Why prairies matter and lawns don’t

Prairies – those critically endangered and complex ecosystems understood by few and misunderstood and destroyed by millions of people.

Lawns – those myopically obsessive (and evil) urban, suburban, and increasingly rural monoculture eyesores that displace native ecosystems at a rate between 5,000 and 385,000 acres per day* in favor of sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments bloated with a tremendous European influence that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage.  And there’s the unbearable ubiquitousness of mowing associated with such a useless cultural practice, which creates a ridiculous amount of noise pollution, air and water pollution, and a bustling busyness that destroys many peaceful Saturday mornings.  The American lawn is the epitome of unsustainability.
*The discrepancy is due to expenses.  It would be extremely expensive to taxpayers and institutions to obtain the satellite imagery needed to perform a detailed analysis as to how much lawn there really is.  Also keep in mind that a lot of lawns are “hidden” under the canopies of trees and urban forests, so those numbers I’ve quoted are conservative at best.  Click here for a more thorough explanation.  I would also guess those numbers are taken from urban sprawl rates, which varies year to year, decade to decade, etc.

As one internet commenter named Carrie eloquently said, “as a nation, we have far too much lawn doing far too little for us.”

How much lawn is too much?  41 million acres.  That figure makes lawn the most widespread plant under irrigation in the contiguous US.  Three times more acreage is covered in irrigated lawn than in irrigated corn, and that’s a conservative estimate.  All of that once precious water used on those 41 million acres of ridiculous, non-native turfgrass to keep it unnaturally green – how can people be so blind?

Lawns, along with row-crop farms, “improved” grazing pastures, and urbanization, are some of the biggest negative land conversions of native landscapes, and are direct contributors to the destruction of wildlife and native plant habitats throughout the world.  As native landscapes disappear, wildlife disappear, and important ecological processes that insure outcomes such as clean drinking water, climate change buffers, and flood control also disappear.  The future of mankind depends heavily upon the health of native landscapes.

Prairies matter because of their immense root systems; dense, sprawling, complex biological systems that store one third of the world’s carbon and subsequently clean our future water as it precipitates from moisture-laden clouds onto diverse plant communities, and filters down through the mass of litter, roots, soil organisms, and soil horizons.  Water quality always follows soil carbon levels, and prairies are the best soil carbon factories in the world.  Lawns do not compare and never will.

prairierootsystems
Illustration by Heidi Natura, 1995, of Living Habitats.  Click on image to see larger version.  80% of a prairie’s biomass is below ground, which is a part of the reason why prairies are the greatest soil carbon factories in the world.  Those roots break up compacted soil, and as a portion of those roots die each year, they add organic matter and decompose into carbon, further enriching the soil; all of this is done without deadly pesticides or equally deadly petrochemical fertilizers.

Photo above: On the far left is a common lawn grass, Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis), a native of Europe.  The rest of the plants are native prairie species.

Other common lawn grasses are Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.), and Bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum), to name a few.  None of those are native either, originating from Africa, Japan, and Brazil, respectively.

Kentucky Bluegrass did not originate in North America (a handful of sources say otherwise), so why are we planting it and other weedy non-native grasses?  Is it out of fear of nature?  Is it out of ignorance of the true beauty of natural ecosystems? (Homeowner associations and neighborhood zoning laws are famous for that).  What is so wrong with native plants that we bring in non-native junk from other continents?  It’s because most people are impatient when it comes to plants, and they want something that grows fast, is green, stays green, and can be kept as flat as a table top – something the Scotts Company has successfully brainwashed millions of people into believing they can achieve via weekly and noisy toil, though not without taking a chunk out of their paychecks and making them do a whole lot of work with nothing to show for it.  How vain, futile, and suicidal.

