Uprooting the American dream

Opinions changing about lush lawns

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Perhaps Americans took the title of Walt Whitman’s book of poems to his beloved country, “Leaves of Grass” too literally when they considered the American Dream. 

“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth,” he wrote, and in the 1950s a growing satisfaction came from the American lawn.  

Drive around Westminster’s Hyland Greens neighborhood and you’ll see that: typical residential areas with single-family homes fronted by well-manicured, lush, beautiful lawns.

Zoom into one of the cul-de-sacs off Lowell Boulevard, however, and find something different. It’s a microcosm of a larger paradigm shift starting to occur across the United States.

One of those cul-de-sac homeowners is Emily Brooks, who maintains an 11,598-square-foot yard.

Until last year, those yards were two green Kentucky bluegrass lawns. In 2021, she and her husband embarked on a project to replace more than 50% of the lawn with rocks, gravel and native plant species.

Saving water and investing in their home proved to be their driving force for the change. It wasn’t something they were used to. The two hail from the Midwest and Emily grew up in a Wisconsin home with a half-acre lot.

“It was all grass,” she said. “My dad bought himself a riding lawn mower and his weekend project in the summer was taking care of that lawn. Everybody took care of their lawn, that was the culture. The pride of ownership was reflected in what your lawn looked like.”

That viewpoint is changing with her own home in Colorado. She and her husband bought their first home in Hudson, Wisconsin with a brook running through their half-acre backyard. After moving to Colorado, water remains an important concern for her.

“There was water everywhere, but we don’t have that (in Colorado),” she said.

So she yanked out the portions of both her lawns, replaced them with less water-intensive plants and created walkways with gravel.

She did what made sense — the majority of the change took place in her front yard since her dogs use the grass in her backyard. In the particularly sunny spots in the front, she replaced it with gravel since the grass didn’t grow well in the sun. She used gravel on the side of her house and made a utility space for trash bins.

Her backyard takes in a lot of heat and sun, making it hard to keep the Kentucky bluegrass alive. Still, she wanted the grass aesthetic and plans to replace a portion with native grasses that don’t require much water and thrive in the sun. She added a patio as well.

A xerscaped section of Emily Brooks’ front yard.
A xerscaped section of Emily Brooks’ front yard.

She isn’t finished with the project but already saw large reductions in water. In July 2020 their household used 35,000 gallons of water. In 2022, they used 22,000 gallons.

Her neighbors took notice of the change and jumped in. Two homes in the cul-de-sac hired the same landscape designer and changed their yard to about 50% native species or xeriscape.

A 15-minute drive from Brooks lives Christopher Stimpson with his wife. They replaced almost 75% of their outdoor space with less water-intensive options.

While Brooks decided to pay for a landscape designer and hire a company to do the dirty work, she realizes not everyone has the financial means. Or, they just want to do it themselves.

Stimpson decided to get his hands dirty and do it himself. Most of his costs came from buying rocks and gravel.

Christopher Stimpson poses in front of his xeriscape backyard.
Christopher Stimpson poses in front of his xeriscape backyard.

In his front, rocks and pebbles lie beneath a tree. Like Emily, the grass proved difficult to maintain because of the beating sun. In the back, a small patch of grass in a shady spot provides room for his dog and chairs to enjoy outside without the need for sunscreen.

Next to it is a deck with a vine climbing up the side to provide shade for a table. Even farther is a gravel area where his grandson used to enjoy digging and playing with the gravel.

“When my grandson was three, the thing he loved best was sitting in the gravel with a spade and a bucket,” he said. “Filling it up, emptying it, filling it up. He didn’t care about the grass.”

For Stimpson, who originally moved from London to New Jersey and then to Colorado, climate played a role in his decision. Not only was his grass not doing well due to the weather, but he felt a moral responsibility to switch it out.

“It's been true for many years that we've got a drying planet. The effects of water stress are going to be the chief impact of climate change on a state like Colorado, so anything we did to reduce our personal responsibility for that water stress was a positive move,” he said.

