The Obsolescence of the American Lawn

Lawns are stupid.

Well, let me step back and qualify that just a bit: Ornamental lawns that exist merely to serve as a framing device for houses and picket fences, that nobody ever walks on except to maintain, are stupid.

Think about it. How much time and energy do people spend manicuring their lawns? How much perfectly good water runs out of private irrigation systems and into the sewer grating? How many tons of unnecessary pesticides do the neighborhood lawn junkies of the world (okay, mostly of suburban America, if we’re gonna be honest with ourselves) spread on their yards – and eventually all over everything? How many men have been rushed to suburban hospitals in suburban ambulances because their suburban neighbors’ devil-may-care attitudes toward lawn maintenance have resulted in a dandelion-fuzz-induced suburban brain aneurism?

Lest you think these questions are a mere rhetorical device, here are the answers, respectively:150 hours per year, 7 billion gallons per day, 80 million pounds per year, and that last one, while a bit of a silly caricature, isn’t totally off-base: lots of people get hurt every year taking care of their lawns.

Why do so many of us do this?

Well, lawns have become important cultural markers. They started out as grazing meadows back in England, then morphed into safe play areas for children, and eventually they became a symbol of patriotism and The American Dream. Today, they seem to be mostly the subject of mindless worship and macho pissing contests.

You know, like this classic sketch from the 2007 movie The Ten. (I know, I know, it’s not about lawns. But it’s totally the same phenomenon. Only dragged hilariously past the point of absurdity.)

Don’t get me wrong. A nice, soft pitch of grass is a great place to hang out and do all sorts of fun, outdoorsy stuff. I’m not suggesting the eradication of all lawns. I think public parks should have usable lawns. But why must it be an unnatural, high-maintenance monoculture with no room for native species? If I ever have a house with a yard again, I want the non-garden-occupied portions of my yard to be populated entirely with creeping charlie. My lawn-obsessed neighbors will undoubtedly hate me, but I’m telling you – creeping charlie is the perfect lawn solution. Not only is it softer than grass and delicately fragrant; you don’t have to mow it. EVER.

There’s a lot of lawn hate going around the internet these days. But it’s still just a tiny buzz in our collective ears; drowned out by the sounds of weed-whackers, lawn mowers, and fertilizer commercials; blocked from honest examination in the average mind by the lawn’s usefulness as a tool for sublimating the deep dissatisfaction inherent in the realities of modern suburban living. I bring it up because of several stories that have come to my attention recently regarding the struggles of urban and suburban homeowners across the country being harassed by municipalities for daring to plant vegetable gardens in their yards.

OH, THE HUMANITY!

I hate that it’s come to this, but I have to say it. I agree with the god damned granola eaters. In an era of economic insecurity, decreasing oil supplies, and general uncertainty regarding the sustainability of our current mainstream American lifestyle, it makes a ton of sense to localize food production. Especially when we have all this yard space which is currently being dedicated to vanity lawns.

I’m not necessarily on board with the anti-GMO and hybrid thread that seems to run very strongly through the urban ag set. Yes, big agribusiness does a lot of evil shit. Yes, most GMO and hybrid food products are engineered to serve narrow, corporate interests which include making them unsuitable for seed harvesting and sustainable use over many generations. But I’m not convinced that they’re actually unsafe to eat; not to mention the fact that sometimes, I prefer the hybrid. If I can afford to shell out a few bucks a year for seedless cucumber seeds, well, I will. The use of tactics that play up the “mad scientist” aspect of genetically modified foods strikes me as blatantly propagandist in a way that turns me off. I like science. I am not, in principle, opposed to humans “tinkering with nature”.

But I’m not gonna lie. I loves me some big, juicy, weird-colored, heirloom tomatoes. They might be my favorite thing, like, ever. (Okay, my second-favorite thing ever.) And the idea of creating a sustainable system of planting, eating, and seed-harvesting from a garden in some future urban-ag-fantasy yard tickles the very depths of the hobbitty corner of my brain. (This fantasy naturally ignores the fact that my current attempt at urban agriculture – a window-box herb garden – has been a spectacular failure. But of course, future fantasy me will magically be an awesome gardener. It is in my blood, after all – my parents maintain two giant and very productive vegetable gardens on their 8-acre “hobby farm”.)