The American lawn now represents a serious civic problem. That the space devoted to it continues to grow—and that more and more water and chemicals and fertilizer are devoted to its upkeep—doesn’t prove that we care so much as that we are careless.”
– Elizabeth Kolbert

The carelessness of the American people’s obsessive compulsion for such silly and lowly turfgrass goals extends far beyond the failure they are set up for in regards to their quest for the unsustainable and unattainable “perfect lawn”.  As noted before, lawns are suicidal – we are poisoning ourselves, our children, and our water for something that is wholly obtuse and unneeded.  Why not be productive and grow a garden instead?  A garden, prairie, woodland, forest or xeriscape are far better than the high-maintenance and pervasive European-style lawns.

To sum up the nearsightedness of lawn lovers, here’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “You can’t depend on your judgement when your imagination is out of focus.”

§   §   §

  • Every day more than 5,000 acres of land are converted to lawns in the U.S.  By some estimates, this figure exceeds 385,000 acres.
  • Lawns currently cover more than 41 million acres, the most irrigated graminoid plant in the U.S.
  • Americans apply over 30,000 tons of pesticides to their yards every year.
  • Of the 30 most used lawn pesticides, 17 are routinely detected in groundwater.
  • The National Cancer Institute finds that children in households that have lawn treated with pesticides have a 6.5 times greater risk of developing leukemia.
  • American lawns require 200 gallons of fresh water per person per day to maintain and keep green. People in Developing Countries would kill for that amount of water, and here we are carelessly using it on silly turfgrass.
  • Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system.
  • Of those same pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystems, 11 are toxic to bees, and 16 are toxic to birds.
  • If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three people on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.

Sources:
“Turfgrass Revolution: Measuring the expansion of the American Lawn”, Robbins and Birkenholtz
“America’s $41 billion a year green lawns are turning the earth brown”
Gimme Green

For more on why prairies matter and lawns don’t, read Paul Gruchow’s wonderful essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us.

74 thoughts on “Why prairies matter and lawns don’t

  1. Jameson, once again, nails all those who yearn to show off a well trimmed lawn to the locals on the block or wherever. He also throws the problem in our faces making it difficult to turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to it. Keep the upheaval flowing, Jameson!

  2. Thank you for this. Best article I’ve read in a long time. I’m sharing. And planting a pocket prairie in my backyard, thanks to our friends at Native American Seed. It’s time to educate the public. In times of a severe drought, pouring precious drinking water on lawns is unethical. On the upside, there are nurseries focusing on native plants and organic gardening. I’ve converted our backyard to a forest and our front yard to a vegetable- and xeriscape/pollinator garden.

  3. While lawns currently do have negative aspects to them, and prairies are threatened ecosystems, you cannot simply take the stance that lawns are evil and must be done away with. That will be a hard sell to the public. Rather, designers and ecologists should enter into a better dialogue where we can tweak familiar spatial landscape elements so they retain the function of healthy ecosystems such as grasslands. For instance, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center developed a native turf grass mix that outperforms traditional non native lawn species and is drought tolerant. We did this not by creating some frakenstein-esque cultivar, but by looking at a few short grass prairie species and utilizing them to create a lawn condition. This native lawn needs infrequent watering, can go dormant if watering is eliminated, sequesters carbon, and creates habitat while simultaneously creating a lawn condition that is so desired. We will have a much greater impact if we can successfully integrate cultural layers with ecosystem function in our urban and suburban areas. In fact, if we do it right cities can become large scale habitats as opposed to environmental antagonists.

    • John, thanks for your reply, good points all around. I have mentioned Habiturf in several of my posts before, most recently here: https://healthylandethic.com/2013/10/20/texas-native-plant-week-2013/. It looks like a good product and I hope to buy some in the next few years.

      The “lawns are evil” comment was mostly in jest (see the hyperlink attached to that statement in the original post). But on the other hand, with very little prairie left, I don’t see it a stretch to call lawns evil, especially when they are displacing prairie and other native ecosystems at a rate of 385,000 acres per day – that can’t be ignored.

    • “While lawns currently do have negative aspects to them, and prairies are threatened ecosystems, you cannot simply take the stance that lawns are evil and must be done away with.”

      Sad that you’re so offended by this statement that you’re willing to look past the actual facts in the article.

