Monday, June 18, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 8 - Lose the Petro-Lawn

I live far enough away from my neighbors that I can't hear what they do now, but I have vivid memories of Saturday morning in my small city, when all of a sudden, sleep was interrupted by the sound of a rhino passing a kidney stone. Oh, wait, it was just everyone in the neighborhood firing up their lawnmowers.

The average American uses 18 gallons of gas on their lawn a year - lawnmower, leaf blower, string trimmer, sprinkler, hauling the products, and landscaping eats up half our average personal water use. The average homeowner is putting 20xs the pesticides on their little lawn per acre that commercial farmers use on their land. Many of those chemicals are untested, undertested, and carcinogenic. The extras, along with the chemical fertilizers, run off into our local water tables. And running your lawnmower for an hour puts as much greenhouse gasses into the air as driving 20 miles, according to the EPA, not to mention particulate pollutants that cause asthma and other illnesses, and noise pollution as well that can damage hearing and reduce your ability to be outside and enjoy your neighborhood. Mowing the lawn is especially toxic for the mower.

And think about all the *time* you are spending on your lawn - it isn't just eating up oil and gas and chemicals, but every Saturday morning (or whenever) you are devoting your limited free time to standing behind a lawn mower that smells bad, makes so much noise you can't hear nature. Instead of listening to the birds and smelling the fresh air, you are riding or walking behind a big old machine. And for what? So the neighbors can glare at you if you let the lawn get over 1.5 inches long?

Time to re-think the lawn rituals. There's a lot we can do. First and foremost, consider checking out H.C. Flores's _Food Not Lawns_ - an inspiring book about all the things your lawn could be.

First of all, think about replacing your lawn with something else. How about trees that shade and cool your house, protect them from winter winds, and absorb carbon? How about native grasses and wildflowers that would attract beneficial insects and native pollinators? How about xeriscaping that wouldn't require watering? Or replace it with a vegetable garden - grow a beautiful "V" of eggplants, kales or peppers, and wait for the neighbors to ask you about it.

We need millions more small, even tiny farmers in order to de-industrialize our food system. And the places we most need food producers is in the places people live right now - in your neighborhood. During World War II, American Victory Gardeners produced 40% of the nation's produce - many of them in cities. We can ensure a safe, reliable, healthy food supply by growing food on our lawns - in fact, we need to do this.

We can also use permaculture techniques to design a gorgeous landscape of edibles and medicinals on your lawn. Many food producing and useful plants are gorgeous - you don't have to tell anyone that you eat the acorns from your white oak, that those flaming autumnal bushes are blueberries, not burning bush, that you had daylily petals in your last salad and that last time you got a cold, you treated it with something from the border of coneflowers. Toby Hemenway's _Gaia's Garden_ is a great place to start here, as is the magazine _Permaculture Activist_.

But say you've got to have a lawn - the deed restrictions say so. Well, if I were you I'd start talking to local zoning boards about changing the rules - all these zoning restrictions about lawn heights, no clotheslines, no front gardens, no chickens...these are energy wasters. If we're going to be aware, we need to change the rules. But if you can't do that, the next best thing is to cut down on the energy you use on your lawn - reduce fertilizer, mowing, water use, and dump the chemicals altogether.

You can still mow the lawn with a push mower. My family uses one - we mow over 1/2 acre with it, and don't find it too strenuous. If you've only ever used an old push mower, you'll be shocked at how well they work. My 5 year old can push it, and when his friends come over, they fight over who gets to mow the lawn. It is quiet, pleasant to use, and will save you money on gym memberships, because it provides a nice upper body workout.

You could also switch to an electric mower, or to sheep, if you can get them in past the covenants. But I really love my push mower. The other tool we use constantly is a scythe - with 27 acres, the only way to keep things up is to let some of the longer grass go to hay, and scythe it down when we're done. Scything is a *ton* of fun - relaxing, pleasant, soothing. Eric's birthday is tomorrow, and when I asked him what he wanted to do, he asked if he could spend the day scything one of our fields. I am not joking - scything is a blast. Now this might not work for everyone, but it also substitute for string trimmer.

