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.

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.

“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.


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

  1. That’s why my husband and I prefer organic gardening. Of course it looks more natural and not clean and tidy like the gardens of some our neighbours. We think we have a responsibility for the generations to come. So why should we destroy nature just for an anonymous, soul-missing lawn.

  2. I’am insulted & embarrassed for you, to print an article with such Fuzzy Math and miss truths about Grasses & Lawns! If I still had young children and pets, after reading your article, I would run out tomorrow and tear out my lawn, for fear of making my
    children & pets deathly ill or perhaps die!
    You should contact the Delta Bluegrass Co, in Stockton Ca. and let them give the home owners with lawns, the other side of the story. Thank ou for your time. 😧

  3. I live on a micro-farm that utilizes any and all natural pest management other than pesticides. Anyone living east of the Mississippi river and south of Inter-state Hwy 70 will not keep prairie plants growing. Oak/hickory forest will dictate that.

  4. What a fascinating and well written article! My “lawn” has never seen a pesticide and is as wild as a meadow. It sustains many wild flowers and insects and the numerous birds living on our small patch of Transylvania tells me that this is the only sensible way forward. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Reblogged this on FeistyAmazon and commented:
    Guilty as charged. I let her kill the dandelions with pesticides and now I feel horribly guilty. They took over the whole lawn. I will reseed but I also have a box about 8’by 8′ that I will need cleaned out as its got all kinds of stubborn weeds in there and will use for food. It will need some rich mulch. I also have planted tomatoes in pots, radishes too, and bulbs both in pots and the ground.

    Personally I like SOME lawn so I can do my Karate on soft grass. But I also want beautiful flowers and food plants.

  6. I enjoyed the content and I realize your audience may be something more akin to “the choir” than the general consumer. However, the tone of this article is unfortunately condescending and does little, in my mind, to further the goal that you so obviously support. I would urge you to work on delivering this message in a less divisive manner as it is self defeating to your argument to demonize, demean and condescend to those on the other side of the intellectual divide on this issue.

    Please do not construe this as opposition to your advocacy, I understand the importance and agree with the thesis of the article. I just do not see it as productive as it could be. “More flies with honey…” and all that.


    1. I concur. I read the article in hope of learning what to plant to replace my utterly dead lawn after abandoning it to 2 years of SoCal drought. Other than the illustration of feral precedents, there was no specific advise as to alternatives for “evil” lawn grass.

      1. TO give such advice wouldn’t be helpful… readers will live in different areas and climates and should research the local plants to their own area.

      2. May I suggest you contact your local extension agent or conservation district… they can suggest grass species which are adapted to your climate. There are also a lot of resources out there for creating a space for low maintenance landscapes. Best of luck to you.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly with Zach. This is way, way too important an issue to sacrifice in the interest of demonizing and belittling people who may not agree with you, or are simply not informed. Civility and respect should be the default position when dealing with other people. We don’t need more divisiveness and vitriol in our country, or the world.

    3. Well put – constructive criticism, nicely said. The onus is upon us all to contribute what we can to the dire straights we find ourselves, and this is yours. If we can work as a team, we should.

  7. I have replaced most of my lawn with food plants and native perennials. We live next to a creek, and what water the garden requires is carried from there. City water is too full of chemicals for my house plants, so they are also watered with creek water or collected rain water. My goal is to eventually have nothing that needs mowing.

    Thank you for an informative and well written article.

    Ingrid, a member of the choir.

  8. I have had a green lush lawn and lots of shade trees. I use very few chemicals, (spot spraying dandelions) and I mulch my grass and leaves, never bagging. I fertilize twice a year and water only occasionally through out the season, as we get ample rains most years. If your lawn is thick and healthy you will not have weeds…Stop shaming us for creating green spaces to live and play! T.O. Brookings, SD

    1. Spraying dandylions poisons one of the first food sources for bees in the spring… so you can take that high horse attitude and stuff it until you stop killing the bees with your self-righteous lawn.

  9. I see your point but there are many other thing that is destroying our planet like the constant raping of Mother Earth; coal seam gas fracking, mining of every sort, constant bombing and war, water poisoning, air pollution, extermination of the rainforests etc etc etc that is a much bigger threat than lawn …it would be great to see an article on how much pollution is being ceated from constant bombing and how much water and environment around tge globe has fracking contaminated.

  10. I hate my lawn! I’m going out to yell at it right now! On a serious note-great article! I was working in Iowa a couple of weeks ago and was just awed at the beautiful color of the soils.

    Glad to see Heidi’s drawing still getting great exposure! My wife worked with her when she drew it!


  11. Yeah, I have a small front and back lawn, and this article does nothing to help me choose something other than grass to cover it. I’m certainly agreeable to the central complaint of this article, but I still have no idea how to move in a different direction.

  12. I have a natralized front garden my neighbours have grass mine has wild flowers mine flowers all way too october I do not fuss over it feeding it cutting it watering it I cut it all down in novembeŕ scatter more wild flower seeds for next year its very rewarding the bees come to my front and back garden I love nature I also a organic gardener for a very long time.

  13. The lawns in the US is as stupid idea as cemeterys in Russia with abundance of stone and metal. Human is the only mammal that continues consumption of natural resources even after his death (!)

  14. I have loved weeds and bugs my whole life. At this point I own about 3/4 acre of land and merely cut vines and wood, and use a good electric weed whacker to maintain path through the meadow and woodland. I select from what is there now, instead of planting other species. I have wineberry, back cap and blackberry patches developing, some cultivated grapes. I haven’t reached a truce with poison ivy, but find that cutting back the tops repeatedly stunts the plants somewhat.

  15. I love this article, and would be GLAD to say goodbye to my lawn. But what are the alternatives, WITHOUT making me a pariah among my neighbors? I’m already in the process of turning my backyard into mostly garden. My front yard is ugly as hell, and could use the long root systems to help with drainage

  16. My whole yard consists of natural ground coverings. I’m now surrounded by neighbors in posh, overbuild McMansions and McCastles who Demand the greenest and most overly-attended lawns. These people pay lawn service idiots to dance around Every Week per mansion pouring down chemicals and trimming things to hell, via noisy gas-guzzling ride-around machines, and backpack mounted gear. Almost every day of the week, because if it’s not one neighbor then it is another!

    They look down on me as some lazy, cheap/poor, working class Vermin because I prefer all-natural grounds.

    I wish they would read this type of literature but, alas, all they care about is conspicuous consumption, impressing one another, and they truly think their lawn represents their great taste and status in life!

  17. As I read this article I was surprised at some of the ways this author Tried to get the point across’ and also feel I learned a little bit more. But, all aside where I wholeheartedly believe in less chemicals etc, and trying too keep as much natural habitat as possible.
    I also have to think about the person trying to sell there home or property with an overgrown yard! In some states /cities you get fined if your yard is not tidy!, people will not want to look or even purchase a home with an unkempt yard.
    And now when most states are having epidemic Tick invasion carrying serious health risks, we are told to keep brush and overgrowth to a minimum. We are removing free standing water and ponds because of mosquitoes and there diseases…or adding chemicals to keep them away.
    So again, while I do feel the article has some good information and I like most would love to have a more natural habitat , health risks are taking a front seat.
    P.s I do try to keep a lot of natural plants around and very little fertilizer use.

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