The great (big) American lawn

A lawn being mowed

Spring is descending on the United States. Buds on trees and shrubs are swelling, and brittle brown grass is beginning to show green signs of life. As people put away their snow shovels and dust off their lawn mowers, it’s also a good time to take stock of the American lawn, which plays a starring role in the American dream. Backyard barbecues or weekend touch football games wouldn’t be the same without them, and there is something pleasing about a house perched amidst a nice green carpet. But grass is also a fussy plant, needing to be watered, fertilized, weeded, and, of course, mowed. For many, lawns are an American nightmare, yet we love them anyway.

Some Americans like to say they bleed red, white, and blue, but many should probably add green to that list, such is their devotion to their lawns. I myself am intimately acquainted with lawns and have been for many years. I started mowing my parents’ lawn as soon as I could safely see over the mower’s handle and took on a handful of my neighbors’ shortly thereafter. It didn’t take long until I was a lawn mowing connoisseur, changing the cutting pattern with every mow to give the yard a bit of golf course confidence. Even in college I couldn’t escape lawns. One of my summer jobs involved navigating a Toro Groundsmaster 322-D across school yards for eight hours a day. Even today, I still like the smell of freshly cut grass.

Our attachment to lawns means they have moved with us, even to climates where no lawn has any right to grow. Given how large they figure in the American subconscious, just how big is the collective American lawn? Nearly 50,000 square miles. That’s three times more than the area of irrigated corn in the U.S. And we grow a lot of corn. We’re still rolling out the green carpet, too. Between 1978 and 2001, we added between 170 and 355 square miles of lawn each year (depending on how you estimate it).

Much of that growth has come from the expanding suburbs. Lawns aren’t necessarily bigger than they used to be—in fact, median lot sizes have decreased while houses have continued to grow.¹ Part of the reason is that two story houses are more popular than before. Whereas only 23 percent of homes built in 1973 were had two stories, 53 percent do today.² So while houses have increased in size, lawns have kept pace, if only because they’ve reclaimed some of the built footprint.

More land under the seed-water-fertilize-mow regimen means more chemical applications, too. And given the intensity with which we dose our lawns, that should concern us. About 71 million pounds of active ingredients of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals are dumped on U.S. lawns each year, or about 7 percent of all pesticides used in the U.S. Lawns may be attractive greenery, but they’re anything but green.

That’s not to say we should do away with lawns entirely. No way. But perhaps we could all do a little better by following two maxims my dad has for his lawn. First, he reasons that more fertilizer means more mowing. He applies it like a diabetic sugars his coffee—sparingly. It’s just enough to prevent our yard from becoming a neighborhood disgrace, but it’s a savvy approach. Some of our old neighbors fertilized religiously and therefore mowed religiously. The second mantra speaks to lawn size. “If the lawn takes longer than half an hour to mow, then it’s too big,” he says. While the half-hour rule was never entirely accurate—I paid close attention to how long I spent behind the mower—it’s the idea that matters. Our back yard was wreathed in butternut trees, general shrubbery, a small pond, and an honest-to-goodness prairie, all there, in part, to cut down on the amount of grass we had to maintain.  Some people might balk at giving up that much turf, but I can assure you, it was still enough for a weekend game of football with my friends.


  1. Average lot size—which is skewed by mammoth properties—has grown slightly since 1976.
  2. Fun fact: Split level homes which were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s peaked at 12 percent of new homes in 1975 and 1976. Today, their numbers are little more than a statistical hiccup.

Sources:

Fishel, Frederick M. 2011. Pesticide Use Trends in the U. S. : Pesticides for Home and Garden Uses. PI-140. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.

Grube, Arthur, David Donaldson, Timothy Kiely, and La Wu. 2011. Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 2006 and 2007 Market Estimates. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lindsey, Rebecca. 2005. Looking for lawns. NASA Earth Observatory.

Robbins, P. (2003). Turfgrass revolution: measuring the expansion of the American lawn Land Use Policy, 20 (2), 181-194 DOI: 10.1016/S0264-8377(03)00006-1

U.S. Census Bureau. 2010. Characteristics of New Housing.

Photo by seantoyer.

