You can't eat lawns

As you sit on your deck, perhaps resting from mowing your lawn, have you ever wondered why we have lawns?

Lawns were created by the royalty of 17th- and 18th-century Europe and maintained by servants, sheep and goats. The idea caught on with other aristocrats who crossed the Atlantic after the Revolutionary War. But lawns didn't really trickle down to the common man until after the Civil War.

At the end of World War II, there was a rush to the suburbs, and lawns became a symbol of American leisure and prosperity. They were seen as an outdoor refuge, a place for play, summer parties and a kind of decoration for the home of Everyman. But they brought sacrifices of time, energy and money, too, which remain today as we mow, trim, edge, feed and water all that grass.

Lawn care is a $40 billion a year industry in America. None of the grasses used as turfgrass are native species, so we use 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides just to keep lawns green and bug-free. As a result, high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticides and herbicides find their way into our air, water and soil.

And lawns are water-hogs. They use more water than U.S. farmers use to grow wheat, corn or any other agricultural crop. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one-third of all water from public sources goes on landscaping, mostly grass. Here in the Western states, it's closer to 70 percent, largely because of our low summer rainfall and our need to irrigate.

We spend more than 3 billion hours a year pushing or riding gasoline-powered lawnmowers and other equipment that give off toxic exhaust. A gas-powered mower emits as much pollution per hour as 11 cars. And then most of us throw away that expensive grass we work so hard to grow.

Some say the perfect lawn is in peril, because there is a backlash growing as we realize what we are doing to ourselves. Many cities have banned pesticides for not only home lawn care, but for school lawns and playing fields, too. In Las Vegas, lawns are now banned from the front yards of new homes. Maryland limits the nutrient content of lawn fertilizers and when it can be applied.

Perhaps it is time for all of us to reconsider how to use the land around our houses. Of course, you don't want it looking like a weed patch, or perhaps you just can't part with that big, green patch you enjoy. How about considering growing berries, grapes or veggies around the edges, or in the corners, or maybe growing food in the backyard instead of a lawn?

Who knows — you might like this idea so much that you will eventually eat your landscape instead of mowing it.

Coming up: Bob Reynolds, Jackson County home horticulture agent, will teach a class on managing weeds around your home. The class will be from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday, July 25, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371 for information.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. E-mail her at

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