  4. Great post. Just happened to trip over your blog, but I’ll be following from now on. Never ceases to amaze me how deep the roots of these prairie plants go. I have 40 acres of native grass prairie that I am going to go kiss when I get home.

  5. John — Oh sure you can take the stance that lawns are evil. Absolutely. Because they are. Their cultural taproots dig deep into the American belief that freedom is destruction and ignorance; we still very much live with the legacy of what we did to Plains tribes of Native Americans, carrying out cultural eradication of people and plants and animals in our tiny castle-like suburban islands of 1/4 acre lots. People SHOULD be upset an affronted when we say their lawns are evil. They SHOULD get angry. There SHOULD be a fight. Nothing will change without one. I get tired of hearing we need to gently convert people from lawns to native plantings, from coal to solar, from gas to hybrids — it ain’t working, the climate is still changing, the Pacific Ocean garbage patch is still growing, pipelines are still leaking in my backyard, etc. Change comes with yelling, not whispering. See the 1960s.

    • Let’s not forget that the “native” people eradicated most flora and fauna and animals far before Europeans got here. Studying back thousands of years to when humans first left Africa for Australia, the began destroying everything. Every time humans found a new area (such as the Americas when the natives walked over from “Russia”) they destroyed more than 50% of the local flora and fauna and eradicated more than 50% of the wildlife, especially the big game. So no one (including all native peoples of the Earth) are innocent. Far from it, we are all the same.

    • “People SHOULD be upset an affronted when we say their lawns are evil. They SHOULD get angry. There SHOULD be a fight. Nothing will change without one.”

      Exactly. Literally nothing will change until their stories are approached and confronted.

  6. One of the things that has helped with my neighbors is the sign I posted that says, “Certified Wildlife Habitat”. People are much less testy when they think you are protecting critters and birds.

    I teach workshops two or three times a year about landscaping with native plants and grasses. I suggest people start slowly and then add a little more each year…the gradual transition helps with the acceptance and every little bit of grass removed from the lawn is a plus.

      • I don’t want to make the best the enemy of the better, however, vast areas of lawn are not irrigated, for the reason that they are in areas of high enough rainfall, same with the corn. The damage is done irrespective of irrigation, i.e. loss of soil carbon, diminished diversity and habitat, tillage, fertilizer and chemical treatments, etc..I don’t see the point in the irrigated comparison..carry on brother

  7. For the most part, I agree with your central idea, but these numbers confused me.

    ◾Every day more than 385,000 acres of land are converted to lawns in the U.S.
    ◾Lawns cover more than 41 million acres, the most irrigated crop in the U.S.

    If the first is true, we’re creating more than a million acres of lawn every three days. We would cover 40 million acres roughly every 120 days. That doesn’t seem to match up.

    • Howdy Jeff,

      I have seen the acres converted to lawn figure as low as 5,000 acres to as high as 385,000 acres – the latter in more than one source. Either way, we have way too much lawn in this country.

      The discrepancy is due to expenses. It would be extremely expensive to taxpayers and institutions to obtain the satellite imagery needed to perform a detailed analysis as to how much lawn there really is. Also keep in mind that a lot of lawns are “hidden” under the canopies of trees and urban forests, so those numbers I’ve mentioned are conservative.

      See here http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/lawn2.php for a more thorough explanation.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Yeah, those numbers are way off…that means we are adding 140 million acres of lawns per year, so the baseline number of 40-50 million acres (which was documented using remote sensing technology) would be tripled after 1 year. My guess is that it is closer to 1 million acres per year (about 3000 per day), but that may even be high…especially since development has been slow over the last decade.

  8. Howdy Jeff,
    Texas is currently experiencing the worst drought on record. Incredibly, many folks statewide
    believe that they are “entitled” to their St. Augustine grass. In fact, many wrong-headed Homeowners’ Associations force their members to water non-native St. Augustine grass, or face fines! As the second largest state, Texas needs a paradigm shift BIG TIME! Xeriscapes work just as well in Texas as they do in Arizona. Instead of drilling backyard wells to get around the water restrictions, prominent elected officials and political candidates in Texas should lead by example. The first step is being willing to see yourself as others see you and become “water wise”.

