Lawns: A pain in Earth’s a**

Gungeet Kaur
8 min readDec 29, 2021

Lawns are a basic feature that we expect to come with any property. They are an aesthetic choice that we’ve all come to accept as the most common option for our front and back yards — a solid benchmark. Apart from their aesthetic significance, lawns or rather unpaved residential spaces are regulated in most North American suburbs by the government to create sufficient patches of land for rainwater to be absorbed and decrease the likelihood of flooding. You would have to pay a large fine if you pave over your lawn completely.

In the neighbourhood I grew up in, everyone on the street and connected streets only had lawns of grass with some patches of plants. Some were well maintained and in the summers I was used to seeing some couples painstakingly reseeding and adding fresh soil on the missing patches of grass. Some didn’t put in much effort so weeds were prominent and those houses were generally looked down upon. I did not know this at the time, but you could even call the city to complain about somebody else’s lesser maintained lawn. Some people enjoyed tending to their grass and their lawns looked pristine for entire summers until it would snow and cover all their hard work.

One summer after graduating from high school I took on the task to make my parent’s lawn pristine. It was a corner house and the lawn wrapped around 3 sides of the property — very ambitious project now that I think about it. With the little money I made working as a cook at Pizza Hut, I bought some manual weeding tools, a bag of seeds, did some research on the optimal times for seeding and how to avoid birds from feasting on my seeding efforts to get the lawn back in shape. It first took weeks to pluck weeds with a stand-up weeder that only allowed one weed to be pulled out at a time, and sometimes it wasn’t enough so I had to then also buy a hand trowel. Then I added seeds and one bag was definitely not enough, so I had to buy more. Then some new soil on top so the seeds wouldn’t fly away or get eaten by squirrels or birds but I’d sometimes look out the window and there they were, feasting! I was furious about these animals but really, it’s not their fault.I watered the grass regularly, it felt really wasteful but I had already committed so many resources that I had to follow through at this point. I would keep my eyes on the lawn, and tell everyone in the household to not walk on the lawn for the coming weeks or more preferably ever again. I was sure I would reap the rewards after all the calluses that developed and muscle soreness. But despite my best efforts, I had accepted my failed attempt by mid-summer.

The grass required a lot of resources — money, water, seeds, tools, fertilizers, time and energy. If your lifestyle or your circumstances don’t allow for an abundance of those resources, it is generally hard to maintain a lawn. It is a symbol of affluence, one that we should eradicate for many reasons.

It all started with medieval French and English kings — as royalty, only they could afford the labour and resources to tend to lawns. They intentionally chose to plant something useless so they could display their wealth. Lawns take much more resources than what it provides in return. If you had a lush lawn in the medieval era, everybody could then confirm you were rich and powerful. But if the lawn were in bad condition, it signaled other kingdoms that you were impoverished; and perhaps a good time for them to attack or manipulate you.

And as the colonizers migrated and spread, so did this idea. We came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth. And then with the industrial revolution, and more accessible and affordable tools, lawns became normalized within middle and lower classes.

Although a showcase of wealth is still prominent in our cultures through fancy cars and clothes, brand names and big homes, lawns are a lesser known symbol that require a lot of resources to maintain.

Lawns are very much useless:

  1. Most grass is not indigenous to North America and therefore is highly dependent on humans for its survival, especially as a monoculture. This drives up the cost and effort to keep it alive and looking luxurious.
  2. In Canada, you can’t even enjoy it for half of the year and when the snow goes away, you need to put effort again to make it look meticulous
  3. Neighbouring yard work makes a lot of sounds. Lawnmowers are an effective alarm clock but mostly for wrong days and wrong time
  4. It’s a huge contributor to Colony Collapse Disorder — bees are an important part of the ecosystem and the use of pesticides and lack of other vegetations has been rapidly decreasing their populations
  5. Grass is the largest grown crop in the US after wheat and maize. The water being used to keep grass alive can be used in so many better ways and so can the land
  6. It also contributes to air and water pollution, and wildlife distress
  7. Lawns don’t absorb much carbon at all

With water contamination and water shortages, it is evident we need to replace grass with something better. It’s wild to think there are also companies that would paint your lawns green if it dies — we are so obsessed with lawns that we keep generating band-aid solutions for its shortcomings in its non-native environment. But there are better solutions — something that looks good, requires little effort to maintain, and doesn’t deplete Earth’s or your resources.