Related post:

It’s not the yard that matters, it’s the view

Plants rockin’ the suburbs, animals not so much

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  1. I’ve never understood the obsession with grass in our culture. A monotonous stretch of green, is there anything more boring than that? And any bit of color or variety in the form of weeds is obsessively stamped out. A less obsessive use of weed-killers and lawn mowers adds a little bit of variety to lawns, and yet, in our culture, that’s considered a bad thing, because it makes you look lazy! So, instead, we hold as an ideal a large stretch of monoculture, ideally with uniform (short) length.

    1. I’m with you – I just don’t get it! Some argue that it is easier to care for; but with the amount of time, effort and chemicals that go hand-in-hand with the “modern” lawn, I hardly think “easier” is the correct term!

  2. We live in the country, so our lawn is the local grass, mowed, but otherwise uncared for. It lives and dies with the weather.
    My daughter lives in the city. She put a low, decorative fence around her front lawn, then killed it all and planted vegetables. At first the neighbours were upset, but when she handed out much of her first years crop to them, they became big fans of her project!

  3. Or perhaps we could put our lawns to better use! Give some of that space over to raised bed gardens, perhaps a duck pond (yum, home raised duck eggs), and other self-sustainability pursuits. I totally applaud Margie’s daughter for doing exactly that!

  4. Just finished mowing mine, and I’m afraid it took well over an hour–damn. It is too big!

    My lawn may be freshly mowed, but you’ve been Freshly Pressed–so congratulations! Hang on for the ride!

    Kathy

  5. We got rid of good 40% of our lawn – started an organic garden! Cherry tomatoes, basil, sage, rosemary, dill, parsley all kind of peppers,and flowers. We will get rid of 100% soon ;-)
    We never fertilized our lawn and never wasted a drop of water to water grass! Who on earth waters grass?

    I am totally bragging, I know. Seeing my kid eating cherry tomatoes like candies – best reward for gardening!

    Our neighbors were watching us suspiciously at first, but enjoyed the harvest we shared with them.

    America, get rid of lawns! If you really can’t live without them, keep a small patch for BBQ :-)

    Great post!

  6. My dogs hate me for electing hardscape over a grassy back yard. Indeed I wouldn’t trade my beloved flagstone and concrete pilasters for anything.. they’ve got issues of their own though :) Thanks for bringing awareness to the down side of lawn care/maintenance!

  7. Great post. My parents have a large lawn that was great to play in as a kid. It takes quite some time to mow, as you can imagine. My father’s ideas about fertilizer are like your father’s. Use more and you have to mow more.

  8. People don’t really have “lawns” here in south Louisiana, the grass just grows naturally. Hardly anyone even has sprinklers.

    That said, I grew up in California, where there’s virtually no rain at all from April-October, and in some climates they’re just wasteful. I wouldn’t have one if I lived there now.

  9. My husband takes great pride in our yard. The soil we have in our neighborhood isn’t the greatest for growing a nice green yard, yet he manages to do it every year. Our neighbors all stop by to ask his secret and his smile stretches from ear to ear and he dishes his story.

  10. My husband used a push rotary mower to keep our lawn trimmed. We do not use chemicals on our lawn at all. In the spring and fall I use my weed stick to remove dandelions and broad leaf weeds. Our lawn may not be the prettiest but it is also a play land for our kids. That is more important than a lush lawn.
    Congrats on being freshly pressed.

    1. I remember using something like that for weeds when I was a kid. It was more like a screwdriver with an inverted arrowhead at the bottom. Worked wonders on dandelions.

  11. I grew up on a farm in Ohio. I’m talking 350 acres. My main chore growing up was mowing the lawn with the riding mower. It would take me 3 hours to do!!! I can appreciate a scaled back lawn.

  12. Lately it seems that the trend is to develop what is referred to as a concrete jungle. No one want to care for old mother nature anymore although it’s very soft on the pocket. With your well written post I’m sure many will reconsider.

  13. Love this post! I have a touch over half an acre… and most of it is grass. It takes me well over half an hour to mow it–much too large in my book. I refuse to fertilize and don’t do much to care for it. Most of my spring seems to be spent waiting for the rain to stop enough so I can mow… and repeat. (It’s a bit overrun with moss, too… not sure what to do about that.) I have many “someday” plans for part of it, including a veggie garden… different kind of care required, but more rewarding. Thanks for the great read!

