Lawns: The American Dream or Nightmare?

By: Margaret Castro

With a supportive landlord, these renters were excited to convert part of their front yard. With raised beds for annuals and perimeter beds for perennials, they can grow a good mix of food crops, medicinal plants, and pollinators. Source: Cooperation Humboldt










Being a resident of Humboldt County means receiving a daily barrage of greenery. A study published in 2019 in the Frontiers of Psychology journal, states that the color green can lower one’s heart rate and support relaxation. Imagine then, being surrounded by a barren landscape or residing somewhere that is not surrounded by lush greenery. What could one do to enhance their home and state of well-being? In the mid-19th century, this predicament was addressed by a few different horticulturists, Andrew Jackson Downing and his proteges Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. When Downing encountered the East Coast, he decided it needed some beautification. In 1841, he published A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, which promoted the idea of surrounding your home with a large grass lawn, an idea thought to have been inspired by English estates. After his untimely death, Vaux and Calvert continued his work. With the creation of Central Park and their influence on the quintessential suburban landscape of a large grass lawn, their work still reverberates throughout our country to this day. 

Besides the psychological reasons behind the color green, what else is it that entices Americans to spend hours of their time installing foreign grass on their property, watering it excessively, mowing it continuously, and when all of that inevitably fails to produce their luscious lawn, resorting to pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers? Even Downing himself admitted that large grass lawns are difficult to maintain. There are numerous theories surrounding this, many relating to the idea that a well-kept lawn is an insignia of wealth, an achievement of the American dream. Others theorize that it is a sign of respect to your neighbors to make sure your lawn is aesthetically pleasing (or perhaps to avoid any arguments). Others suggest it could be a classic “everybody is doing it” situation, where no one questions the insanity behind it all.  

The early horticulturalists knew full well that their landscaping ideas required importing foreign grasses, shrubs and trees. The ecological ramifications of their work did not seem to be considered, and that could have perhaps just been a general lack of knowledge surrounding that discipline, but we are no longer in the dark. According to “The American Obsession with Lawns” by Krystal D’ Costa, the average lawn requires about 200 gallons of water per day, they cover about 63,000 square miles in America, and it is the most grown crop in America- and it’s inedible. With the use of pesticides and fertilizers, lawn maintenance contaminates our oceans and can be harmful to humans and pets. The lawn care industry rakes in $77 billion annually and the turfgrass industry is worth about $40 billion according to “Land of Sod” by Carolyn Kormann, whose work also detailed the outlandish amount of water used for lawn care by wealthy Southern California residents, even during periods of drought. Lawns are a monoculture, the growth of a single crop, which does not support biodiversity. Grasses are not efficient sequesters of carbon, and besides providing a brief play area for children (that is before their skin becomes too irritated by it) grass has no essential function, it is merely an aesthetic. 

All of this considered, no one seems to be faltering in their relentless effort to obtain their green patch of pride. Even in Humboldt County, with our towering Redwoods and seemingly endless escapes into nature, well maintained lawns can be seen in almost every neighborhood. Throughout California, grass lawns exist in even the most arid of regions, and I’m sure we have all witnessed at least one lawn that was being doused in the middle of a hot, sunny day.

The California Department of Water Resources previously had a rebate program in place that offered $2 per square foot of lawn removed, but it was so popular that funds quickly ran out. County water agencies, such as Sacramento County and Los Angeles county, also have their own cash for grass rebate programs, and residents in Sacramento County can even receive up to $2,000. Currently, no such programs are in place in Humboldt County, meaning we have the opportunity to ask our elected officials to move in this direction.


The native, drought tolerant Bush Monkey Flower (orange)
and California Aster (purple). Location: Lost Foods Native Plant
Nursery, an excellent resource for native plants in Eureka.

The last few decades have seen several “food not lawn” campaigns, which is the idea that lawns can be replaced with gardens, thereby creating food for the owners and also conserving water. Locally, you can find more information and request assistance in transforming your lawn into an edible paradise, with the inclusion of native plants as well, at Native plants support a healthy ecosystem by providing birds, bees, butterflies and other insects with the proper habitat. Some native plants can also be better carbon sequesters, require less water, and beautify your landscape, arguably much more than a lawn can. Larger native plants can also create barriers between you and your neighbors and the maintenance can be less time consuming than a large lawn. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS), which has 35 chapters throughout California, provides online databases to assist people with choosing the right native plant species for their particular area. Each chapter’s database provides details on sunlight needed, water amounts needed, deer resistant species and much, much more. The North Coast CNPS chapter has a wonderful database for garden design ideas, soil amendment ideas and of course native plant options.

The idea of the large grass lawn is simply outdated. The reason why it takes so much work, water, and chemicals to maintain this façade is because it’s unnatural, we are forcing this crop, that has absolutely no beneficial value, to exist at the expense of ourselves. By transforming our land into a food source and/or something closer to its natural landscape, we can help return to the natural balance. Incentives, such as a rebate program provided by local agencies, could provide the spark for change. We can ignite that spark by demanding incentive programs from our city and local water district officials.