If you do need a powered mower, cut the grass less often - optimal height is around 3 inches. There's no reason to devote all your spare time to this. And don't leaf blow, rake - it really won't kill you. If you can't do these things yourself, teenagers are a time honored tradition. Show them the push mower and the rake, pay them well and don't forget the occasional glass of lemonade.

Instead of using groundwater or city water to water your lawn, either let it go dormant in hot weather, or collect rainwater whenever possible and use that. If you stop adding commercial fertilizer and replace with compost, more organic matter in the soil will also improve its water holding ability. But remember, dormancy is a normal, natural response - when it gets hot and dry, that's what the grass is supposed to do.

Don't fight the weeds unless you really have to - most of them are products of disturbed soil and some are edible or useful. Remember, your land is an ecosystem - no ecosystem has just one species in it. And get out on your lawn - don't just mow and go back into the house, but get outside. Put a table out, or chairs, and wave to your neighbors as they pass by. Use those lawns to build community. Invite people to join you. Put up bird baths and bat boxes, make butterfly gardens and plant some tubular red flowers for the hummingbirds - invite not just your human neighbors but your flying ones as well. Track your ecosystem. Make lists of the birds and animals you see. Get out a magnifying glass and identify bugs. Get to know your lawn as a living thing, and invite more living things to enjoy the space.

Best of all, tell your neighbors what you are doing and why. We can turn our lawns into something more than a way to make noise on a Saturday morning.



Oceana said...

Thank you thank you thank you for posting this--now if I could only get my neighbors to read it!!!

I think mowing, like yawning is contagious. Whenever we mow our grass (as required by our township ordinance, dammit), our neighbors rush out and mow theirs. Hmm, I'm not sure if they're just reminded to do it by the sound of our mower, or if they can't stand the thought of their slacker hippie neighbors having shorter grass than theirs... But our grass is slowly being replaced by garden space, and I can hardly wait to be rid of it!

You mentioned Food Not Lawns as a good book for transforming grass lots to something better, though I'm not sure if you've read the book itself or the description of it. I bought it based on the description, and though there is good advice for the lawn-garden/permaculture conversion, I found there was *so much* lefty, political, civil disobediance stuff in there, that I was rather turned off to the book as a whole (and this despite the fact that I usually consider myself sort of lefty and liberal). Plus I wondered about the wisdom some ideas in the book, like her advice to plant vegetables in random vacant lots, without consideration for what toxins might remain in the soil from previous use or surrounding industry. Just my opinion, but I would skip about half the book and just read the good advice about garden-space building.

Anonymous said...

OK this is totally off topic, but I'm trying to draw up some 80%, 70%, 60%, 50%, 40%, 30%, 20% and 10% austerity guidelines to parallel your 90% ones, because my family ain't getting to 90% anytime soon, but it would be helpful to see if we are at 60% or 70% and if we can get to 80%. Anyway I was trying to find and document the per capitas as a base. Did you document where you got your figures somewhere I haven't seen yet? But on garbage, it looks to me like you used the EPA's generation rate figures, which include all waste created, not their DISCARD figures, which only count stuff that gets thrown away and removes the stuff that gets composted, recycled or burned for energy reclamation. US per capita discard is only 2.46 lb per person in 2005 on EPA figures, so Americans ALREADY recycle, compost, or burn for reclaimation over half of the waste they generate according to EPA figures. You might need to adjust or clarify the 90% austerity guidelines, I don't know.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

How did the riot for austerity 90% get it's food, consumer goods, and heating/cooking fuel guidelines? Are you tempted to incorporate the 10,000$ income plateau on happiness data you mentioned from Deep Economics stuff?
-Brian M

Anonymous said...

