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Making lawns more eco-friendly

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Buckle up, everybody. We are about to talk about grass - specifically, grass lawns and the people who really, really do not like them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, TikTok. Want to show you my lawn is doing. I'm trying to kill it, solarize it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, I've just killed my front lawn - most of it anyway. I'll explain.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I hate my lawn. So what am I going to do? I'm going to kill my lawn.

DETROW: If you look on social media under hashtags like #antilawn, you will find people like the ones you just heard from on TikTok who are very anti-grass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Howdy. Welcome back to Anti-Lawn Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You know what I hate? This grass.

DETROW: It feels really harsh, but it isn't a new sentiment. People are getting rid of their high-maintenance grass lawns and replacing them with more environmentally friendly alternatives. Tyler Thrasher is an artist in Tulsa, Okla. He is currently undergoing the process of removing his grass lawn.

TYLER THRASHER: We're going to have a native seed bank in our front yard that we're going to, like, allow people to come get so they can try growing some of their own native plants and food.

DETROW: He posted an Instagram video showing how the shift from grass to plants is going so far.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

THRASHER: Mulch mountain right here.

Never have to mow again.

Kill all of this, and we're just going to plant a bunch of natives and food.

DETROW: He says he's gotten some strange looks from neighbors as he works on his lawn.

THRASHER: When I'm, like, with a pitchfork, shoveling mulch into a wheelbarrow and dragging it up to the yard, and they're like, what are you doing? I'm like, I'm killing my grass. And they're like, why would you do that? And I tell them why I'm killing my grass, and I tell them the vision.

DETROW: He says that vision includes growing vegetables, native plants for pollinators, a pond, possibly a small orchard.

THRASHER: My wife really wants some fruit trees. So I was like, I'm going to get you some damn fruit trees.

DETROW: Thrasher and his wife have one son and another child on the way, and he's hoping his yard will be an educational place for his children, too.

THRASHER: So I'm just imagining all the questions, all the observations that are going to come from our kids hanging out in our yard and helping us harvest the food and drawing the bugs and just being around them rather than just staring at, like, a grass lawn turf, you know?

DETROW: Aja Yasir and her family also decided to get rid of grass.

AJA YASIR: So we transformed the front lawn, the backyard and the side lawn into growing spaces.

DETROW: Yasir lives in Gary, Ind., with her husband and two children.

YASIR: We grow fruit, vegetables, medicinal herbs. And we have ducks, where we hopefully will be getting eggs soon, but they are endangered ducks. And...

(SOUND OF DUCK QUACKING)

YASIR: Oh, my goodness, they are loud. So...

DETROW: In 2016, Yasir and her husband moved from Illinois to Indiana and bought a home - a place that had been vacant for 20 years. But when a neighbor objected to that nontraditional lawn, problems started.

YASIR: We started by building the soil up. And we built the soil by adding woodchips and compost, covering the entire lawn with cardboard - that's called sheet mulching - covering it with compost and then woodchips, and some people got really upset with this.

DETROW: She says even though they were bringing a long-vacant property back to life, she got a citation from the city in 2017. Then, the following year, she got another citation.

YASIR: The city said that we had debris, and they were calling our woodchips debris.

DETROW: After a yearlong court battle, the charges were finally dropped. Yasir says she does get it. People are really attached to the idea of a traditional grass lawn, but she hopes that will change.

YASIR: People want this cookie-cutter look to their yards. They want to pretend like everything's OK. We're in Mayberry. We have these beautiful lawns. I think that if we put our hands into the soil and really understood what Earth is asking for, we could be a part of a huge change and a huge shift.

DETROW: But there are a lot of people who are not going to give up on their grass, and that's despite the fact that high-maintenance grass lawns require frequent mowing, fertilizer, sometimes weed killers and pesticides. And also, grass lawns do not provide many environmental benefits.

THRASHER: You have your home. You got your beautiful yard. And there's this image - there's this image that none of us question - this perfect, manicured facade. If the outside of your home looks good, your family looks good. What looks good on the outside might reflect what looks good on the inside.

DETROW: America has had a long love affair with the lawn, but the popularity of the grass lawn really took off after World War II and the creation of mass housing that we came to know as the suburbs. And to understand grass, you've got to go to Long Island - to a place that came to define the word suburbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: This is Levittown, one of the most remarkable housing developments ever conceived.

DETROW: Levittown was built up between 1947 and 1951 by William J. Levitt and his company, Levitt and Sons.

TED STEINBERG: And the Levitts were sticklers for the idea that the landscape should be a well-groomed landscape - in fact, so much so that they required homeowners and, in fact, built it into the covenants in the deeds requiring homeowners to mow the lawn at least once a week during the growing season.

DETROW: Ted Steinberg is a historian who teaches at Case Western Reserve University. He's the author of "American Green: The Obsessive Quest For The Perfect Lawn." The well-manicured, perfectly trimmed, bright green lawn became a staple in American culture, an idea that went hand-in-hand with the American dream. Decades later, people are still perfecting their grass lawns. But Steinberg notes there is a shift happening for some people as more and more pay attention to what's going on in the environment and with the climate.

STEINBERG: We take the lawn for granted. And yet, when you think about it, it's one of America's leading crops. There's roughly 63,000 square miles of lawn in the United States. So how much is that? Well, it's a land area equivalent to the state of Florida - not to mention that the lawn care industry is a multibillion-dollar industry. And it's got enormous ecological consequences because people are putting down a lot of chemical inputs without really giving it all that much thought. And, I mean, there are a lot of ecological issues in the world today, but I would argue the lawn's one of them, and it's one we can control if we want to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: To understand the roots of our grass lawn habit and how we can maybe break it, I called Susannah Lerman. She's a research ecologist with the United States Forest Service. She studies how urban and suburban yards can be more environmentally friendly and better for wildlife and pollinators. I started by asking her, are grass lawns really bad?

