The grass shouldn't always be greener

Iowans love green. Drive through any small town, small city, or large city in the middle of an Iowa summer and you see a lot of green. Most is in the form of well manicured, trimmed, edged, mowed grass. Lawns, public spaces, parks, industrial campuses, golf courses—there is always someone out working every patch of green urban landscape to make it seem perfect.
Neat and tidy green space can be a source of pride for homeowners and for city boosters. However, it may be time to rethink this image and consider alternatives that are more consistent with nature and preserving our environment.
There are over 40 million acres of lawn in the country. This is more than the total area of Iowa. These lawns are maintained at a cost of $30 billion per year. A few of the implications of this land use scenario include:
  • Mowing. The weekly trek over the lawn with a mower consumes fossil fuel and results in increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It may not seem like much when you pour gasoline into the little tank on your mower but across the country 800 million gallons of gasoline are consumed annually for lawn mowing. As much as 17 million gallons are lost to spillage. Noise pollution from lawn mowers can be a nuisance for anyone wanting a quiet place to read the Sunday paper.
  • Fertilizer. Fertilizer is cheap and easy to spread on a lawn at concentrations that may exceed what is needed for good plant growth. Indeed, over three million tons of fertilizer are used on lawns in a year. It is easy for excess fertilizer to find its way from lawns to waterways where it becomes adds to the nutrient problems so prevalent in Iowa.
  • Pesticides. Some 30,000 tons of pesticides are used on lawns in this country each year at a cost of over $2 billion. These chemicals are approved for domestic use but a close reading of active ingredients yields numerous substances that most people would not like to have their children or pets playing in.
  • Water. Both too much or too little water on lawn surfaces can be a strain on the environment. Well manicured lawns do little to slow runoff resulting from heavy rains and as a result fertilizers, pesticides, grass clippings and other urban waste moves rapidly to streams. In drought situations, lawn watering strains water resources to maintain the green look. Nationally, more land is irrigated for lawns than for corn.
Iowa was the epitome of tall grass prairie when white settlers first started making it home. Prairie grasses thrive in our soil and moisture environment.
We are not about to turn all of our lawns back to prairies. However, there is room for native grasses and flowers in our urban environment. If we can get past our obsession with neat and trimmed, there is a natural beauty in native plantings as a walk through the Discovery Park will confirm. In addition, the numerous advantages of prairie plantings — no mowing, no fertilizing, no pesticides, no watering, retention of excess precipitation, and perhaps a bit of appreciation for our Iowa heritage — all factor into our desire for sustainability and combatting climate change.
We don’t need to make radical changes. If we could have one percent, then five percent and maybe even ten percent more native landscape in place of pampered lawn grass, we could start to change attitudes and begin moving toward an existence more in harmony with the natural world.

Muscatine Journal Column 11/15/14