The US water consumption/capita/day 2004 figures I found cam out to about 100 gallons a day, but that was TOTAL consumption, not household consumption. In 1995, only 12% of the US water consumption was household consumption, so I suspect 12/gallons/day/person is close to the per capita US household water usage, and your current guidelines are barely austere. Sorry. I'm really not trying to throw stones, I'm trying to get a fair picture of what various austerity levels would look like.
-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, I'll be glad to send you the figures I've found - it may be a couple of days before I send it off, because I'm working on another project at the moment, but if you send me your email address, I'll send you my data.

But can you clarify what you mean by "total" use not household use. I'm not clear on what you are referring to. The figures I've found are 80-100 gallons per person per day. I find it unlikely that 12 gallons per person household is normal - the average 5 minute shower uses 14 gallons of water. Given that the average American household has 2.6 people and they shower 1x per day, that seems odd - even bathing that makes almost 40 gallons.


jewishfarmer said...

Brian, to add - we haven't included an income plateau, although that would probably be the next step - to include how you make your money. But that might be a little too scary. I'm also not sure how to calculate families here - is this per wage earner? Per household? Are we comparing nations with some kind of subsidized health support to those without one?

But yes, lowering your income would be an important next step. There are more steps in the 90% reduction - after all, we need to drop emissions by 95% entire.


Anonymous said...

Great, Thanks! Well I assume that a big percentage of America's water consumption goes to agri-business (usually 60-70% or more of an areas water goes to irrigation), and another significant chunk goes to industrial uses rather than to household usage. But you're right, 12 gallons a day seems suspiciously low. The 1995 data gets me about 160 gallons a day per household which is more like 60 gallons a day person. Maybe the UN 100 gallon/day data MEANS total household, even though they accidently just say total. (Although 60 to 100 in 10 years would be a big jump too ...)
-Brian M.

Ares Olympus said...

There's a middle ground between lawn and garden. I have a shady yard, including oak trees, tough slow decaying leaves. I leave large bordered areas under shade where I have about 3-12" of leaves, a sort of slow flat compost pile, like nature uses. The birds like it, good place to catch worms and bugs.

My city has compost sites to bring yard waste, but just seems silly to haul it over and back, besides the fact I don't have a car!

jlpicard2 said...

What push mower do you use? I don't have one, but I'm interested in what may be the best one to buy.

Anonymous said...

in the same vein as your post... several years ago i read the following humor about lawns, and the frugal engineer in me realized the incredible waste inherent in the way we americans do things. that insight was what started me toward becoming much more environmentally conscious.

here's the humor, from

Imagine the conversation The Creator might have had with St. Francis on the subject of lawns:

God: Hey St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there in the Midwest? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect "no maintenance" garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

St. Francis: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers "weeds" and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

God: Grass? But it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It's temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

St. Francis: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. The begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

God: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

St. Francis: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it... sometimes twice a week.

God: They cut it? Do they then bail it like hay?

St. Francis: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

God: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

St. Francis: No Sir. Just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

God: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

St. Francis: Yes, Sir.

God: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

St. Francis: You are not going to believe this Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

God: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It's a natural circle of life.

St. Francis: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

God: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

St. Francis: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. The haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

God: And where do they get this mulch?

St. Francis: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

God: Enough. I don't want to think about this anymore. Sister Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

Sister Catherine: "Dumb and Dumber", Lord. It's a real stupid movie about.....

God: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

Reprinted by permission of
El Ojo Del Lago News
Guadalajara, Mexico

Donna said...

I don't dispute that a garden is the optimal choice but lawns are preferable to the trend of large paved areas which seem to be increasinly popular on home renovation type TV programmes.
Cooking the Planet one backyard at a time provides some food for thought. A well-watered lawn soaks up 7 kg of CO2 per square metre per year. Bitumen soaks up none. And the lawn soaks up more than temperate rainforest.

RAS said...

I all ready do most of this. I have never watered, fertilized, or sprayed my lawn. I'm working to dig it up as fast as humanly possible. I mow it as seldom as I can get away with and don't own a weed eater. Instead I use a hoe and a pair of pruners. The only problem I have is pushing the limits of the city's rules and regs; they are so tight, and want to make sure everyone has the "perfect lawn". Me, I could care less.