SUSANNAH LERMAN: So I'm going to flip that around. I wouldn't say that they are good for the environment.

DETROW: OK.

LERMAN: And so if you look at a lawn, basically what you're going to see is mostly just grass, and it's very short, so there's not that much structure. And so when we think about some of these other features that these lawns could provide, like habitat for wildlife, there are not that many homes for other types of species there. There's - we don't have that complexity. There's not that much different types of vegetation, different types of plants. And so there's just not that much going on, ecologically speaking, in these lawns.

And you compare that to, say, a forest. And you go into a forest, and you see all the different types of trees and shrubs. There's tall trees. There's short shrubs and everything in between. And so from that perspective, there's all of these different niches that different species, like birds and bees and other critters, can find a place to get food, to get shelter, to find water - all these different other factors for their habitat.

DETROW: What about just, like, the amount of water that Americans spend watering their lawns or the amount of gas being used in gas mowers? Like, is over-maintenance actually an environmental concern, collectively?

LERMAN: Yes. And so I don't have the exact number for the amount - like, the percentage of water use that goes to watering our lawns, but I - we did look at the amount of carbon emission from using a lawn mower - a gas-powered lawn mower. And it's - you know, if you mow your lawn less, you're going to be emitting less carbon dioxide. So that's just simple math. However, it's really negligible compared to the open space that we have in our lawns because not only is it just grass mostly that's growing in our lawns, but they tend to be warmer, and they tend to be drier than - again, I'm just using the example of a forest. And so if we were to plant a couple of trees in our lawn that can bring down some of these temperatures, and that has a really strong opportunity for reducing the amount of carbon that's emitted from our lawns. And it's something like 40 times more than just the actual lawn mower.

So yes, mowing our lawns less will be better for the environment when we think about those carbon emissions from the lawn mower, but the lawn itself is really where a lot of the carbon is being emitted. So again, some of these simple solutions - and, you know, planting a tree will take time to be able to get at the shade and to get more moister soils, but that's something that we want to think about long-term that can have a big impact.

DETROW: You know, we're talking about people thinking about this, wanting to do this. I mean, there's a whole other side of this conversation as well, and that's - with increasing extreme droughts in places like California and elsewhere, there are increasingly directives to stop putting water into lawn care and to change what lawns look like.

LERMAN: Yeah. And we're seeing that throughout the whole Southwest. And there's a lot of these incentives that are paying people to actually take up their lawn and to have more drought-tolerant types of species that are planted. Phoenix is another great example where there's - we're really seeing this shift out of necessity. And what makes sense when we think about what we're putting in our yards from an environmental perspective or a biodiversity perspective, if we can have our yards look a little bit like the natural environment that it replaced, chances are it's going to be better for the environment.

DETROW: Yeah.

LERMAN: And so - yeah. So if we have cactus and other types of - succulent types of plants in the - these arid cities and suburbs, those plants are going to grow easier, and they're going to provide all of these other different services for a whole bunch of other species.

DETROW: What's a step in the right direction? What is something that is better than grass in a lawn?

LERMAN: So before we even get to what's better than grass, I think most people still want to have some lawn, and I'm all for that. I have a lawn in my yard. But one of the things that we can do is manage these lawns less intensively. So rather than mowing every week, we can mow every two weeks or every three weeks. We can let those flowers that are in the seed bank come up - like the clovers and the dandelions. These are all really great resources for bees and other types of pollinators. Basically, we can grow food for wildlife in our lawns. So I think that's kind of the easiest step to do - is to just do less - to be this - what we call this lazy lawn mower.

There's other opportunities that we can have our lawns be a little bit more wildlife-friendly and better for the environment and for the climate - things like planting specific flowers. These bee lawns are really taking off in places like Minnesota, and this is an opportunity to specifically reseed our lawn with different types of of plants - especially these flowering types of species.

DETROW: Yeah.

LERMAN: And then the other component is just to have less lawn. So take away some of our lawn and put in different types of plantings. Plant trees. Plant different types of flowers that are going to be attractive for pollinators or other types of species. So I think there's, like, a whole bunch of different things to do.

DETROW: I feel like, increasingly, in this moment of coming off the hottest summer ever, extreme weather leading to widespread deaths and just a sense of just how big the climate crisis is, I can hear people thinking, like, well, who cares if I use my lawn mower a little less? Like, there is just such big problems right now. Does it even matter? I mean, what would you respond to somebody who's thinking that?

LERMAN: So when we think about - so one individual yard probably doesn't matter. But there's about 110 million yards scattered throughout the United States. And so if everybody does a little bit less, mowing their lawn a little bit less or planting another tree, collectively, we can really have a huge impact.

And, you know, another question that I think about is, like, why should we care? And so when I think, again, about bees and the importance of trying to create pollinator habitat in our lawns - which we can do - I like to ask people a question. Like, do you like strawberries? And most people will say yes. And if we like strawberries, then we need bees. And so if we think of other ways that we can provide habitat for bees, I'm all for it because I want to have my strawberries in the summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: That is Susannah Lerman, who is a research ecologist with the United States Forest Service. Thank you so much.

LERMAN: Thank you so much, enjoyed talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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