  14. Lot sizes may be slightly larger, as you say, but that means yards are definitely getting smaller. The average single family home size in 1950 was 983 sq ft. In 1970 it was 1500. Now it’s just under 2400. To me that’s an insane trend. I love yards, but I keep mine mostly wild like they are in the country.

  15. I grew up in WI with an obsessive lawn mowing pops. That we had multiple dogs die of cancer related ailments (which I attribute to spraying the lawn) did not deter his quest for a perfect lawn.

    Long story short – I moved to CA and couldn’t grow grass. sooo, we laid down the fake stuff *gasp*!

    I know – the horror, the horror. Well, CA was 3 years into a draught – and with a baby – we weren’t really feeling the “zero scape” idea

    It looks ok. It’s clean. I don’t water it, yet I’m still ashamed. Oh well – that’s my lawn story. Thanks for sharing yours.

  16. It is good to read about your American lawns. Sounds a boring subject but the same stuff goes on in Australia. I live in Newcastle and there is plenty of grass for the cutting here. Love the smell of freshly cut grass.

  17. Our lawn looked terrible when we moved in. I am now embarrassed because it is perfect after only two years. Now everyone knows we use chemicals I guess. But the biggest help was the aggressive aeration, overseeding and organic lawn dressing. Now that it is so healthy, we can use less product on it.

  18. I love working out in the yard. I have an average size yard for our area, but it takes me most of the morning to mow it and keep it semi-neat. I get exhausted after all that work and can barely make it inside to a shower and a cold drink. But, then, after I’ve rested, I can really appreciate the way it looks when I pull out of my driveway and start down the street or when I come home after work.

    My problem is there are a ton of spiders (so many kinds!) that I can’t let it get very high or I’m afraid to walk through it. Does anybody know a safe way to rid my yard of spiders? They’re everywhere!

  19. I love working out in the yard. I have an average size yard for our area, but it takes me most of the morning to mow it and keep it semi-neat. I get exhausted after all that work and can barely make it inside to a shower and a cold drink. But, then, after I’ve rested, I can really appreciate the way it looks when I pull out of my driveway and start down the street or when I come home after work.

    My problem is there are a ton of spiders (so many kinds!) that I can’t let it get very high or I’m afraid to walk through it. Does anybody know a safe way to rid my yard of spiders? They’re everywhere!

  20. We just took out most of our backyard lawn to make to make room for more vegetables. I think our neighbors thought we were insane! Lawns can be pretty–but such a waste! Think of how much fresh produce we could grow if we replaced lawns with simple vegetable gardens.
    Congrats on being on Freshly Pressed!

  21. hi team, grass for as far as the eye can see here in new zealand, isnt it bizarre seeing the middle east countries some with no green at all …. just brown

  22. I’m tyring to motivate my self to cut the rest of my lawn (taking a break now) Here in ireland we have to cut it twice a week (Lots of rain) there is no need for fertiliser it grows wild on it’s own. like you I have been cutting grass since i was a boy and love the smell of it when its cut, it brings back good memories.

  23. To really understand the history of the “lawn”, read about Capability Brown. Different time! Different country! Different mores!

    Time to move on to a practice more suitable to our lifestyle.

  24. My husband and I have moved from having a full scale yard that took many hours of care on summer weekends to a Colorado home that had natural landscaping…buffalo grass in the meadow below the house…now to a home in Alaska that has a couple of small flower beds and no lawn at all. Aaahh, the freedom! I still love the look of a big lawn and a beautiful home…that someone else has to maintain! I find the best views of that are in magazine spreads!

    Seriously, this is a huge issue for my 70 year old widowed mom, who has difficulty finding/keeping someone to help her with her yard upkeep. It’s difficult to find people to pay to maintain yards…how do people manage when they are too old to do it for themselves but don’t want to move to assisted living???

    Thanks for the post!

    Sheila

    1. It’s tricky for old folks with big yards to manage. The people I used to mow for growing up were old people—they could still manage to mow if they had to, but it was better to have someone else do it. It’s tricky, though, if your mom doesn’t have any young kids in the neighborhood willing to do it.