Even though Brooks and Stimpson both began replacing their lawns, they don’t doubt the benefits of lush grass. Brooks noted her dogs enjoy running in the grass and Stimpson enjoys sitting in his chairs that are on the grass. They’re good for recreation, too.

However, too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing.

The backyard of Christopher Stimpson, who chose to keep a small portion of grass during his xeriscaping efforts.
The backyard of Christopher Stimpson, who chose to keep a small portion of grass during his xeriscaping efforts.

The roots of grass

Matthew Makley, a professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said the popular Kentucky bluegrass isn’t native to the United States at all.

Most historians believe the lawn started in Europe, most likely in France and England. Castles would clear the land around their immediate vicinity to allow for clear visibility in case of foreign advances.

Later during medieval times, Monks brought cuts of turf into their monastery gardens and cultivated them because of the connection between the color green and rebirth.

In the 1500s and 1600s, lawns began to grow more popular within the wealthy classes of Europe for both recreation and enjoyment. Due to the time and labor required to maintain the lawn, it became a symbol of wealth.

Taking root in the new world

Then the English began sailing to North America, landing in Jamestown in 1607. Their livestock could not tolerate the native grasses of the new land, and so Kentucky bluegrass began to take root.

“Bluegrass that we think of today with American lawns is actually indigenous to parts of North Africa and Europe,” Makley said.

Seeing the odd crop not just as a support for livestock, there is a status to having a lawn — and the 17th-century American colonies were status-bound. Social classes were clearly articulated and observed.

“American colonists were desirous, they wanted to establish themselves as wealthy landholders and it was critical for them to do that in a new place. They were planting not just the grasses, but a new social order, a new economic order as well,” he said.

It’s tied to colonization and democracy, too.

“Often we find moving lockstep with colonization is the fundamental transformation of the landscape, and then over generations, a reimagining of what has happened to fit the conquest narrative,” Makley said.

That reimagination may be taking place today.

Lawns today

Lawns are ingrained in American culture and imposed by convention.

That’s what Paul Robbins, dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found in his research for his book “Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.”

His research showed lawns in America mostly began to boom in the 1950s, and rarely are lawns peoples' first choice. Homeowners associations enforce their upkeep, construction companies lay out single-family home lots with leftover space and social pressure for green grass to maintain property values is imposed by neighbors.

Backing that up, he conducted a national survey that showed the people who use lawn chemicals are more likely to say those chemicals are bad for water quality, children and human health than those who don’t.

“People who are intensive lawn managers feel really crappy about it. They feel guilty, but they feel that they have to do it for their neighbors because of the homeowners association, or whatever else,” he said.

He did find that there are many people who feel great satisfaction from mowing their lawn, and the smell of fresh-cut grass brings nostalgia.

However, he learned that most felt ambivalent about lawns. Which led him to ask — why do they exist, then?

Much has to do with the chemical industry that needs to dump agricultural chemicals somewhere. In other countries around the world, those markets topped out and farmers remain efficient in their use of nutrient inputs and pesticides.

Scott’s, a leading company in the lawn care industry, figured out push advertising. Robbins believes that’s a reason they’ve been successful.

“Scott's learned that you say, ‘Here's a product that will solve all your problems. Go ask for it by name.’ It totally changed the industry because they need people to buy this stuff. There's an economy behind it, it employs a lot of people and it has to keep going. That's pretty depressing,” Robbins said.

There are benefits. Lawns provide space for kids to play in, they serve as an aesthetic and cool off the urban heat island.

Even so, other options can provide those benefits. Parks can socialize the cost of lawns, and native plants can provide another aesthetic while cooling off urban areas.

“The benefits are marginal, whereas the costs are enormous,” he said.

As well, his research also found chemicals used for lawns end up indoors. In one experiment, analytic chemists walked across chemically treated lawns with white boots and then walked indoors. They measured the amount of chemicals that ended up inside and how long they persisted. Turns out, the chemicals remain in house dust for a long time — chemicals that are known to cause mutations and can cause cancer.

“There's no question that the health costs outweigh the health benefits of having an intensively managed lawn,” Robbins said.

