Changing the World One Lawn and a Time

By Staff


Who says lawns must be made of grass? Here’s a drought-tolerant, low-maintenance alternative
by Matthew Romanelli with Diane Olson Rutter

Questions we will explore:

1) How much water does it
    take to keep my lawn green?
2) How much pollution is
    created when I mow
    my lawn?
3) What’s in those herbicides?
4) What’s in those fertilizers?


   What about organic fertilizers on a standard lawn?

   Are those new polymer water
pellets a good idea?

   I need a lawn for my kids and pets to play on; is there an
alternative turf?

Lawn care pesticides are among the most common causes of death among wild bird populations, and are a major culprit.

Replace traditional lawn with an herbal alternative: a rugged, beautiful and environmentally beneficial turf substitute created in Britain during WWI.

Every summer weekend, in a ritual dating back to the 1830 invention of a cast iron gear-driven grass cutting machine, 54 million Amer­icans mow 30 million acres of lawn, creating and evoking a vast, tangled web of memories, all inspired by the nose-tickling scent of fresh-mown grass.
Unfortunately, more than just poig­n­ant memories are generated by those 54 million mowers; tons of air pollutants are, too. Gas-powered lawn mowers (along with weed whackers, leaf blowers and tillers) are responsible for about one-tenth of mobile source hydrocarbon emissions in the U.S., including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, a pernicious group of pollutants classified as “probable carcinogens” by the Centers for Disease Control. Using a lawn mower for 25 hours each year (the average) produces as many PAHs as driving a car 2,325 miles. Gas mowers also contribute to ground level ozone, an lung-distressing pollutant familiar to Salt Lake residents this summer.
Of course it’s not just the mowing that harms the environment — and our own health; it’s also the watering, feeding, de-weeding and de-bugging that begets an ever-widening spiral of environmental degradation, one that not so coincidentally dead ends right where it begins: in our own front yard.
According to landscape gardener and Catalyst writer Matthew Romanelli, the average green Utah lawn gulps around 800 gallons of water per week. That’s a grim statistic, given that we’re in the fourth year of a drought classified by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration as “extreme.” Unless we end our love affair with turf grass, cautions Romanelli, the Wasatch Front is going to be up a dry creek bed without a paddle.
“Despite our obvious environmental predicament, Utah continues to lead the nation in per capita water consump­tion,” he says. “We each use 300 gallons of water per day, and 60% of that gets dumped onto the lawn. I can’t think of a bigger waste of a precious resource.”
Lawn also demands frequent feedings of nutrients, most often provided in the form of commercial fertilizers — many of which (particularly those containing “micro” nutrients) are made from recycled hazardous waste, and contaminated with dangerous levels of heavy metals, chlorinated pesticides, industrial solvents, petroleum products, dioxin and PCBs. Non-organic fertilizers provide only a quick fix, leaving plants and soil in a rut of chemical dependency.
“The more chemicals you feed a lawn, the more it needs,” says Romanelli. “With every application, the soil becomes weaker, losing organic matter and its ability to retain moisture. You have to feed and water it twice as often, and it still doesn’t look good.”
Chemically-fed lawns are also more prone to pests, both herbal and insect, and the pesticides and herbicides used to kill them are chock-full of toxic and pervasive chemicals.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops. And the five top-selling lawn care pesticides — 2,4-D, dicamba, diazinon, gly­phosate and MCPP — all contain substances that have been associated with birth defects, central nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, reproductive disorders and cancer. (Children under five are especially vulnerable to the toxins found in commercial lawn treatments.) Take note, if you find yourself getting a headache when you walk past the pesticides in the garden center.
Lawn care pesticides are also among the most common causes of death among wild bird populations, and are a major culprit in the decline of amphibians. They are also implicated in the disappearance of both wild and managed pollinators, the dearth of which could give rise to worldwide famine.

Matthew Romanelli is a landscape gardener, specializing in Native and Xeriscape consultation and design. He has worked with the Earth for 27 years, in private and commercial consultation, design and installation. You can reach him at Diane Olson Rutter is a Catalyst staff writer. You can reach her at



This article was originally published on June 7, 2010.