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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


A Call for an End to Primpy Lawns

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, herbicides, pesticides, lawn-free, lawn chemicals, lawn mowing, water quality, wildlife habitat, landscaping, gardening, Reggie McLeod, Big River,

Lawn fertilizer application

Despite signs of progress, the de-lawnification of America is going pretty slowly. Although the green and alternative press is bursting with stories of backyard gardens, frontyard gardens, rain gardens, prairie restorations, and other turf-free options, it’s clear from mere observation that most American homeowners still think that a flawless, chemically treated monoculture lawn is the way to go.

Reggie McLeod, the publisher of Big River magazine, which covers the Upper Mississippi, is fed up with it. “This column may get me in more trouble than any other that I have written, but I’m going public with my challenge to primpy lawns,” he writes in his editor’s note in the July-August Big River:

I have never understood why people feel compelled to dump toxic chemicals and fertilizers on their lawns, then drench them with water, which, by the way, washes a lot of the chemicals and fertilizers into the groundwater or into the sewers, both of which lead to the lakes, streams, and rivers.

And then? Well, this massive load of nitrogen and phosphorous create algae blooms that degrade water quality and wildlife habitat. McLeod concedes he once bought into the green-lawn myth, as a teen selling Scott’s products door to door. But he’s now an unrepentant hands-off groundskeeper: He has a lawn, but lets it do its own thing:

To the untrained eye it may appear that I have a crappy lawn, but I’m proud of it. I enjoy the violets, clover, and even the dandelions. I have never put a drop of herbicide, insecticide, or fertilizer on any of my lawns in my adult life. I hope that I have lowered the bar for my neighborhood.

We’ll need brave warriors like McLeod to combat the deeply rooted perception that pristine green lawns are a mark of an enlightened civilization. “The American lawn now represents a serious civic problem,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote two years ago in the New Yorker in an article on what she called the “lawn-free movement.” But I haven’t exactly seen this movement take hold in mid-America: Traveling alongside McLeod’s beloved Upper Mississippi, I see lots of people straddling their lawn tractors on vast green expanses, baking for hours in the summer sun so they can carve out their bit of perceived paradise.

But you know what? In paradise, they don’t mow the lawn.

Source: Big River (article not available online), The New Yorker

Image by David Reber's Hammer, licensed under Creative Commons.