  9. Im slowly but surely trying to explain the negative aspects of lawns to all my friends. It seems most people know very little about the superfluous property ornaments aptly named “lawns.” After college I moved back home to my parents Chicago property and slowly but surely transformed their front yard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat, complete with indigenous shrubs and trees as well as food, water, cover and places for animals to raise their young. In the future im hoping to eliminate the small amount of left over grass and replace it with wildflowers. I hope our neighbors would also do the same.

  10. The land mass bought up by National Builders and developed is 1 million acres a year or over a 10 year period the same land mass as Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. Black top, huge McMansions and sprawl cost the average person over 44% of her income in home costs and the transportation to get there. The built model we are using, based on corporate profits from “cheap” land and cheaply constructed huge, unmaintainable homes will and must shift from a more knowledgeable consumer.

  11. I have one of the largest landscape companies in the Midwest and sadly the majority of my revenue comes from CUTTING lawns. However, I have to say that I am a part of a movement that is taking over vacant lots in Chicago (a dark secret that no one talks about is the vacant land in the city of Chicago in poor neighborhoods, similar to Detroit) and creating urban farms that are at the very least feeding the kids and teaching something other than trash pick up and mowing! I call it gorilla gardening, we take over a lot and turn it into something living, growing and at least the city isn’t mowing it anymore! It’s not prairie but it is better than the crap it used to be! And dare I say… we are going to take Millennium Parks expensive annual flower beds this year and turn them into a vegetable garden, using the principles of Permaculture! You don’t even want to guess how many acres I plant in Chicago of water wasting, unsustainable, gross “bedding” plants! Hey “the city that works” has to please the tourist… hanging baskets, grass and bedding flowers is our winning combination! YIKES.

  12. Great information. I wish it wad less, “preaching to the choir” and more educational. I am trying to change things from the inside, ie: Georgia landscape industry. It’s slow going to change people’s attitudes and impossible if you come off arrogant. Im always looking for information that can help me persuade a home owner to go grassless but there’s a lot more push from industry marketing with the opposite message driiven by greed.

  13. Any suggestions on a how-to use your lawn to grow these native prairie plants? I am seeing a lot of commenters mention “certified wildlife habitat” – are they truly certified? How does one go about getting that? Thanks!!

    • Google “Wild Ones” and start with their info. I did that eight years ago; my 1/2 acre yard is about 80% native now and I love it. It started to look good the 2nd year, but some of the seed I planted is still establishing itself. Check your local library or bookstore for info, too. DO IT! And hang tough, because you will get grief from neighbors. Just know YOU’RE doing a good thing by creating a habitat for other creatures, not poisoning them.

  14. Great post and timely as I’m staring at my sad lawn trying to figure out how to convert to native plants!

    Do you have any suggestions for good resources on transitioning a traditional lawn to native plants? Also, what is a pocket prairie?? Any help is appreciated! I’m a novice gardener and first time home owner.

    • I’d like to know the same thing. Much of my yard (in Omaha, Nebraska) is filled with native plants and trees, but I’d like a resource for converting my remaining lawn to something else … and that’s one of my questions: What do I convert it to?

  15. In many areas it is entirely feasible to have a lawn that consists of native plants…and multiple species of native plants at that. Most people, even native plant nerds like me, like to have some open space on their property to play lawn games or set out a picnic table. In Kansas I had a lawn of buffalograss, prairie ragwort, and pussytoes. In Wisconsin I’m working on Pennsylvania sedge, poverty oat grass, robin’s plantain, and pussytoes. It takes some work getting started, but the time is saved in mowing and fertilizer / biocide applications. But it is a problem that mowing, spraying, aerating, etc. are perceived as forms of recreation for some people. I have a neighbor that covers his entire lawn about four times a week between mowing, bagging clippings, aerating, and fertilizing. It’s his hobby. He told me he liked my yard last year though, which is a big victory. Maybe there are some cracks in his attitude.

