Green menace

The futility and stupidity of the American lawn
lawnmower wildflowers
Photo: Johnny Carrol Sain

Man versus nature is a common theme in America. The idea that Europeans whittled a civilization out of wilderness is one of the tired old narratives crammed full of erroneous assumptions and misinformation that has reinforced this idea. Even an education can’t turn back the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, message pumped into our brains from an early age that we are supposed to subdue nature; bend it to our will. And this is often motivated purely by ego. Lawns are the perfect example.

I hate mowing the lawn. Hate it. As the intoxicating smell of chlorophyll and other chemicals from fresh cut grass fill my nose (mowing’s only saving grace) my body goes on autopilot as my brain tries to figure a way out of ever doing this again. The mower follows a line separating clipped grass from unclipped and I make another pass around the yard while mumbling about the stupidity of what I’m doing.

I am Sisyphus.

Why do we spend so much money and work so hard for what amounts to a biological wasteland around our house? Why do we spend hours of time and gallons of gasoline? Why do we water it when it withers in the summer sun only to spend more time and money to cut it down again? Lawn grasses don’t feed my family or invite pollinators onto my property. I’m not baling hay to feed cattle through winter. The best reason I could come up with for our culture’s obsession with a neat lawn is the man versus nature, bending it to our will motif — creating order, our version of it, out of disorder. And with this illusion of control we advertise to everyone else that we have the money and time to waste resources.

The lawn craze has its roots in European royalty. A large swath of useless green was a statement that you could afford to own a large swath of useless green. You could afford servants and livestock to keep it clipped, and you could afford not to care if it ever made you one thin coin or an ounce of nourishment. Of course envy reared its head, as was intended, and those under the ruling class soon wanted to flaunt their own assets so lawns became commonplace among the gentry. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had English style lawns, but the common man could not afford to waste good soil until after the Civil War when the first subdivisions rose from the countryside.

The big boom in lawns happened after World War II. Soldiers returning from the war found more money near cities in an increasingly industrialized nation and left the farm for good. The well-manicured lawn was a lasting reminder that the hardscrabble country life (remember, this was just after the Dust Bowl years) was a depressing memory, and it was the declaration of a new life filled with sophistication and leisure time. A lawn said that a family could afford to buy food as opposed to growing it and provided a living, high-maintenance outdoor carpet upon which to perform leisurely activities. It said the owner could afford to spend money and hours of work on land with no tangible return. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But that leads us to where we are today.

And where we are today is reflected in numbers from the Earth Institute at Colombia University.

  • American Lawns take up 30-40 million acres.
  • Lawnmowers account for five percent of the nation’s air pollution.
  • Each year more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment (more gallons of petroleum than spilled by the Exxon Valdez).
  • Homeowners spend billions of dollars and typically use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops.
  • The majority of these chemicals are wasted due to inappropriate timing and application.
  • The chemicals then become runoff and a major source of water pollution.

  • Lawn watering accounts for 30-60% of urban water use, and most of this water is wasted due to poor timing and application.

My goal is to reduce the approximately two acres I mow down to a green patch about 40 yards square in front of my house, and I don’t even want to mow that small area. Basically, I don’t want to own a mower of any type. I’m whittling away on this with a few different methods.

  • Expand the garden - Why not use that space to grow more food?

  • Plant native wildflowers - More pollinators and very pleasant scenery.
  • Let corner patches of the yard grow wild — Native wildflowers are coming up on their own and there’s no telling how many beauties I’ve mowed over in the past.

  • Goats as mowers – No gas, no noise (less noise), free fertilizer and possible meat in the freezer after the growing season. Goats tend to browse rather than graze and are ideal for tree-filled yards (like mine). They are excellent at keeping vines and shrubs at bay while letting grasses grow to a healthy yet controlled height.

It will be a few years before my plan comes to full fruition, but I’ve already got a shady spot picked out on the creek where I can spend more time enjoying nature instead of fighting against it.


You apparently don't live in the city, or if you do, congratulations for having a lot with two acres and a stream. Who wouldn't want to make it a little Eden as you intend? And I agree that many lawns, and most landscaping that complements them, are often dull and a waste of water and effort for the relatively few homeowners who don't hire out their lawn maintenance. Proper husbanding is part of the answer, but few read the directions on the labels on the pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide they apply with relish. Still, the USA has 2.3 billion acres of land, a modest portion of which is under production for food. So there's lots of land. I believe people's approach to their property will change over time as people realize, as you propose, that more flowers and woody plants are a better choice and far less jealous of one's time, effort, and money. Good luck with your campaign.

