Why prairies matter and lawns don’t

Prairies – those critically endangered and complex ecosystems understood by few and misunderstood and destroyed by millions of people.

Lawns – those myopically obsessive (and evil) urban, suburban, and increasingly rural monoculture eyesores that displace native ecosystems at a rate between 5,000 and 385,000 acres per day* in favor of sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments bloated with a tremendous European influence that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage.  And there’s the unbearable ubiquitousness of mowing associated with such a useless cultural practice, which creates a ridiculous amount of noise pollution, air and water pollution, and a bustling busyness that destroys many peaceful Saturday mornings.  The American lawn is the epitome of unsustainability.
*The discrepancy is due to expenses.  It would be extremely expensive to taxpayers and institutions to obtain the satellite imagery needed to perform a detailed analysis as to how much lawn there really is.  Also keep in mind that a lot of lawns are “hidden” under the canopies of trees and urban forests, so those numbers I’ve quoted are conservative at best.  Click here for a more thorough explanation.  I would also guess those numbers are taken from urban sprawl rates, which varies year to year, decade to decade, etc.

As one internet commenter named Carrie eloquently said, “as a nation, we have far too much lawn doing far too little for us.”

How much lawn is too much?  41 million acres.  That figure makes lawn the most widespread plant under irrigation in the contiguous US.  Three times more acreage is covered in irrigated lawn than in irrigated corn, and that’s a conservative estimate.  All of that once precious water used on those 41 million acres of ridiculous, non-native turfgrass to keep it unnaturally green – how can people be so blind?

Lawns, along with row-crop farms, “improved” grazing pastures, and urbanization, are some of the biggest negative land conversions of native landscapes, and are direct contributors to the destruction of wildlife and native plant habitats throughout the world.  As native landscapes disappear, wildlife disappear, and important ecological processes that insure outcomes such as clean drinking water, climate change buffers, and flood control also disappear.  The future of mankind depends heavily upon the health of native landscapes.

Prairies matter because of their immense root systems; dense, sprawling, complex biological systems that store one third of the world’s carbon and subsequently clean our future water as it precipitates from moisture-laden clouds onto diverse plant communities, and filters down through the mass of litter, roots, soil organisms, and soil horizons.  Water quality always follows soil carbon levels, and prairies are the best soil carbon factories in the world.  Lawns do not compare and never will.

Illustration by Heidi Natura, 1995, of Living Habitats.  Click on image to see larger version.  80% of a prairie’s biomass is below ground, which is a part of the reason why prairies are the greatest soil carbon factories in the world.  Those roots break up compacted soil, and as a portion of those roots die each year, they add organic matter and decompose into carbon, further enriching the soil; all of this is done without deadly pesticides or equally deadly petrochemical fertilizers.

Photo above: On the far left is a common lawn grass, Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis), a native of Europe.  The rest of the plants are native prairie species.

Other common lawn grasses are Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.), and Bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum), to name a few.  None of those are native either, originating from Africa, Japan, and Brazil, respectively.

Kentucky Bluegrass did not originate in North America (a handful of sources say otherwise), so why are we planting it and other weedy non-native grasses?  Is it out of fear of nature?  Is it out of ignorance of the true beauty of natural ecosystems? (Homeowner associations and neighborhood zoning laws are famous for that).  What is so wrong with native plants that we bring in non-native junk from other continents?  It’s because most people are impatient when it comes to plants, and they want something that grows fast, is green, stays green, and can be kept as flat as a table top – something the Scotts Company has successfully brainwashed millions of people into believing they can achieve via weekly and noisy toil, though not without taking a chunk out of their paychecks and making them do a whole lot of work with nothing to show for it.  How vain, futile, and suicidal.

The American lawn now represents a serious civic problem. That the space devoted to it continues to grow—and that more and more water and chemicals and fertilizer are devoted to its upkeep—doesn’t prove that we care so much as that we are careless.”
– Elizabeth Kolbert

The carelessness of the American people’s obsessive compulsion for such silly and lowly turfgrass goals extends far beyond the failure they are set up for in regards to their quest for the unsustainable and unattainable “perfect lawn”.  As noted before, lawns are suicidal – we are poisoning ourselves, our children, and our water for something that is wholly obtuse and unneeded.  Why not be productive and grow a garden instead?  A garden, prairie, woodland, forest or xeriscape are far better than the high-maintenance and pervasive European-style lawns.

To sum up the nearsightedness of lawn lovers, here’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “You can’t depend on your judgement when your imagination is out of focus.”