  16. We are a Texas Certified Wildlife Habitat. We posted signs. What a contrast to our property and our neighbor’s vast lawn, clipped with gas powered equipment, leaves raked (we gladly accept those) and the whole thing watered. (no children live there) Can’t wait until that practice goes out of fashion. So make a play yard for your children, but leave the rest, please.

  17. Reblogged this on cmcgovney and commented:
    How much lawn is too much? 41 million acres. That figure makes lawn the most widespread plant under irrigation in the contiguous US. Three times more acreage is covered in irrigated lawn than in irrigated corn, and that’s a conservative estimate. All of that once precious water used on those 41 million acres of ridiculous, non-native turfgrass to keep it unnaturally green – how can people be so blind?

  18. Good article;
    but “prairies because of their immense root systems … store one third of the world’s carbon …” (???)
    I think that is highly questionable.

  19. Great article! While I totally agree with your article, we have an issue in suburbs that prevent us from converting to Nativescapes. It is against local ordinances to have “weeds” or uncut lawns that seed or over a height of…12″ I believe. People now get tickets if neighbors report them. It is the “continuity of the neighborhood” that must be preserved (eye-rolling). I will keep plugging away to help change this thinking, but it is slow.

  20. Very interesting article and as an urban flower farmer I have no sentiment for the lawns but I have to question the following sentence: “American lawns require 200 gallons of fresh water per person per day to maintain and keep green”. Surely you meant to write 200 gallons per person per year, or per season? Surely not per day!?

  21. Lawns cannot be evil; they have no cognitive awareness, choice in the matter, or will. They may, however, be detrimental. Actually I tend to agree with you, and feel our American pre-occupation with lawns may have something to do with the way we “conquered this continent and subdued it. We are obsessed with order and control.

  22. As a turf scientist, I hear this all the time. It is easy to view turf as a “non-essential” waste of energy and resources – I get that. However, the reason so much land is converted to turf every year is not because of us just being a “people of excess”, but because our nation and most nations around the world are becoming more urbanized. As this happens, people want green space to play, relax, compete in sports etc – all activities to which turf provides the perfect surface. While native areas and prairies have their place, there are reasons that you might not want this type of landscape in suburbia. Imagine a suburb or urban area with nothing but native prairies…do you know what happens to native prairies on a regular basis? They burn!! Combine that environment with houses and you have a potentially disastrous problem. Prairies also harbor animals and insects that may not be wanted around your house and children – ants, ticks, chiggers, snakes, etc.

    We are constantly pushing and doing research to teach society better ways to manage turf. Planting low -input grasses such as bermudagrass and buffalograss (a native) can really reduce chemical or water inputs – people need to just accept that a dormant lawn with a few weeds is still a lawn – you can play on it, relax on it, let you pets do their business on it, etc.. We are working on mixed-species lawns that include plants that attract pollinators, produce their own fertility (using legumes) and need little to no maintenance. I am not a proponent of large monocultures of turf that are managed for pure green all the time. However, you need to also understand that the picture you painted only applies to about 10% of the 40+ million acres of lawns in the USA. Over 60% of USA lawns have no fertilizers or pesticides applied to them and still provide a valuable function in the urban landscape.

    Again, you have your opinion and it is easy to see why – your view is that all lawns are monocultures, fertilized heavily, constantly treated with pesticides and mowed with gas-guzzling lawn mowers. However, the reality is that is a very small slice of the turfgrass world…

  23. It’s “POPULATION” people. If the world population had not tripled in my life time there would not be nearly as much lawn … or corn fields … or houses … or mines … or highways … or sewer requirements … or chemical fertilizers …. or illegal immigrants … or staving humans … etc..

    Just because human demand triples does not make for more rivers, lakes, rainfall or usable forests or arable land.

