The other night, mowing my lawn for the first time this spring, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. “I love that smell,” I later said to my fiancée, and didn’t have to explain; we were two suburban-raised Minnesota kids for whom the scent of freshly cut grass has long confirmed winter’s end. Like many an American teenager, I had a monopoly on mowing my neighborhood’s lawns, coming home most summer days with inch-long clippings clinging to socks and grass-stained shoes. I learned to see the perfect lawn as a lush monochrome carpet of Kentucky bluegrass, trimmed and deep green.
I see the perfect lawn differently now. I still see the wide expanses of green, but I also see the high cost of keeping these nonnative monocultures growing: the wasted water, the overuse of fossil-fuel fertilizers, the threats to human and environmental health, even to the health of our dogs. Most of all, I see untapped opportunity.
Right outside our door, right beneath our feet lies a chance to make dramatic differences in the health of our human and ecological communities — and save a lot of money. Turf grass (meaning mowed) is now the nation’s largest irrigated crop; we grow three times as much turf grass as we do corn, and far more than any other country. Our turf grass lawns — including those of corporate campuses and business parks — total 40 million acres, or 60,000 square miles, the size of Georgia. To care for all this lawn, we spend $40 billion annually, more than we spend in direct foreign aid.
What if, instead of seeing lawns primarily as decorative, the more uniform and manicured the better, we saw them as living ground?