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When it comes to our lawns, the grass isn’t really greener

Columbia Daily Tribune logo Columbia Daily Tribune 8/10/2022 Mike Szydlowski
A lawn sprinkler waters the grass in a yard © Getty Images/iStockphoto A lawn sprinkler waters the grass in a yard

Having a nice green lawn surrounding a home, school or building has become so entrenched in our culture that nobody really thinks about it anymore. It’s just the way it is.

The truth is, that culture is quite new for humans. Lawns around homes and buildings really did not start in the United States until the 1950s. Since then, it has become a status symbol for homeowners (even if subconsciously).

Historically, a greener and bigger lawn told your neighbors you were better than them. Unfortunately, what a growing mountain of research has found is that our status symbol is a significant contributor to our rapidly declining ecosystems.

The history of lawns

Lawns got their start in Europe. In some parts of Europe, the climate and geology created patchwork forests where there were sections of trees, then sections of open, deep green grasslands. The word “lawn” came from the English word “launde,” which referred to a glade or opening in the forest.

The first purposeful lawns around buildings were created around European castles so that guards had an open view of any threats that might be approaching. The lawns were maintained by grazing cattle. They kept the lawn short and fertilized it with their droppings.

In the 16th century, wealthy homeowners in Europe created lawns around their homes to mimic the powerful people in castles. Even back then, it was a status symbol. These lawns were created with short types of herbs instead of the grass we know today. They did not have to be mowed.

It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that lawns in America really took off and this was largely due to a single family. Abraham Levitt and his sons were home builders in New York. One of the first neighborhoods they built was Levittown between 1948 and 1952.

It was the first neighborhood to include a lawn when you moved in. Upon move-in, homeowners were given intense rules and instructions on how the lawn should be maintained. That started the American culture of keeping pristine lawns around the home.

Monoculture

There are nearly 50 million acres of lawn in the United States, and that number gets bigger every year. At first thought, this seems like it could be a good thing. Lawns have millions of blades of grass processing carbon dioxide into oxygen and host millions of life forms in and below them. So they are helping the environment, right? Not so fast!

In almost every case, lawns have replaced what once was a diverse community of plants. Those plants supported a diverse community of insects. Those insects supported a diverse community of animals. You are one of those animals. Love them or hate them, if insect diversity continues to disappear, humans disappear.

Lawns are considered a monoculture because they are mostly made of a single species of grass. A single species of any kind of plant does not support the diversity needed to support a healthy ecosystem. While lawns have more life in them than a parking lot, it’s not that much more.

No true benefits

OK, so lawns are not a diverse ecosystem. But at least they offer more good than bad, right? Again, not so fast! Because of what is required to maintain a lawn (lawn-mowing, water, fertilizers and weed killers), a lawn often provides far more negatives than ecological benefits. Your lawn is most likely hurting wildlife and our fragile ecosystems.

If you never water, fertilize or kill the weeds, your lawn is better ecologically than most as you are not polluting neighboring water and ecosystems, and the weeds offer at least a little more diversity. However, you still mow it, and that pollutes too. No lawn is benefiting the environment.

What should we do?

Sure, a simple solution would be to eliminate all lawns. Problem solved!

However, that is not a real solution as lawns are too entrenched in our culture. Research has found part of the problem with repairing our environment is that the solutions are often unrealistic. Unrealistic solutions are dismissed by almost everyone and, therefore, nothing is done.

So what can you do realistically to help with this situation and still have a lawn? Stay tuned for part two of this article next week to learn how you can realistically become part of the solution while saving time and money too.

Mike Szydlowski is a science teacher and zoo facilitator at Jefferson STEAM School.

TIME FOR A POP QUIZ

1. What is the difference between our lawns today and the open grassland “lawns” in Europe?

2. Where were the first “lawns” intentionally created and why?

3. What caused the obsession with keeping nice-looking lawns in the United States?

4. What benefits and drawbacks do lawns provide?

5. Why are insects so important to humans?

LAST WEEK’S POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. What is the difference between lactose and lactase?

Lactose is how sugar is stored in milk and lactase is the enzyme produced in babies that allows lactose to be processed.

2. What types of animals provide milk for their babies?

All mammals provide milk to their babies.

3. Why do mammals only produce lactase for the first part of a baby’s life?

Lactase was only needed in mammal babies as that was the only time in their lives they drank milk … until humans changed that.

4. Is all animal milk the same? Why or why not?

No. Millions of years of evolution formulated the most beneficial milk for each species of animal that produced the best survival results.

5. If humans just started drinking animal milk today, do you think natural selection would have worked as quickly to produce lactase in adults? Why or why not?

Probably not. When humans started drinking cow milk, it was likely due to not having other nutrients available. We now have plenty of other sources of nutrients, so milk drinkers would not automatically live longer.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: When it comes to our lawns, the grass isn’t really greener

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