Nature is wonderful if we let it work the way it does. We are forcing grass to work in ways and under conditions, it’s not suited for genetically, and that’s why it requires all the effort from humans to create those conditions for it. When you walk through a forest, there are millions of things happening under your feet. There is an impressive connection of fungi that works like the internet connecting trees and plants to each other and sharing nutrients and information about invasive bugs. This connection — the “wood wide web” sustains the forest. Even the most feeble trees are helped to survive because lesser trees mean less communication and more vulnerability to the group. It’s a symbiotic community. But when we look at farmland or our own lawns, the communication is non-existent — it’s quiet.

All plant species in a forest are connected and their well-being depends on their community — makes them sufficient without any human interference. There’s also no waste by-products, everything has a use and is recycled — it’s the best well-thought out design. Biomimicry is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges. Janine M. Benyus’ book “Biomimicry,” a book by Janine M. Benyus was the first to introduce this science to me, and the first chapter alone is sufficient to understand the amount of knowledge and solutions that we have overlooked and how we have made our lives difficult! Indigenous cultures have for long respected earth for its presents and have had much better relationships than we have today.

How do you bring the working of the forest to lawns? There’s so much space being dedicated to lawns right now — imagine if these small patches could collectively contribute to something larger. Reducing emission, better air quality, help wildlife generation, happiness levels and so much more.

During my stay in Burnaby, Vancouver I saw many streets in the suburbs adopting varieties of crops of flowers, and beds, and shrubs that appealed to the eyes and made every house look unique. With restrictive regulations set by the government for watering lawns, it is more evident why there was a higher adoption in such gardens. It was fun to take a walk, looking at different shrubberies — what a delight to the eyes and mind.

Permaculture work with nature instead of against it. The practice has been inspired by observing natural processes and recreated on farms and personal properties. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are known as the founders of permaculture — they invented the word by combining permanent and agriculture. Although it became popularized by that name, permaculture are ancient wisdom that has existed way before modern technology, unacknowledged and deemed primitive for centuries. These strategies were widely adopted by the indigenous people from all over the world. The Kihamba Forest Gardens of Tanzania originated in 1100 CE, the Milpa Forest Garden of Mexico in 2500 BCE, Boma Corrals of Kenya in 300 BCE, and there are many many more. You can read more about these methods in Lo-Tek by Julia Watson.

Permaculture can be designed based on local biology, planting diverse species so the garden can fend off pests by itself, and need little maintenance and much more sustainable, organic, self-sufficient, doesn’t have negative impacts on the Earth and local biology, and way more benefits than just planting grass.

A study, published in the journal Environmental Management, found that over 40 million acres of land in the continental US has some form of lawn on it. That’s three times more than corn, or any other irrigated crop. The most common lawn grass types we currently see in the US are native to various parts of Africa. Bent Grass is native to Eurasia and northern Africa commonly growing in wetlands; Bermuda grass from tropical Africa which prefers moist and warm climates with high light. It is highly evident why we need to move aways grass lawns. Nature has already solved the problems and we need to start respecting it. Grasslands occur naturally and there are conditions for it too. I cannot grow a mango tree in my Toronto based condo — it sounds absurd to take on this task. Grass is similarly absurd when you look at the natural habitat it grows in, compared to the forced and botched environment we force it to grow in. The land can be in a much better way — for you, for earth, for your neighbours and the local biology.

I currently live in a condo with no space to cultivate a permaculture but I’m surrounded with a variety of plants that bring me joy and health. Earth’s ecology is magical and as I learn more about the ways forests breathe, communicate, share and fend, it continues to humanize forests, even more, really believing that it is alive, has personality and emotions. Grass is lonely, and unhappy on lawns, and there’s a lot to learn and benefit from how the forest works so that millions of acres of land can be used more responsibly.

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Gungeet Kaur

A Product Designer writing about design, environment, and other thoughts. kaurdesign.ca