By Mary Talbot
In a case of taking "the grass is always greener" a bit too literally, American homeowners have long strived to make their lawns brighter, lusher and more velvety than their neighbors'. But all that competition has a devastating environmental impact. Every year across the country, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing) and 70 million pounds of pesticides.
Adams County, Pennsylvania Master Gardener, BBG Graduate and NRDC Member, Audrey Hillman.
You may also know that turf grass, however welcoming it looks for our bare feet, provides virtually no habitat for pollinators and other animals and plants that make up a healthy, diverse ecosystem. In fact, these lawns can do substantial harm to the environment and to both vertebrates and insects. Birds, for instance, may ingest berries and seeds that have absorbed pesticides from the ground. Likewise, rainwater runoff from lawns can carry pesticides and fertilizers into rivers, lakes, streams and oceans via the sewer system. This can poison fish and other aquatic animals and harm humans who swim, surf and eat seafood that may be contaminated. And then, of course, lawn mowers can pollute the air.
Luckily, today more Americans are ready for a change.
"We're on the cusp of a transition that will likely take place over the next 10 to 15 years, away from the conformity of mowed turf," said Ed Osann, senior policy analyst and water efficiency project director with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Water program.
He adds that eradication of all grass isn't the goal. "We're not declaring war on turf or suggesting that we remove every square foot of it. But we want to encourage people to think about whether there are places in their yards that can be converted to allow for a more diverse and sustainable landscape."
The No-Mow Movement
A growing number of homeowners are converting part or all of their lawns to a less thirsty form of landscape.
These no-mow yards fall into four categories:
1. Naturalized or unmowed turf grass that is left to grow wild;
2. Low-growing turf grasses that require little grooming (most are a blend of fescues);
3. Native or naturalized landscapes where turf is replaced with native plants as well as noninvasive, climate-friendly ones that can thrive in local conditions; and
4. Yards where edible plants—vegetables and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs—replace a portion of turf. (According to the National Gardening Association, one in three families now grows some portion of the food they consume).
Making the Change
A successful lawn conversion depends on climate, terrain and of course individual taste. Of the four main no-mow strategies, Osann said, native or naturalized landscaping is likely your best option. It's adaptable to any part of the country and offers gardeners an infinite range of design possibilities. If you want to join the no-mow movement, here are some pointers to get you started:
- Get expert advice. Begin by talking with a landscaper who has experience with lawn conversions or even a neighbor who has naturalized all or part of his yard. A landscaper can help remove existing grass and recommend native plants to use in its place. Depending on water and weather, a low-growing turf lawn will "green up" about two weeks after seeding. Another alternative is a wildflower garden grown from seed. (Just make sure you choose a wildflower mix that fits your climate and weed out existing vegetation that would compete for moisture and sun). After the seeds germinate and the flowers bloom (in 6 to 12 weeks), they don't require watering unless there's a prolonged drought.
- Do your weeding. Invasive plants like ragweed, thistle and burdock can crowd out their native neighbors and may run afoul of local ordinances (as noted below). For most no-mow advocates, the payoff in natural beauty and habitat are well worth the effort.
- Check for incentives. Not surprisingly, western states such as Arizona and California, which have been in the throes of extreme drought for more than four years, have taken the lead in spurring homeowners to do lawn conversions. California, in fact, launched a turf replacement initiative that offers rebates of up to $500 per yard for homeowners who convert turf lawns to native, drought-resistant xeriscaping. On a more grass-roots level, organizations like the Surfriders Foundation, a national environmental group made up of surfing aficionados, have helped transform turf lawns in Southern California parks and homes into ocean-friendly gardens, using succulents and other indigenous plants along with hardscape materials like rocks and gravel that increase filtration, conserve water and reduce runoff.
- Check the rule books. The no-mow movement may sound idyllic, but some practitioners have faced a surprising stumbling block: the law. In one example, Sarah Baker, a homeowner and scion of a family of horticulturalists in St. Albans Township, Ohio, decided to let her turf grass yard grow wild. Last year, she was forced to mow when authorities from her township deemed her garden, which had become a naturalized but well-tended landscape, a nuisance. Sandra Christos of Stone Harbor, New Jersey, said that after she replaced turf grass with native plants, she was delighted that cormorants, night herons and kingfishers made themselves at home alongside "every kind of butterfly you can imagine." But since receiving a letter from the town clerk, Christos has had to tame the mallow, bayberry, clethra and rosa rugosa along her walkway—or pay a fine.
Sarah Baker in her yard.Amanda Mae Taylor
While local ordinances or homeowner association bans have emerged―mostly out of concern over fire safety, rodent control and noxious weeds―they take on aesthetic concerns too, often proscribing grass over eight inches tall, vegetable gardens (especially in planned communities) or any kind of landscaping that deviates from clipped turf.
A recent white paper by students from Yale's forestry and law schools, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, surveyed legal obstacles to various forms of no-mow and concluded that, for sustainable landscaping to achieve wider adoption, some municipalities will need to adjust their policies.
That change can happen if residents push for it. Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, amended its nuisance laws to allow for naturalized lawns after locals made the case that their wild gardens improved air and soil quality and reduced stormwater runoff.