§   §   §

  • Every day more than 5,000 acres of land are converted to lawns in the U.S.  By some estimates, this figure exceeds 385,000 acres.
  • Lawns currently cover more than 41 million acres, the most irrigated graminoid plant in the U.S.
  • Americans apply over 30,000 tons of pesticides to their yards every year.
  • Of the 30 most used lawn pesticides, 17 are routinely detected in groundwater.
  • The National Cancer Institute finds that children in households that have lawn treated with pesticides have a 6.5 times greater risk of developing leukemia.
  • American lawns require 200 gallons of fresh water per person per day to maintain and keep green. People in Developing Countries would kill for that amount of water, and here we are carelessly using it on silly turfgrass.
  • Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system.
  • Of those same pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystems, 11 are toxic to bees, and 16 are toxic to birds.
  • If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three people on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.

“Turfgrass Revolution: Measuring the expansion of the American Lawn”, Robbins and Birkenholtz
“America’s $41 billion a year green lawns are turning the earth brown”
Gimme Green

For more on why prairies matter and lawns don’t, read Paul Gruchow’s wonderful essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us.

Author: J. Crumpler

Grasslands ecologist. Native seedsman.

142 thoughts on “Why prairies matter and lawns don’t”

  1. That’s why my husband and I prefer organic gardening. Of course it looks more natural and not clean and tidy like the gardens of some our neighbours. We think we have a responsibility for the generations to come. So why should we destroy nature just for an anonymous, soul-missing lawn.

  2. I’am insulted & embarrassed for you, to print an article with such Fuzzy Math and miss truths about Grasses & Lawns! If I still had young children and pets, after reading your article, I would run out tomorrow and tear out my lawn, for fear of making my
    children & pets deathly ill or perhaps die!
    You should contact the Delta Bluegrass Co, in Stockton Ca. and let them give the home owners with lawns, the other side of the story. Thank ou for your time. 😧

  3. I live on a micro-farm that utilizes any and all natural pest management other than pesticides. Anyone living east of the Mississippi river and south of Inter-state Hwy 70 will not keep prairie plants growing. Oak/hickory forest will dictate that.

    1. It is not true that east of the Mississippi river and south of Interstate 70 prairie won’t grow. Illinois is called the Prairie State because of the abundance of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in the state before European settlement, but sadly, less than 1/2 of 1% of original prairie remains in Illinois.That tall grass prairie was the source of the amazing abundance of rich, black soil up to 3 feet deep that made Illinois the successful farming state that it became. Oak Hickory forests occur in prairie situations, on the edges of prairies and in isolated patches. There is prairie in Indiana, a smattering in Ohio.Different kinds of prairie, tall grass, mesic and short grass, thrive where topography and rain dictate. When I moved to North Carolina, I discovered that prairie systems existed here. There is a remnant prairie in Chapel Hill NC, near the NC Botanic Garden. Contact the NC Botanic Garden, the Morton Arboretum in Illinois, the Nature Conservancy, the Department of Natural Resources in many states to find out where prairie grows.

      1. There is remnant prairie in Louisiana as well. We have the cajun and coastal prairies. Prairies need to be managed to be maintained. Controlled burning and/or once a year mowing are acceptable methods to prevent encroachment of woody plants. It’s a lot less to manage than a lawn. That’s for sure. I have about 400 square feet of a micro prairie type habitat in south Louisiana. I have had it about four years now and it’s pretty much self sufficient through the use of perrenials and reseeding itself. Yes, prairies can exist to some extent almost anywhere, even it’s only a fragment of what it once was. Every little bit helps.

    2. The Flint Hills, which the largest remaining prairie in the US, is mostly south of I-70 and extends into NE Oklahoma. There is also extensive prairie in western Kansas and it runs down into Texas. There have never been forests in this area of the plains since pre-history.

  4. What a fascinating and well written article! My “lawn” has never seen a pesticide and is as wild as a meadow. It sustains many wild flowers and insects and the numerous birds living on our small patch of Transylvania tells me that this is the only sensible way forward. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Reblogged this on FeistyAmazon and commented:
    Guilty as charged. I let her kill the dandelions with pesticides and now I feel horribly guilty. They took over the whole lawn. I will reseed but I also have a box about 8’by 8′ that I will need cleaned out as its got all kinds of stubborn weeds in there and will use for food. It will need some rich mulch. I also have planted tomatoes in pots, radishes too, and bulbs both in pots and the ground.

    Personally I like SOME lawn so I can do my Karate on soft grass. But I also want beautiful flowers and food plants.

  6. I enjoyed the content and I realize your audience may be something more akin to “the choir” than the general consumer. However, the tone of this article is unfortunately condescending and does little, in my mind, to further the goal that you so obviously support. I would urge you to work on delivering this message in a less divisive manner as it is self defeating to your argument to demonize, demean and condescend to those on the other side of the intellectual divide on this issue.

    Please do not construe this as opposition to your advocacy, I understand the importance and agree with the thesis of the article. I just do not see it as productive as it could be. “More flies with honey…” and all that.