  24. Suburban governments, neighborhood associations and homeowners associations are responsible for making it practically mandatory to have either a closely cropped lawn (usually under 3″) or something that doesn’t grow at all. Most aren’t as worried about the sight of a front-yard meadow as they are that they’ll soon have wild critters living in the new ecosystem and suburban humans have lost their ability to live alongside anything else that isn’t human, tamed or housebroken. There’s always this mention of rats, voles, rabbits and such as though having them outside was a bad thing. some folks have gotten so caught up in the closely cropped, manicured look of all vegetation being kept carefully under control that they think anything else looks “messy.” Strange that I can grow any plant I want so long as I surround it with borders, barriers or walls as in a “landscaped” yard, but can draw a citation and a fine for allowing them to grow free range and, albeit,managed on my front yard. Just goes to show ya, People are weird.

  25. Would argue the definition of “native” here. It’s like saying I’m “American”. True but we all came from somewhere, and that somewhere is not always near the point of origination.

    As for the lawns: I have probably the best lawn in the neighborhood and people asking me for advice. I spent about $30 total on my lawn last year and mowed it myself. It is also Unirrigated. This article assumes all ‘lawns’ (millions of acres) are treated the same, i.e. Irrigated and ‘buried in chemicals’. Yes there are a handful of idiot home owners doing this but to assume all 41 million acres are treated poorly is bad advertisement. I’m going to go ahead and end this by guessing the billions of gallons of water used for lawns is largely taken up primarily in California.

  26. So if the lawn is so evil, what do you recommend people put in their front yard? A prairie? Don’t forget about the insect, rodent, and reptile pests that would be invading our homes of we didn’t have a short, maintained lawn around our homes!?! Not to mention the risk of fire burning our homes and cities from all that dormant highly combustible prairie!?! The loss of soil when the prairie doesn’t establish. Think about the crime in city parks if you could just hide in the tall grass?!? Do some people waste water on their lawn? Yes. But not all people. Do some people over manage their lawn? Yes. But not all people. With that being said it is still impossible to recommend a prairie replace the urban lawn and park! There is simply no other ecosystem that can improve soil, sequester carbon, improve people’s lives and health, protect homes, decrease crime and pests, cool the environment, filter air and filter water, and increase property values like a short mowed lawn of turfgrass can. Nothing else comes close.

    • Quite reactionary. I’ve replaced half my lawn with prairie. No criminal or rat or fire has killed me. As far as carbon sequestration, water filtering, climate cooling, and regarding people’s health – lawns can’t match prairies on those aspects; the research has proven it time and again. It’s all about the root systems, and prairies are king there.

      • actually, the research shows that lawn grasses can sequester more carbon that native prairies, are excellent filters of water, can cool urban areas as much as 10-15 degrees and provide a perfect surface for physical exercise and promotion of human health. There was an excellent review article published in the scientific literature on this in 2013 by Stier and others…

    • The Pacific Northwest isn’t my forte, unfortunately. All I can suggest at this time is using Google Scholar to search for works pertinent to your area under the authors J.E. Weaver, F. Clements, and R.F. Daubenmire. Their work is older, but foundational. Hope that helps.

  27. Absolutely correct article even though I once sprayed yards for Nitrogreen… You need to collaborate with Toby Day at Montana State University Extension… He is a gem and did his thesis on native grass lawns.

  28. I read the article and certainly understand and am willing to plant other things besides grass…but I only see this quote in the article, ” A garden, prairie, woodland, forest or xeriscape are far better than the high-maintenance and pervasive European-style lawns.” It seems the article just bashes those folks that grow green grass, but it doesn’t give a solution. Please give me some suggestions as to what to plant instead of grass. I would be happy to give it a try!

  29. Cities are a big problem…. Ours states any yard growth over 5-6″ can be fined. You can hardly even keep your lawn at a desirable growth to snuff out weeds. If you try to grow wild flowers or praire type plants – big fines. And if they decide to mow it and cut it for you? Really big fines and a huge mowing fee…. And don’t even try to grow vegetables in a viewable, front type area. Civilization… Can be a huge oxymoron.😦

    • Penny, this is one of those issues on which City Hall can be fought and beaten. Been there. It isn’t easy, but nothing involving change is.

  30. I appreciate this article. But what it’s missing, is how to put in a prairie, rather than a lawn. What should I plant? A link or source of information would be wonderful. Thanks.

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