Get a REEL mower

I feel your pain. I hate to mow a lawn too!! Here's the kicker where I live in southern California. This is a semi arid desert. We are asked to cut our water usage by 25% by our Governor and city officials. We do just that, cut by sometimes 35%. Then the City Officials say we aren't making enough money because everyone has cut their water usage. They raise water rates...huh? Why did we cut the water usage? Then we look down the street and the city is letting contractors build 1500 new home. Where are they getting the water for these homes? I know got a little off track. Screw the lawn let nature take its course and go fishing.

Agreed. I hate mowing the lawn, but it is what it is. I just wish we could all get passed the "my lawn and landscaping has to look better than my neighbors" hype, so that maybe we truly could let those areas grow wild, grow more food, etc.

I solved most of the lawn mowing problem with 2 things: a huge garden and a huge deck. Both of those I can enjoy, mowing the grass, I cannot.

I haven't had a lawn for 44 years....purely by luck. In Oregon, we replaced the lawn with rhododendrons and bark dust. And, for the past 16 years in Tucson, crushed rock it is by our geezer community rules. Life is good.

Amen, amen, amen...!!! God, why didn't I ever think and write of this???!!! Yes, yes, yes!!! I have a Satanic hate for lawn work. It is messy, gasoline smells to the high heaven, it is a waste of money and time, taking away from so many other useful, pleasant events that a person could be doing. Mowing the lawn isn't just about cutting the grass, it is all the cleaning afterwards.

My late father was a fanatic about grass and lawn work. He harped about his sons waking up early in order to beat the heat, come home water the lawn and as aside produce a crop of gnats and mosquitos to rival the jungles of Latin America and Africa. My paternal side of the family believed that anyone who slept past 4:00 a.m. was a lazy, useless, worthless lout. I think only God could calculate the amount of water my father used during his life time watering grass, especially after he just cut the damn thing.

My late mother, who many things went over her head, once remarked, I don't know why you like to go fishing , you don't like to even cut the yard. Like I just wrote, some tings just went over her head.

I would sometimes spend a weekend helping my one paternal uncle on his dairy farm and then go bass fishing at his stock tank and the creek that went through his pond and property. I really enjoyed that, and he hated the idea of mowing what little yard he did have.

Kudos to John Sain for this piece.

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I don't think that you will want the goats. They will need to be fenced in, and they bite.

Goats also defecate which releases methane gas which causes climate change. Why do you want to destroy earth with goats?

Goats will kill most trees. As you said, they like to browse. They will strip the bark, especially if confined to an area (which is difficult). They make wonderful pets if raised as such, and wonderful pack animals as well. In my experience with them (30 years), they only bite people who are assholes, though males will show their teeth if they are in rut. They are not good mowers as they are usually not interested in green grass - baby doll sheep are much better for that purpose.

One of the things I really enjoy is mowing my lawn when I had my house! I never looked at it as a chore, I like the smell of fresh cut grass, then again my first job was mowing lawns, it was how I earned money for my 22 RF and for my fishing, lawn mower money allowed me to buy a 7' Fenwick Fly Rod for a 5 Wt and the 1492 Pfluger medalist reel to go with it, I still have it and fish with it from time to time! Nothing wrong with having a lawn, this is BS on your part. Then again I also did a fair amount of work on my uncle's dairy farm too, learned about where not only food comes from, but the value of work!

Looks like your article is making the rounds. We share the same sentiments, and I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. Thought I beat you to it, then I saw you beat me to it. Either way, it's always good to see someone else who hates the idea of a turf ecological desert around the house.

I once lived in a neighborhood with an HOA, and this subject could lead into a rant about those fascist organizations. I won't, though, and am happily living on a little plot in the country where we do as we please.

Calling all HOAs fascist seems narrow-minded....we love ours.

"Why do we spend so much money and work so hard for what amounts to a biological wasteland around our house? Why do we spend hours of time and gallons of gasoline? Why do we water it when it withers in the summer sun only to spend more time and money to cut it down again?"

Really? You asking these questions on a Fly Fishing website? Everybody knows the ONLY reason you would have a lawn is so you can have a place to practice fly casting. If it weren't for that reason I would rip out all of my grass and build a dirt track :)

Hi, I really enjoyed this article. I've been slowly converting my 0.69 acre property from lawn to gardens, now planning wild spaces as well. For the first time in 7 years I unintentionally observed no mow May partly due to hitting a rock with the mower and putting it out of commission. Interestingly, an area I had been thinking about planting to wildflowers turns out is already full of them. I had never given them a chance. Butter cups and daisies galore as well as thistle and others I dont even know the name of. So beautiful. The less I have to mow the better and the wildlife is everywhere in my yard now. Even my two cats have so much interesting stuff to see and snoop on in my yard and gardens that they barely ever leave our small property.