Moving away from water-guzzling and chemical-hungry lawns and cultivating yards that are diverse and self-regulating is a matter of mounting urgency worthy of that kind of community organizing. As global temperatures rise and droughts drag on, the demands of turf grass are likely to become untenable.
"Our existing lawns are going to get thirstier and their water requirements will increase," Osann said.
Fortunately, with an evolving toolkit of sustainable landscaping strategies, home gardeners can avoid such effects and help nurture the health of the planet—right in their own backyards.
“Our tourism economy depends on clean water, and this group actually has the audacity to fight against that? It doesn't make any sense," said Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe. “It is just common sense to set limits on the amount of sewage, manure and fertilizer that's allowed in our water," Coe said. “You would think that's something everyone can agree on."
The toxic algae outbreaks breaking out around Florida can cause rashes, breathing problems, stomach disorders, and worse. Health authorities have had to shut down drinking water plants, beaches and swimming areas. Toxic algae can kill fish, livestock and pets.
- Pictures of this health threat are available by clicking here and here.
- View Florida Slime Crime Tracker in a larger map by clicking here.
This pollution hurts people who work in restaurants, hotels, beach concessions, the fishing industry, the boating industry, the dive industry, and the real estate sales and rental markets.
After years of seeing toxic algae on Florida tourist beaches like Sanibel Island and at fishing destinations like the St. Johns River, Earthjustice filed a Clean Water Act federal lawsuit in 2008 in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John's Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club. In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set numeric limits for the phosphorus and nitrogen that comes from sewage, fertilizer and manure in the water.
Take action to clean up Florida's waters by clicking here.
For more information, click here.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The Center for Food Safety (CFS) submitted comments strongly criticizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) disappointing failure to implement a 2010 settlement agreement it reached with environmental groups and called on the agency not to capitulate to industry pressure and weaken its much needed action. CFS’s comments were also joined by Friends of the Earth.
In 2010, EPA agreed to conduct an inventory and profile the largest animal factories by requiring reporting of very basic operational information such as geographic location, ownership, quantity of manure produced, and use of manure. Despite widespread animal factory farming in the U.S., EPA never previously tracked this data, and thus has no understanding of the scope of the manure problem that is polluting our nation’s waters and placing our food supply at risk.
EPA recognized years ago that it has absolutely no handle on the billions of gallons of manure annually entering the nation’s waters and food supplies from U.S. animal factories. A 2008 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report entitled EPA Needs More Information and a Clearly Defined Strategy sharply criticized the agency’s lack of action. However, EPA’s late 2011 draft rule only required reporting of less than half of the information required by the agreement, without explanation. Under the EPA proposal, the animal factory industry would be allowed to continue mismanagement of manure and would leave to local communities the burden of enforcing environmental laws.
“EPA’s proposal is a misguided, head-in-the-sand approach to an issue that the government has recognized as a significant problem for many years,” said Elisabeth Holmes, CFS Staff Attorney. “EPA’s draft rule is contrary to the Court Settlement, the GAO Report, the Pew Commission recommendations, as well as EPA’s overarching duty to protect the public and the environment.”
Most of the dairy, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and egg products sold in U.S. grocery stores—and served at institutional facilities such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons—comes from animal factories. Animal factories raise hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of animals destined for human consumption in large-scale, high-density confinements and as a result produce large quantities of meat, dairy or egg products at a low economic cost. Animal factories also produce too much manure to fertilize their own fields, and the manure is so laden with pharmaceutical products, animal feed additives and heavy metals that it can actually kill crops instead of promoting soil fertility and moisture. Animal factories frequently disregard restrictions on applying manure as a fertilizer so over-applications and mis-applications result in manure, pharmaceutical products and additives escaping and flowing into drinking water supplies and rivers. Manure management is a major operational concern and a constant source of water pollution for every animal factory. Annually, a single animal factory can produce 1.6 million tons of waste, or more than 1.5 times the sanitary waste produced by the 1.5 million residents of Philadelphia, Pa. One cow can produce 20 times the amount of waste as a single human. Animal factories store millions of gallons of manure usually in “lagoons," which are susceptible to breakage and leakage.
The federal government claims that approximately 20,000 animal factories exist in the U.S., but other data suggests there may be as many as 238,000 animal feeding operations. Without an inventory and data tracking system the EPA cannot estimate the number of animal factories in the country or their environmental effects.
Under the current Clean Water Act permitting structure, EPA only requires certain animal factories to report limited information. The information reported for permitting purposes does not correspond to that required by the 2010 agreement, which was designed specifically to begin meaningfully assessing the scope of the nationwide pollution problem.
“The Center for Food Safety is just as concerned with security issues facing our nation’s food supply as farmers,” said Holmes. “As the GAO Report and Pew Commission Report on Industrial Animal Farm Production demonstrate, this problem is an immediate threat to our waters, our health, and our food supply. EPA must require animal factories to report basic operational information that other industries have had to declare for decades, and EPA must make this information available to the public.”
EPA has indicated it will respond to comments on its proposal by July 13, 2012.
- Read CFS’s comments by clicking here.
- Read the GAO Report by clicking here.
- Read the Pew Report by clicking here.
For more information, click here.
The Center for Food Safety is a national, non-profit, membership organization founded in 1997 to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture.