Is it time to rethink the traditional lawn?

It feels radical to abandon the great American lawn, but neighbors and wildlife may appreciate it

By Cindy and Ed Moura
Posted 5/21/24

Spring is in the air, and so too are the noxious fumes and aural assault of overpowered lawn equipment. Bird song and children’s voices fill the air only to be abruptly halted by the roar of …

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Is it time to rethink the traditional lawn?

It feels radical to abandon the great American lawn, but neighbors and wildlife may appreciate it


Spring is in the air, and so too are the noxious fumes and aural assault of overpowered lawn equipment. Bird song and children’s voices fill the air only to be abruptly halted by the roar of machines that have become ubiquitous with the quest for the perfectly manicured lawn.

As towns across the East Bay dig in on creating and ratifying plans for climate resilient futures, it seems fair to ask, is this quest for the perfect lawn really serving us well individually and as a community?

Americans love green grass so much that it is the most irrigated crop in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, landscape irrigation in the U.S. accounts for one third of residential water use, for a total of nine billion gallons a day, the equivalent of enough drinking water for every person in the world for two days … Drink that in.

Water is not the most troubling thing being poured onto lawns. Americans use ten times more pesticides on lawns than farmers use on crops, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. This amounts to 80 million pounds of pesticides spread across neighborhoods, despite mounting research pointing to serious health concerns for both the humans and pets who spend time in those spaces.

Lawn chemicals also account for most documented wildlife poisonings each year. Birds are particularly vulnerable to this hazard, since it is common for them to mistake pesticide granules for food. Indeed, an estimated seven million wild birds die each year due to the purely aesthetic use of common “Weed and Feed” step programs.

These same products adversely impact essential pollinators like foraging native bees, kill countless beneficial insects, and are complicit in the stark decline of fireflies that once lit up night skies. Amphibians like turtles, toads and spring peepers are also especially susceptible to harm from lawn care pesticides and fertilizers, both through direct contact and run-off impacts.

Narragansett Bay is central to life in our region, but nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from lawn products is causing an oxygen-choking overgrowth of algae in many area water bodies and threatening our Bay. This is called eutrophication, and its negative impacts are widespread.

That is one reason why Save the Bay launched a “Lawn Ambassadors” program formulated to encourage people to adopt bay-friendly lawn care practices that include less mowing, blowing, and watering. It also encourages less application of fertilizers and pesticides and urges residents to instead turn to natural elements like leaves, grass clippings and compost to enrich the soil.

While the grass may be green, the lawn industry is not. It is estimated that it takes 800 million gallons of gasoline each year to fuel the machines that maintain these vast areas of lawn. And estimates show that 17 million of those gallons are spilled annually – more than in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The gas-powered machines prevalent in lawn care account for at least five percent of all air pollution.

The truth is we have known for decades about the health and environmental issues with lawns, but as the adage goes, follow the money. The lawn care industry is a $40 billion a year conglomerate, three times the annual operating budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And it uses those dollars to control messaging. But 98% of land in Rhode Island is privately owned, so we are the ones who have the power to make better choices for our land.

Imagine for a moment if we could shift attitudes about lawns and begin to transition them to useful or at least not harmful spaces. The fashion forward trend in lawns is to think of them as area rugs versus wall-to-wall carpets. Eliminate entirely those areas of lawn that you do not need or use and replace them with more beneficial alternatives like abundant layers of native plants which help to bolster biodiversity and have low maintenance needs.

This bolstering of biodiversity is especially important in an era when scientists are warning of alarming species losses, including dramatic declines in the pollinators that form the foundation of our food web. Monoculture spaces, like lawns, fragment habitats, while areas of diverse native plants encourage the biodiversity that is essential to a healthy, thriving ecosystem.

There are several ways to achieve the trendy area rug effect in your yard. Add a native tree or two with wide swaths of native plantings around them. Widen foundation beds, chipping away turf grass and adding in diverse and beneficial plantings. Add new gardens to strategic spots in the yard - rain gardens are quite popular right now. And even carve out space to grow some organic food.

For the turf grass pathways and play areas that remain, consider a new approach. Mow high, leaving grass at least three inches tall, and only mow when needed. Water less frequently or not at all. Leave grass clippings on the lawn and forgo chemical applications other than occasional, well-timed slow-release organic fertilizer. Push a mower, pick up a rake or a broom and put down that blower; it degrades the very topsoil that is essential to plant health.

It can feel a bit radical at first, breaking free from the culture of the great American Lawn. But ultimately isn’t the health and wellbeing of your family and your community worth the risk of trying something new? Be a trendsetter and demonstrate your commitment to supporting a resilient future for our communities. Wildlife and countless neighbors will thank you.

“Life in the Garden” brings eco-friendly garden tips from Cindy and Ed Moura of Prickly Ed’s Cactus Patch Native Plant Emporium, where they are passionate about helping people realize the essential role everyone can play in supporting life right outside their own doors.

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Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email