go brown in Seattle summers, but I do water some of it close to the house. Eventually, most of it will disappear as the baby trees I’ve planted grow up, and I can create shade gardens. In the mean time, I’m kind of tired of being made to feel like public enemy #1 because of it. A little green lawn is good for my soul.

  5. Bert, our house is in the middle of what was essentially a pasture – very difficult to execute the “no lawn” credo with a couple of acres. I’d say our “turf” runs about 40% grass species, 40% white clover, and the rest random broadleaf thingies. Dogs, croquet battles, chickens, honeybees… we all utilize the lawn. Never spray, never fertilize (the chickens help, tho). I do enjoy a warm summer afternoon on the ol’ zero-turn-radius mower with a cold beer in the cupholder. Kind of zen (for me, anyway). Like you said, middle ground.

  6. And I dare anyone to put a garden there instead of a lawn and think it won’t hurt your home’s resale value. Still, my neighborhood could use some, ANY, foundation shrubs (some that flower adn fruit?), and perhaps at least one freaking tree. Lawns are supposed to create the illusions of one large, open, park-like democratic space, right, that we all enjoy? Do we? I never see my neighbors out front. And wouldn’t we all benefit from higher curb appeal, and trees shading our hot summer roofs and asphalt streets? Maybe Im taking this beyond lawn, but it all seems tied together.

    1. THere are kids constantly crawling across our lawns. 🙂 Not that everyone has much of a lawn, beyond a perfunctory apron of grass, but there’s something. If course, I moved into a neighborhood that has old-growth trees and is a kid paradise.

  7. I’m definitely with you on this one! I wonder if the author of the article really understands what “weird and antisocial” means. When I was a kid running around and playing in the neighborhood lawns that’s how I met friends, kids need a place to run and play and that is a great reason to keep a lawn. I do agree on the better lawn management practices though. You can have a lawn and be environmentally conscientious and the same time!

  8. These comments show that there is not one perfect or correct solution to all landscaping issues. The solutions depend on use, need, location, etc. I’m not high on turf grass here in Vancouver, WA because of the reasons Linda Chalker-Scott cite, but there are many situations where it really is the best option.

  9. The cynic in me wants to say that the anti-lawn movement is a ploy by nurseries to sell more plants. After all when we remove turf and replace it with plants we need to buy those plants.

    One thing not mentioned here is the carbon sequestration capabilities of turf grass. A little poking around on the interwebs will bring up some information that shows turf is an excellent carbon sequestration device. Even with the standard maintenance practices it seems to be a net sequester-er. How anti-social is that? Removal procedures result in carbon releases.
    Just sayin’.

  10. The alternative to a lawn is NOT some kind of native paradise, as these people seem to think. The historical precursor, which is visible in ALL European paintings depicting outdoor village scenes from the early middle ages until the 1700s, which is STILL used in African and Indian villages and in some parts of China, as well as in places in South America, is the swept yard. The swept yard is a bare, hard surface of clay kept completely bare of all growth. There are trees for shade, and there can be plants around the edges, but the yard itself is bare because it doesn’t track in filth and it keeps pests at bay and it makes a good “patio” for all kinds of work and play.

    The lawn is a swept yard with carpet. You can say it’s overused in some ways, but to fulfil the functions of a yard, a large art of it is REASONABLE to be dedicated to turf.

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