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A Midwest environmental reckoning may change grass lawn culture

In the summer, Denise Whitebread Fanning’s yard is filled with flowers like zinnias, black-eyed Susans and milkweed.

Her overgrown yard typically sticks out among the rows of tidy lawns in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, but she said she’s never understood the desire for manicured, green grass.

“It’s so beautiful to come out here and witness this evolving ecosystem, and to see all the new life that is finding home here, that didn’t exist on this land two years ago,” Fanning said.

Dozens of municipalities across the Midwest — including Mount Pleasant — are considering loosening ordinance restrictions on the height of grass or even what can be grown.

Movements like “No Mow May” and initiatives to plant pollinator gardens are gaining traction, as people like Fanning question the value of the traditional turfgrass lawn that dominates the landscapes of communities.

Yet just how a yard should be maintained often is a matter of differing opinion, even among neighbors.

Denise Whitebread Fanning poses in front of currently-empty yard. The art coordinator for Central Michigan University describes her yard as a both a source of inspiration and place of "solace and refuge." Fanning said her garden has helped her through some difficult times after she lost her neice and mother-in-law. "Seeing this (garden) shows us that beauty and life persist even in times of tragedy and sadness," Fanning said.

Teresa Homsi

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Harvest Public Media

Denise Whitebread Fanning poses in front of her currently empty yard. The art coordinator for Central Michigan University describes her yard as a both a source of inspiration and place of “solace and refuge.” Fanning said her garden has helped her through some difficult times after she lost her neice and mother-in-law. “Seeing this (garden) shows us that beauty and life persist even in times of tragedy and sadness,” Fanning said.

Lawns go back centuries

Lawns mostly tend to fade into the backdrop, according to Michael Barnes, a horticulture social scientist. But when brought to the forefront, the University of Minnesota researcher said people feel strongly about them.

“A lot of people really view their yard as an extension of themselves,” Barnes said. “Having a nicely maintained yard is part of feeling good about not only your contribution to the neighborhood, but fitting in with the rest of the community.”

As early as the 13th century, people were already making guidelines on how to cultivate a grassy space. The first lawns were more like cut meadows that flanked Scottish castles for defense and gathering purposes. They later became more cultivated and popular with European elites, to set off their intricate gardens.

The modern American lawns we know cropped up more recently.

Barnes attributes post-World War II suburban sprawl and an obsession with city park systems as the origin for how lawns became the de facto vegetation in urban areas.

“(In the suburbs), basically, everyone has their own little park,” Barnes said. “The intention behind it was that these very lush spaces could be owned by everyone.”

Today, lawns are highly industrialized and support a landscaping service industry in the U.S. with a market value of around $150 billion.

Barnes said lawns have also become synonymous with the American Dream and home ownership, but he believes they’ve persisted because they’re easy to understand and make people feel safe.

“Lawns are not as threatening as other forms of nature,” Barnes said.

Homes with lawns are seen during a LightHawk flight on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in O'Fallon, Missouri outside of St. Louis.

Eric Lee

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St. Louis Public Radio

Homes with lawns are seen during a LightHawk flight last month in O’Fallon, Missouri.

Lawns can be resource-intensive

Zach Schumm, an entomologist at Iowa State University, is not a fan of turfgrass lawns, which he describes as essentially ecological dead-zones.

“Lawns are very highly managed landscapes that don’t really support a lot of biodiversity and therefore don’t really serve many great purposes for ecosystems,” Schumm said. “There’s nothing that is natural about a lawn or landscape that is completely turfgrass.”

According to a 2019 study in the journal “Biological Conservation,” 40% of insect species are threatened by extinction and fading from places, even where they were thought to be abundant.

Habitat loss and pesticide use are among the leading factors, and Schumm said utilizing spaces “effectively” to create habitat pockets can help slow decline, with lawns as an easy starting point.

“Not many insects are utilizing turfgrass spaces for food, water and shelter. A lot of them tend to be pests,” Schumm said. “All of the pollinators, the beneficial insects utilize flowering plants, larger trees, shrubs, things like that.”

Schumm said it’s not surprising that altered landscapes affect biodiversity — in the same way that roads and buildings do — but he believes lawns have been overdone.

A sign warns of a recent pesticide application on a lawn in northern Michigan. Entomologist Zach Schumm thinks the term "pest" in unfair to the thousands of diverse species of insects that serve foundational ecological roles. He recommends people only use pesticides as a last resort, if at all.

Teresa Homsi

/

Harvest Public Media

A sign warns of a recent pesticide application on a lawn in northern Michigan. Entomologist Zach Schumm thinks the term “pest” is unfair to the thousands of diverse insect species that serve foundational ecological roles. He recommends people only use pesticides as a last resort, if at all.

“Well, how much of your lawn are you actually using?” Schumm said.

There are other environmental costs to turfgrass lawns – property owners use around 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline for mowers annually, treat lawns with herbicides and pesticides and set up elaborate sprinkler systems to keep them green.

According to an EPA estimate, landscape irrigation accounts for nearly a third of all residential water use, about nine billion gallons a day.

Water usage is what caught geographer Cristina Milesi’s attention when she moved to Montana from Italy and noticed how her new neighbors watered their lawns.

“I was just very surprised to see that the surroundings of the city would turn brown in the summer, but the city would stay this luscious green, and there were always these sprinklers going,” Milesi said.

This inspired her 2005 study for NASA that calculated how much land lawns take up. Turns out, they’re estimated to be the largest irrigated “crop” in the U.S. — three times that of corn.

