How Green is Grass?

   Grass is not nearly so sustainable as you might think, for numerous reasons. This is a big problem, because grass occupies the largest area of countless American landscapes. The word “grass” has been synonymous with “green” for ages because of its color. But let’s take a look at its sustainability:

   Grass is the one part of the landscape that requires maintenance every single week from spring to late fall. This maintenance requires a lot of time... either your time, or a lawn service you hire. But unlike trimming a hedge, which can be done manually, mowing grass also requires fuel. Most people use gasoline mowers, but even if you use an electric mower, the electricity is usually generated by converting some sort of fuel (coal or nuclear fuel, for example) to electricity.

   But it isn’t just the mowing that’s a problem. Scraggly lawns are embarrassing to most people, while a lawn that is lush and green is usually a big source of pride to its owners. As a result, countless millions of dollars are spent each year on synthetic fertilizers to feed the grass, poisons that kill its pests, and other chemicals that cure its ills. A “well-maintained lawn,” therefore, usually causes more poisons and other chemicals to be spread across your property than anything else on your property.

   That’s not the end of it, either. Grass looks great when it’s nice and clean, but it has the lowest tolerance of anything in a landscape except maybe concrete for imperfection. If leaves fall in a planting bed, nobody notices. They first become part of the mulch of the shrubs and trees in the bed, then eventually decompose to feed those shrubs and trees. But leaves (or other debris) falling on a lawn are intolerable today. Once, when our tolerance of imperfection was higher, we would simply rake the leaves in the fall, and that was that.


neighborhood nuisance

   Today, it’s not so simple. Because everything has to look perfect all the time (almost to the point of looking plastic) we have to crank up the leaf-blower to blast all the little imperfections off the lawn. Everyone in the neighborhood knows when we fire it up because unlike the equally loud lawnmower, which usually runs at a single speed for long stretches, the leaf-blower is constantly being throttled up or down. So while you can eventually ignore the mower because of its monotone roar, the leaf-blower’s throttling means that it can’t be forgotten, making it “the nuisance heard ‘round the block.”

   But the fact that leaf-blowers annoy all of your neighbors is not their worst characteristic... there’s more: Because 99% of the gas blowers are powered with 2-stroke engines, they emit tremendous quantities of greenhouse gases. As a matter of fact, they’re so bad that if you wanted to dump as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as an average gas-powered leaf blower, you’d need to drive a Hummer 100 miles! Put another way, the only way the Hummer could dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the rate of a leaf blower would be to drive 100 miles per hour! When I first heard this several years ago, I couldn’t believe it, but I’ve checked multiple reliable sources, with very similar results. Rather than me posting a couple of them and asking you to believe it, just Google for yourself and you’ll see.


Antigua Guatemala fountain

   There are other issues, too. This paper from the California Environmental Protection Agency outlines several more of the problems, including health problem. Bottom line: be nice to yourself, your neighbors, and your planet; don’t use a leaf blower. Shouldn’t you spend your time outdoors listening to a fountain, to the songbirds, or to your children?

   But let’s get back to grass... why use it? Grass is clearly useful for some things. If you’re looking for a play surface, for example, nothing is better because you can run on it a lot without damaging it, and can fall on it without hurting yourself (most of the time.) Countless people therefore say “I need a yard where my kids can play ball.” But the fact is, most yards are far too small to play a game of just about anything. The proverbial “baseball through the kitchen window” is testament to that. For full-scale games of soccer, football, or baseball, you need something the size of a neighborhood park, not a backyard.

   So if you don’t put grass in your yard, what do you do instead? It’s somewhat more expensive in the beginning, but designing your property as a series of garden rooms is a great alternative. I did that with SmartDwelling I. Outdoor rooms that entice you to come outdoors acclimate you to the local environment and help you to live in season. There’s almost nothing you can do that has a bigger impact, because living in season means you can leave your heat pump off for long stretches, and the most efficient machine is one that is off.

   I’ll blog soon about the particulars of building garden rooms instead of empty yards... there’s a wealth of really cool stuff you can do. The bottom line is that you can create a landscape full of outdoor living spaces, surrounded by lush landscape rather than just an empty lawn. Which sounds more enticing?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Sunday, March 7, 2010 - 01:20 PM

Michael Rouchell

An architectural historian friend of mine told me that the French never used grass in their landscapes.  Grass was for pastures and for cows to graze on, NOT for planned landscapes and gardens.

Sunday, March 7, 2010 - 05:33 PM

In the know

Meadows are a more sustainable solution.  Basically, you mow at the end of the season to make sure that woody plants don't take hold of your landscape.  You can plant wildflowers and native plants and they make a much more delightful place for birds to find seeds or cover.

Sunday, April 18, 2010 - 01:01 PM


Absolutely agreed. Grass is a resource hog and resource waster, particularly here in the arid Southwest. My town's water supply comes from nearby wells rather than rivers (rather unusual in this area), so the constant dumping of chemicals on urban yards is just another way the local population endangers itself. Planting an organic food garden would be a much better use of the space. If that is too much trouble, plant some native trees and ground cover plants rather than grass. They will feed the family and reduce the carbon footprint of grocery store, or shade the house and reduce the carbon footprint of the air conditioning.

Monday, April 19, 2010 - 05:57 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks for the great comments, everyone! Agreed all around.

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