    1. I concur. I read the article in hope of learning what to plant to replace my utterly dead lawn after abandoning it to 2 years of SoCal drought. Other than the illustration of feral precedents, there was no specific advise as to alternatives for “evil” lawn grass.

      1. TO give such advice wouldn’t be helpful… readers will live in different areas and climates and should research the local plants to their own area.

      2. May I suggest you contact your local extension agent or conservation district… they can suggest grass species which are adapted to your climate. There are also a lot of resources out there for creating a space for low maintenance landscapes. Best of luck to you.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly with Zach. This is way, way too important an issue to sacrifice in the interest of demonizing and belittling people who may not agree with you, or are simply not informed. Civility and respect should be the default position when dealing with other people. We don’t need more divisiveness and vitriol in our country, or the world.

    3. Well put – constructive criticism, nicely said. The onus is upon us all to contribute what we can to the dire straights we find ourselves, and this is yours. If we can work as a team, we should.

    4. Sometimes a strong and unflinching tone is necessary in order to focus the attention of readers to an issue they did not previously even know existed. Such is the case here.

  7. I have replaced most of my lawn with food plants and native perennials. We live next to a creek, and what water the garden requires is carried from there. City water is too full of chemicals for my house plants, so they are also watered with creek water or collected rain water. My goal is to eventually have nothing that needs mowing.

    Thank you for an informative and well written article.

    Ingrid, a member of the choir.

  8. I have had a green lush lawn and lots of shade trees. I use very few chemicals, (spot spraying dandelions) and I mulch my grass and leaves, never bagging. I fertilize twice a year and water only occasionally through out the season, as we get ample rains most years. If your lawn is thick and healthy you will not have weeds…Stop shaming us for creating green spaces to live and play! T.O. Brookings, SD

    1. Spraying dandylions poisons one of the first food sources for bees in the spring… so you can take that high horse attitude and stuff it until you stop killing the bees with your self-righteous lawn.

  9. I see your point but there are many other thing that is destroying our planet like the constant raping of Mother Earth; coal seam gas fracking, mining of every sort, constant bombing and war, water poisoning, air pollution, extermination of the rainforests etc etc etc that is a much bigger threat than lawn …it would be great to see an article on how much pollution is being ceated from constant bombing and how much water and environment around tge globe has fracking contaminated.

    1. Lawns are something each individual homeowner can address; the other things you mention are the purview of corporations and governments. They are important, too, very much so, but I would guess they are the topic of another, and a different, article. It’s a question of “and” rather than “but.”

  10. I hate my lawn! I’m going out to yell at it right now! On a serious note-great article! I was working in Iowa a couple of weeks ago and was just awed at the beautiful color of the soils.

    Glad to see Heidi’s drawing still getting great exposure! My wife worked with her when she drew it!


  11. Yeah, I have a small front and back lawn, and this article does nothing to help me choose something other than grass to cover it. I’m certainly agreeable to the central complaint of this article, but I still have no idea how to move in a different direction.

  12. I have a natralized front garden my neighbours have grass mine has wild flowers mine flowers all way too october I do not fuss over it feeding it cutting it watering it I cut it all down in novembeŕ scatter more wild flower seeds for next year its very rewarding the bees come to my front and back garden I love nature I also a organic gardener for a very long time.

  13. The lawns in the US is as stupid idea as cemeterys in Russia with abundance of stone and metal. Human is the only mammal that continues consumption of natural resources even after his death (!)

  14. I have loved weeds and bugs my whole life. At this point I own about 3/4 acre of land and merely cut vines and wood, and use a good electric weed whacker to maintain path through the meadow and woodland. I select from what is there now, instead of planting other species. I have wineberry, back cap and blackberry patches developing, some cultivated grapes. I haven’t reached a truce with poison ivy, but find that cutting back the tops repeatedly stunts the plants somewhat.

  15. I love this article, and would be GLAD to say goodbye to my lawn. But what are the alternatives, WITHOUT making me a pariah among my neighbors? I’m already in the process of turning my backyard into mostly garden. My front yard is ugly as hell, and could use the long root systems to help with drainage

    1. You might want to check out https://agriscaping.com/ . I have no relationship with this company, but they specialize in helping people create HOA approved edible landscaping, in whatever climate you’re in. They have DIY courses, as well as consultants and computer programs to help you determine what’s best for your planting zone and microclimates. It’s a good place to start for people who have no idea where to start.

      I completed my permaculture design certificate in January 2017, after having almost completely turned the formerly weed ridden and black walnut poisoned, stumpy yard we took over and turned it into a food forest. Many edible plants can serve as ornamentals with your neighbors none the wiser. Other good resources include the books “Foodscaping” and “Edible Front Yards.” “The Backyard Homestead” also includes lots of ideas for turning your yard into a productive and beautiful place.

      Hope that helps!