“That captures where generally most of us live, in cities, and that’s where we can maybe have an impact on changing our behaviors,” Milesi said.

Milesi said she doesn’t know how her estimate holds up almost 20 years later; whether lawns take up more or less land. Urban sprawl has increased, but turfgrass is also becoming impractical in places prone to drought like California, where she currently lives.

She’s gotten rid of most of the grass in her yard and planted fruit trees.

“Why do they always say spruce up your lawn and not rethink?” Milesi asked.

Cristina Milesi, who currently serves as the director of the risk mitigation company Niruthi, suggests that economic drivers have played a role in how turfgrass lawns became the default urban landscape. She said lawns may scratch a human itch to control our environment, but there's also now an industry that promotes lawncare as a norm. "Because there is a business opportunity, there is the whole apparatus that comes with it," Milesi said. "So there are these big hardware stores where you can buy all your tools for the perfect sprinkler system and so on."

Teresa Homsi

/

Harvest Public Media

Cristina Milesi, who currently serves as the director of the risk mitigation company Niruthi, suggests that economic drivers have played a role in how turfgrass lawns became the default urban landscape. She said lawns may scratch a human itch to control our environment, but there’s also now an industry that promotes lawncare as a norm. “Because there is a business opportunity, there is the whole apparatus that comes with it,” Milesi said. “So there are these big hardware stores where you can buy all your tools for the perfect sprinkler system and so on.”

In defense of lawns

Jon Trappe, a turfgrass educator with the University of Minnesota, acknowledges that lawns can be mismanaged, but he said they’re not completely useless eye candy. Lawns are welcoming spaces that can be used to gather for a picnic or play outdoor games.

“They’re where people are because we use them largely,” Trappe said. “There’s the cultural aspects, but there’s functional reasons why we put them (around) facilities.”

Trappe and his colleague, Barnes, also argue it’s not fair to compare lawn to prairies or forests when they serve a more similar function to asphalt and artificial turf. Next to those alternatives, turfgrass is the more sustainable option.

Trappe agrees that there are places where turfgrass should not be grown – like deserts – but he said there are low-input varieties of turfgrass that we shouldn’t turn our back on.

“Lawns have a place in society based on how we want to use them,” Trappe said. “I just advocate that while we do have them, what’s the least amount of resources we can use to maintain them?”

Nelson Park in Mount Pleasant, Michigan boasts the Chippewa River, lined by turfgrass. Horticulture social scientist Michael Barnes describes turfgrass as a "green carpet" when hailing its social and recreational value. "You're not going out and having a picnic in the middle of a prairie; you're not playing frisbee ... with your kid or playing with your pet in a dense forest," Barnes said.

Teresa Homsi

/

Harvest Public Media

Nelson Park in Mount Pleasant, Michigan boasts the Chippewa River, lined by turfgrass. Horticulture social scientist Michael Barnes describes turfgrass as a “green carpet” when hailing its social and recreational value. “You’re not going out and having a picnic in the middle of a prairie; you’re not playing frisbee … with your kid or playing with your pet in a dense forest,” Barnes said.

Redefining the lawn

Although “No Mow May” has galvanized municipalities to adopt new ordinances, the movement is based on a study that has since been retracted.

Trappe said there are good intentions behind the push to halt mowing in the spring, but he said letting it “grow wild” can actually open up space for invasive species. “Slow Mow Summer” and mowing less frequently is a better alternative, he said.

“It’s not surprising that people feel like, ‘Hey, I could actually benefit pollinators by doing nothing, and I don’t have to mow,” Trappe said. “It’s not really a wonder why it became so popular, but we’ve used it as an opportunity for educating people on expanding habitat for pollinators.”

A monarch butterfly rests on a flower in Denise Whitebread Fanning's backyard. Fanning said observing the seasonal changes and all the animal visitors in her yard allows her to connect with nature. "This is now a place that is just full of monarchs, swallowtails and painted lady butterflies and all kinds of moths and grasshoppers and every kind of bee you can imagine," Fanning said. "When it was just a lifeless plot of grass, we didn't witness any of that."

Denise Fanning

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Provided by Denise Whitebread Fanning

A monarch butterfly rests on a flower in Denise Whitebread Fanning’s backyard. Fanning said observing the seasonal changes and all the animal visitors in her yard allows her to connect with nature. “This is now a place that is just full of monarchs, swallowtails and painted lady butterflies and all kinds of moths and grasshoppers and every kind of bee you can imagine,” Fanning said. “When it was just a lifeless plot of grass, we didn’t witness any of that.”

Schumm said he’s not an advocate for “No Mow May” either, and to help pollinators, he encourages property owners to reintroduce native plants as a long-term solution.

“You can eliminate the lawn, but you’re gonna have to actually do some work to replace it with something else,” Schumm said. “To actually make it an effective landscape, you’ll probably still have to do some good management, at least for a while.”

In Denise Whitebread Fanning’s yard in Michigan, she’s already transformed her turfgrass lawn into a pollinator haven. It’s not been a simple process, but Fanning said it’s always been a dream to have an elaborate “secret garden.”

She understands that her busy, colorful lawn is an acquired taste. But she encourages those who keep their green lawns to take a few steps to make them more environmentally-friendly.

“Even the smallest thing like planting one beneficial pollinator that wasn’t there before is going to feed more pollinators this year than before or making the choice to not use pesticides anymore,” Fanning said. “Small things matter.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.