Climate Corner: Divorce your lawn

Aug 13, 2022

Randi Pokladnik

This year Californians had to do something that many of us would have a hard time doing … they had to let their lawns die. The drought in that state became so dire that many communities were on water rationing. There were fines levied against those who were caught giving their lawns a drink. Some folks were optimistic and said the lawns were turning golden in the Golden State.

What would happen if that scenario ever occurred in our area? I know many people in Ohio have huge lawns, in some cases over five acres. I often wonder why they do this. Do they play football in that area? Do they have a solar array? Do they have a reason for mowing, watering, and in some cases fertilizing and spreading herbicides on acres of turf grasses?

I have on occasion asked this question and the only answer I get is this: It looks nice.

Some researchers have investigated this paradigm and believe the longing for wide expansive lawns dates back to the time when man roamed the savannas. In an effort to mimic this style of ecosystem, we plant and care for enormous lawns.

Michael Pollan, the author of the “Botany of Desire” wrote that our zeal for the perfect lawn is a throwback to19th Century England when only the very rich had luxurious lawns surrounding their magnificent estate.

I think some of our love of lawns has to do with the introduction of the motorized lawn mower. My dad had the old fashion reel mower when we were kids. Of course, we didn’t have a huge lawn; only about one eighth of an acre. Dad could get those blades spinning quick enough to finish mowing in under an hour. He never liked mowing and he didn’t agonize over uneven blades of grass.

With a riding mower, cutting the grass becomes a sporting event with riding mowers blazing paths across the terrain. People (mainly men) discuss models and makes and mowers can price out in the small car range. It takes much less labor and is usually quicker. However, I’d like to see the statistics on how many old fashioned mowers were involved in deadly accidents or maimed their user.

There are other disadvantages to cultivating that huge lawn. Estimates say that in the United States, we spend $40 billion a year taking care of 21 million acres of grass. Americans spend “more than three billion hours a year mowing lawns.”

The carbon footprint of a lawn mower is pretty significant and some can emit as much pollution as eleven cars. Another major issue with a nonnative lawn is the use of pesticides and herbicides used to cultivate that green carpet. Years ago, one of my college professors shocked the class when he asked us; which crop in the USA uses the most water, fertilizer and pesticides? We all said corn but the answer was grass.

Maybe we should investigate other less expensive and more ecological uses for that land. Native grasses and wildflowers are increasingly gaining in popularity. We can plant ground cover or shrubs that provide habitat for birds and other animals. We can simply leave the space grow in its own way and let nature take over.

If you opt to divorce your huge lawn, you might not have that manicured golf course setting but the advantages are many. You’ll save money, you don’t have to spend hours each weekend stuck on that mower, you will not release as much carbon dioxide, you won’t have to buy as much gas, you might reduce mower injuries, and if you stop using lawn chemicals you’ll be contributing to a healthier environment. All those fertilizers and pesticides people use to get that lush green lawn are in part contributing to carbon emissions, water pollution or eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) and the increase of algae blooms in bodies of water.

So, maybe this fall, you and the lawn can have a discussion. Isn’t it time to move on? Serve the divorce papers and start a new relationship with a better, more eco, and smaller lawn next spring.


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.