Then there are my next door neighbors, who literally worship their lawn. (Or so it seems to me.) They pick out weeds with tweezers and even paint it green in the winter. No, I am not joking!

Oldnovice said...

I'm very gradually taking over the back yard (because it's mostly a crabgrass lawn anyway), but the front lawn will be a harder sell.

We've had a lot of rain lately, though (unusual for North Texas) and it's hard to find the motivation to till and plant when I know that the fireants and mosquitos sit in wait.

We won't be going the reel mower route. We're older, and it's a workout even WITH the gas mower. I'm okay with that; we're experimenting with everything and sorting out what can be done as we age and what can't. I agree, though, with everything you've said about how we don't use our manicured lawns enough to encourage community. I think that's one area in which we could make a meaningful contribution.

Ed Bruske said...

Actually, the optimum height for grass cutting is 3 1/2 inches. One of the problems is that most people in temperate zones plant cool weather grasses such as Kentucky Blue grass, which thrives in spring and fall but wants to go dormant (brown) in summer, so people just pour on the fertilizer and water to keep it green. An alternative might be buffalo grass, which is green in summer but brown in spring and fall. Or just plant something that takes care of itself and doesn't need to be mowed.

Anonymous said...

The BEST push mower in my opinion, is a BRILL Luxus 38. It is German made-good ole German engineering, light weight and awesome to use. I replaced my old clunker with it- it should last for many, many years. I bought it on-line as a "reconditioned/returned" model. It is nothing like the old heavy American ones.....

jewishfarmer said...

Ok, just when I think it can't be worse, I hear about things like painting your lawn and paving your yard - EEK!! I have no problem with the notion that a lawn is better than bitumen. I will note, however, that the comparison with temperate forest doesn't take into account the amount of energy used to maintain the lawn vs. forest. There's a lot more carbon poured out onto our lawns than they absorb in total, unfortunately. That could change, however, if we raised the humus levels of our lawns by adding compost, mowing them with animals and using the animal manures to enrich the soil, etc...

I have a Scott Classic lawnmower - it was my choice because it does comparatively well with tall grass, which most push mowers don't. We're lazy about mowing - when the grass is growing like wild, I'm too busy with other things to devote much time too it, so having a mower that will handle things when I've let it go is a real plus. But I don't have a passionate attachment to one brand, other than to say I like mine just fine.


Paula said...

Have to share this . . .

My daughter started a summer Pre-Kindergarden program at a local elementary school last week.

I had to speak with the teacher after class, so she suggested we go outside. My children could then play on the playground while we conversed.

We walked through the double doors and my children and I began to turn and walk across the lawn. This was a no-no, apparently. The teacher informed me that the children are required to walk on the sidewalk to the playground. This rule was instituted due to the herbicide and fertilizer
applications on the front lawn. That made me feel really good! I then imagined my child retrieving a ball that had accidentally rolled into the no-walk zone. What would be on that ball? Her hands? Absorbed into her skin?

While speaking with the teacher, I started thinking about school lunch. I thought about those industrial sized cans I've seen lunch ladies open during my school years. Mmmmm. Peaches, veggies, and sauces in huge cans, chock full of exactly what my kid doesn't need in her diet. Industrial. Sick.

Oh, yeah. Her teacher and I were discussing my daughter's needs. She is an active girl, VERY active. We have had occasional discipline battles with her. She is going to a psychologist right now. We are intentifying ADHD in her behavior. Do you know what that means if we put her in a class of 20 this fall?? Trouble. Bad teaching to no teaching. Our school district is cutting special education helpers due to budget constraints. Homeschool is starting to ring in my mind as the best option here. At least when she walks across my lawn, she won't be picking up the chemistry lab.


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Jerry Gene said...

I really like your writing style. Nice Post keep it up.

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