  16. My whole yard consists of natural ground coverings. I’m now surrounded by neighbors in posh, overbuild McMansions and McCastles who Demand the greenest and most overly-attended lawns. These people pay lawn service idiots to dance around Every Week per mansion pouring down chemicals and trimming things to hell, via noisy gas-guzzling ride-around machines, and backpack mounted gear. Almost every day of the week, because if it’s not one neighbor then it is another!

    They look down on me as some lazy, cheap/poor, working class Vermin because I prefer all-natural grounds.

    I wish they would read this type of literature but, alas, all they care about is conspicuous consumption, impressing one another, and they truly think their lawn represents their great taste and status in life!

  17. The way that the important information contained in this article is communicated, is the answer to the question of; why do you have under 500 followers? Being “right” is not nearly as important as being effective.
    Maybe there is a community college near to where you live that gives classes on how to create allies, not enemies.
    Educating people who grow lawns, rather that ridiculing them, accusing them of destroying the planet, might be a better way to change the way people landscape their yards.
    Last time that I checked, and by your own calculations, those who are uneducated about the downside of growing a lawn, vastly outnumber those who are educated on the issue.
    The pen can be mightier than the sword, and just as poorly wielded.

  18. As I read this article I was surprised at some of the ways this author Tried to get the point across’ and also feel I learned a little bit more. But, all aside where I wholeheartedly believe in less chemicals etc, and trying too keep as much natural habitat as possible.
    I also have to think about the person trying to sell there home or property with an overgrown yard! In some states /cities you get fined if your yard is not tidy!, people will not want to look or even purchase a home with an unkempt yard.
    And now when most states are having epidemic Tick invasion carrying serious health risks, we are told to keep brush and overgrowth to a minimum. We are removing free standing water and ponds because of mosquitoes and there diseases…or adding chemicals to keep them away.
    So again, while I do feel the article has some good information and I like most would love to have a more natural habitat , health risks are taking a front seat.
    P.s I do try to keep a lot of natural plants around and very little fertilizer use.

    1. I understand your point, but this kind of yard does not have to be unkempt. There are a lot of non-native plants that are adaptable to our harsh midwestern climate. I’ve gone for the English Cottage Garden look—I was so pleased when my neighbor’s father, a gardener from England, recognized it as such.
      This was a plus when selling my house, in Lawrence, Kansas, as there was no lawn to mow.
      In my current house, I have both a bind weed and a Bermuda grass problem. Unfortunately, the only way I can keep the neighbor’s Bermuda from completely taking over my yard is by spraying. The super aggressive threadleaf euphorbia also helps keep it in check, but it comes with it’s own problems.

  19. I enjoyed reading your piece and agree 100%. BUT, I offer the following observations.:
    I service in-ground swimming pools in upper middle class neighborhoods. Predictably, all of the lawns are tidy and weed free. Virtually 100% of the time there is background (and sometimes foreground) noise of lawn mowers, leaf blowers and weed eaters. Makes me crazy sometimes. I feel sorry for the people that live there but I suppose they’re used to that noise. But, I get it. They’re all kind of stuck doing that due to the reasons listed in comments above. I have a 5 acre farmette in south-central Wisconsin where I’ve planted 600+ trees and shrubs to let grow wild and diminish the size of the mowed area. 2 acres are left to grow as hay, my neighbor farmer comes and cuts it 2-3 times a year and bales it as hay and sells that. The trees and shrubs have grown up over the past 30 years and now require lots brushing and clearing every spring although I try to leave it as wild as possible. What’s left in grass – about 1-3/4 acres – gets mowed as a lawn. I hate it. I hate mowing. But what else to do? I tried letting it go, I get varieties of thistles, dandelions, nettles, burdock, creeping charlie and what not all. I tried wild flowers and prairie grasses, the wild weeds just choked out the good stuff. The tall grasses and weeds harbor millions of mosquitoes. I just don’t have the time or energy to turn that grass into prairie, much as I’d like to. It ends up looking awful and the thistles spread like crazy. I’ll never forget what the local university extension forester told me when he came out one season to look around and give suggestions. “Nature doesn’t leave bare ground”.

  20. I love my lawn. It is organic, mowed to 3 inches year around, and covers about an acre and a half. I have a long narrow vegetable garden in the sunniest spot, which I don’t plow anymore. I handweed and mulch with raked grass clippings, straw and leaves shredded by my mower, which is a 48 inch wide riding Scag. It takes me no more than an hour and a half to mow, and gives me great pleasure. Yesterday from the mower I saw a brilliant blue back of a male bluebird flying away and bumblebees pollinating my low geraniums. The only downside is that I do have to wear earphones and occasionally I have to trim the grass growing near the edges with a lightweight handheld trimmer.

  21. This article would be sooo much better if it focused on the positive and beneficial aspects of prairie landscape rather than a belligerent rant against “lawns.” You gave very little information concerning your passion and had me believing that you are a hateful radical.

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