Class, morals and values

Just as they were hundreds of years ago, lawns today are also seen as a status symbol. Beyond that, Robbins’ research showed respondents often said “What goes on outside the house tells you what goes on inside the house,” indicating they are also an indicator of morals. That’s tied to social psychology. Many places in the world don’t maintain lawns, so it’s a learned behavior.

“Lawn care companies who are trying to expand their markets have to really work hard when they go outside the United States to convince people that it's worth putting the money and the time into having a lawn,” Robbins said. “If they're going to expand the number of intensive lawn care users, they have to teach people to care about it.”

However, lawn social psychology in the U.S. seems to be changing.

Kelly Moye, a realtor in Boulder and Broomfield counties, has been selling homes since 1991 and she’s seen a shift away from lawns in buyers’ demands.

In the 1990s and 2000s, she said a bright green, lush lawn was a real selling point for single-family homes. Now, people are more environmentally and cost-sensitive — they see lawns as requiring more money for maintenance and using water where it isn’t needed.

The decision to have a lawn or a xeriscaped garden doesn’t affect the home value either, she said, as long as it looks well kept.

Robbins noted that the money used for maintaining a lawn could be used to remodel a kitchen or a bathroom, which can increase the value of a home more so than a lawn.

“What will change the value of the house is if it doesn't look nice. If it's just dirt and it's kind of scratchy and it's got weeds and it's not well kept, that will deter from the price of the home,” Moye said.

In fact, she said most people prefer a native species or xeriscape garden in the front of their house and grass in the back for dogs, kids and barbecues.

However, it depends on the location and the neighborhood.

“I believe it goes back to the neighborhood. Well-groomed landscaping in Cherry Creek will carry more value, I believe, than a well-groomed yard in Boulder,” said Tom Cech, the founding director of One World One Water Center.

In Moye's experience, attitudes among people are trending more towards sustainability. Moye said buyers want smaller spaces, smaller carbon footprints and less grassy lawns.

Stimpson has seen that change walking around his neighborhood. Many of his neighbors already have or started to change what their outdoor spaces look like. Although, he still notes a divide within the community.

“The divide I think is people with the big lawns feel that they worked hard to get this aesthetic addition to their lives and that this is important enough to them,” he said. “They don't want to let it go and they think of xeriscaping as an inferior alternative.”

A bee searches for pollen on one of Emily Brooks’ native plants.
A bee searches for pollen on one of Emily Brooks’ native plants.

Judging alternatives

Robbins noted it’s important to consider whether alternatives to lawns are actually sustainable. He said artificial turf is an interesting case. With turf’s growing popularity, questions remain: how much oil does it take to produce the plastic? How will turf affect water runoff? Will water coming off the turf be contaminated with plastic and get into the drinking water?

He doesn’t know the answer to these questions, but they’re worth asking.

“What we replace lawns with is the next most important question,” he said. “I don't think we got a good answer for that yet.”

He said replacing grass with native species can be a great alternative, though it may not serve all the functions a homeowner may want it to serve. For example, walking barefoot on it can be difficult and not maintaining it properly can turn into a mess.

However, native species can support pollinator species and reduce the need for fertilizer.

“They tend to not need a lot of fertilizer because they’re sort of adapted to our climate and soils,” said Mari Johnston, a natural resource extension agent at Colorado State University.

As well, they create miniature habitats in backyards for birds, insects and pollinators. Planting native species helps native insects because they support each other and the entire ecosystem.

“By including native plant species in our gardens, we’re not only ensuring that those species continue to play their key parts in the Colorado ecosystem, but we’re providing much-needed resources to insects and to birds and other Colorado wildlife — food, shelter, materials for rearing their young," said Ashley White, the Butterfly Pavilion’s Community Habitats Manager.

Despite what the future holds, the tide seems to be turning when it comes to lawns in the American West.

“People are unlearning what they learned and learning something very different, which is water is more important than that lawn,” Robbins said.

lawns, xeriscape, water, Kentucky bluegrass, home values

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