  25. I love my lawn and putting criss-crosses in it as I cut. I love to see the kids play on it, and sit on it, and run across it to each others’ houses. In Toronto, pesticides to keep it weedless have been outlawed so it is now more work but there is more forgiveness when it is not so green and lush. Still love it though.

    Great post for reflection. Congrats on being FP!!

  26. Ah yes, there is the sentinel of summer, the cicada- but also the scent of freshly mowed grass.

    Thanks for taking me down this path on a beautiful spring day.

  27. Your blog has such cool posts! Lawns… I prefer them (to the concrete tiles I have in my back garden) they are pretty and easy to take care of and lovely to lie on… :o)… The concrete tiles are a pain in the butt… weeds, EVERYWHERE- popping from between the tiles…

  28. Yay, finally someone else who enjoys mowing! I mowed for the first time this spring, today. I may not be as much of a perfectionist as you (I never fertilize or water here in Oklahoma,) but the scent of fresh cut grass and the sight of a job well done is more than satisfying to me. :-) Fortunately my dad has a Hustler ZTR mower which makes mowing even more fun!

  29. Hi,
    Lawns are beautiful …mine is now at present but it wasn’t so for many years. You see we have huge trees planted on the pavements outside the house and they were like a canopy covering the grass and so it would grow patchily until we changed the grass to a hardier variety namely elephant grass…i.e. the big leafed kind and now it grows pretty fine.
    I have a good gardener too so maybe that helps too. I use a compost made naturally for my garden so I have the whole chain of nature…. of insect to butterflies, to birds of many hues, to birds of prey like kites to squirrels all co-existing happily. Truly a gift from God.

  30. I know from experience that you should never let a single blade of Bermuda grass onto your property. That is the most invasive, quick growing, and difficult to eradicate plant I have ever dealt with. (Perhaps kudzu vine is worse, but that doesn’t grow around here.)

  31. Absolutely relevant. We don’t water up here in the North, “just makes the grass grow faster.” I’ve been systematicly reducing the two acre mowed area maintained by the previous owners and have put in trees, flower beds, a veggie garden, herb garden, chicken yard, and “Prairie Restoration Project” (looks a lot like weeds…) but there’s still too much…I have several friends in suburban settings turning their lawns into food. I’m working on getting a sheep for mine…

  32. Just saw thing on TV about people in Arizona spray painting their yards green with some sort of special paint that won’t hurt the environment. This is an attempt to have the perfect American lawn, at least for 4 to 6 weeks, just long enough to sell the house!

  33. Mayor Robertson for City of Vancouver (BC) decided that the front lawn of city hall could be put to better use. So like Obama (happened around same time as Michele Obama did it for White House), he requested that some community gardens be dug up.

    So they were which by the way, a signed bike route happens to run by city hall. There is bike related mandala art from a city-sponsored art program.

    Good stuff. I wrote up about this coincidentally just a few days ago:

    http://www.velo-city2012blog.com/?p=79

  34. Dude, grass is where it’s at. I lived in Italy for 3 years, and if they didn’t grow something around the house such as lemons or olives, it was a concrete carpark. We need to have as much greenery as possible, the asphalt jungle of urban areas is ugly, and it is killing us. Love, love, love the O2 of grass and its reciprocating love for CO2. How long it takes to mow, well, who cares, that’s the sweetness of freedom as long as there is something green and not concrete.

    1. Not sure if Milorganite is cancer causing or not, but it’s probably better than others in a number of ways. Still, it’s best to fertilize as little as possible. Many people put too much fertilizer on their lawns, which only runs off into waterways, causing pollution and algal blooms.

  35. My dad long ago gave up on our front lawn. Now it has all become clover, which makes it like we have our own mini-meadow. I don’t understand why people don’t allow the clover to grow; the sweet smell of all those fleshy white flowers, and the sounds of softly thrumming honeybees to fill our summer days…

  36. When you mention this
    *About 71 million pounds of active ingredients of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals are dumped on U.S. lawns each year, or about 7 percent of all pesticides used in the U.S. Lawns may be attractive greenery, but they’re anything but green.*
    it makes you think how much of this then goes into the ocean waters and trickle down effect polluting the earth and oceans. Fake grass is looking a lot better now. If only it wasn’t so expensive.