Even though I might make fun of urban agriculture activists for being hippies and holding overly simplistic and idealistic views on some points, I’m with them. I would love to see more suburban and urban houses with gorgeous front-yard vegetable gardens like the above-linked Brandt-Tricamo household in Missouri. I think it is shameful that city governments can’t see past their own lawn indoctrination and seem to be discriminating against food-plots simply on principle, even where no ordinance is being violated and the homeowners are taking great care to make their gardens aesthetically pleasing as well as productive.

Minneapolis, my fair city, seems to have a pretty good attitude toward urban agriculture. Walking around my neighborhood and through surrounding areas on my way to various destinations around the south side of town, I’ve seen a lot of great food gardens. One place has a delightful front-yard pumpkin patch. Another has tomatoes growing right next to the sidewalk – I joked in passing that when those babies ripen, they’d better watch out! They’re right out there asking to be pilfered by an unrepentant tomatophile such as myself.

I also know several people who are raising chickens in the city; something else I’d love to do in the future, if I can talk my partner into it – he’s a lifelong city-dweller and I think he is often mystified when my country roots start to show through. Not to mention he probably has more realistic expectations than I do regarding my actual ability to keep up with something that requires daily maintenance. But I digress.

The point is, it seems like this idea is catching on. I think that’s awesome. I like that there is a sizable movement of people trying to make us question our cultural programming about the proper function of a yard. I hope the work people are doing to expand acceptance of urban agriculture pays off without too much more pointless bickering and chest-pounding on the part of municipal governments. I’m happy to add my voice to the chorus.

What’s happening in your city around this issue? Are you involved in any kind of agricultural activity, urban or otherwise? I’m especially interested to see what the landscape looks like at the ground level from the perspective of people who aren’t necessarily plugged into the official urban ag movement.

6 thoughts on “The Obsolescence of the American Lawn

  1. I like a good blend, a nice front lawn for curb appeal, and lots of stuff growing on the sides and back. Of course, this might not work well for all yards. There’s something really nice about a freshly cut lawn, I could never give it up. Of course, there’s also something amazing to be said about harvesting fresh food from your yard!

  2. I love the smell of fresh-cut grass. But I stand by my assertion: as a nation, we have far too much lawn doing far too little for us. I think if more people followed your example, we’d be in better shape.

  3. Great blog, Carr. You’re definitely onto something and you’ve made me want my own yard more than ever now if only to have a mini vegetable garden. I miss that most at this time of year, though then again I can’t even manage to take care of the flower/plant garden on our property. Doesn’t help that it rains so much, but that’s a different story! Anyway, great blog and I’m definitely going to share this on fb and twitter to get people thinking. I know of at least a few of my friends who would wholeheartedly agree with you.

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  5. Came here for moral support. I will be attending my homeowner’s association meeting to ask the question of why we are watering huge expanses of lawn in a severe drought. Do we collectively deny that drought is the new normal for the long term? Nearby condominium developments have replaced lawn with indigenous plants that are drought tolerant and wildlife friendly. The irony is that the condo complex is in Mammoth Lakes, a mountain resort town where people go to enjoy nature. The board of directors for the HOA thinks lawns are pretty. I say lawns are pretty like silicon breasts are pretty – they are unnecessary, expensive, and not natural. It’s a cultural aesthetic that is originated in 16th century England and began as pasture land and trimmed by lifestock. Then a bourgeois status symbol. If the HOA board members are worried about their property values, they are sorely out-of-touch with the fact that more buyers these days are sold on “green” energy conserving features. If you want to help property values, let’s put solar panels on the roofs, using the money we save from irrigation, and we can pay the Association for electricity rather than pay the utility company. A lawn dates the development, it will soon become the town pariahs and actually lower our property values if it hasn’t done so yet.

    • Apologies on the delay in approval. Your comment came in the middle of a slew of spammers and I didn’t see it until just now. How did that meeting turn out? Did you convince anyone to rethink their priorities?

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