I was seven years old and hanging upside down—knobby knees slung over the trapeze bar, blond hair dragging through the grass—when the birds tried telling me something. A little wren swooped down low and fast; I startled and nearly fell. My sister squealed, and my mom called us in. For days it kept happening: whenever we went outside, birds flew straight for us. Eventually, we found a baby wren who had fallen from its nest into a patch of grass next to the monkey bars. The other birds had been trying to protect it from us. My sister and I, with the help of our mom, tried to save the tiny thing, crafting a little bed in a shoebox and feeding it water from an eyedropper. I wept when it died the next day. But then it was back to playtime.
Our saga with the wrens is one of many childhood memories I have of playing in backyards and front yards. We moved all over the country when I was a kid, but one thing we always had was a grass lawn where we spent most of our time. Our yards taught me that outside is way more fun than inside. A backyard was the destination of my first “camping trip”; it was the flat ground on which I learned to catch a lacrosse ball, hit a birdie, and throw a Frisbee; and it’s where my friends and I spent hours running through the smack of the sprinkler, slip-sliding in the grass until the well ran dry.
These days I live in a condo in Portland, Oregon. My partner and I plan to move to a house with outdoor space soon, where we will hopefully, someday, raise a child. When I think of a hypothetical yard, an expanse of green grass still comes to mind. But the narrative around grass lawns is changing—the connotations shifting and increasingly problematic. Over the summer, record-breaking heat waves made possible by climate change hit the Pacific Northwest. It was so hot in late June that asphalt buckled and hundreds of people died. In Portland, grass lawns were baked to burnt straw by early July. Some people kept watering, but one could sense an atmosphere of concern and even judgment aimed at our sprinkler-using neighbors: things have to change. In late summer, I saw a yard sign that read, “This lawn is maintained by rakes and brooms.” I realized that even the familiar hum of a gas-powered lawn mower now sounds insidious—instead of evoking memories of long summer days, it sounds like our inescapable reliance on fossil fuels. It sounds, too, like the toxic pesticides that so often follow. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 59 million pounds of pesticides were used on lawns in America in 2012 (the most recent year this was calculated).
There are about 40 million acres of grass lawns in the United States, while about 500 square miles of turfgrass are planted across the United States each year. Plenty has been written about why that’s a problem: grass lawns require a lot of water to stay green; the maintenance makes them net-carbon emitters; and the monoculture nature of a grass lawn hurts biodiversity, failing to feed and house all kinds of creatures, including the critical pollinators we need to maintain healthy ecosystems.
It’s increasingly obvious that the American obsession with green grass just doesn’t make sense. Here in Portland, the Audubon Society has welcomed over 8,000 members to its Certified Backyard Habitat Program since that initiative was founded in 2009. The program promotes the planting of native species, the removal of noxious weeds, and the elimination of pesticides. Places like Utah and Sacramento, California, have started incentivizing residents to transition to sustainable alternatives, like xeriscaping, with direct payments. On a national level, the Homegrown National Park project encourages homeowners to plant native species to help increase backyard biodiversity; currently, over 11,000 people have listed their land on the map of participants, illustrating the enormous potential that can occur when we protect and regenerate our own little slices of wilderness as part of larger ecosystems.
Bethany Rydmark, a landscape designer based in Portland, tells me she’s noted an increased interest in sustainable landscaping over the past few years—especially this summer, when grass lawns were nearly impossible to keep green. And Rydmark has had a front-row seat to the shifting conversations surrounding grass lawns and more sustainable alternatives for decades: She grew up on a grass-seed farm about 30 miles south of Portland, where she loved to curl up in a shaded patch of grass and read. For her wedding, her father gifted her a meticulously mowed lawn for the ceremony, cross-hatched by the even lines of a riding mower. But in recent years, she’s advocated for more sustainable, drought-resistant alternatives, like wildflower-grass mixes and native ground covers. “Water in Portland is expensive. And [clients] are telling us how much they’re spending to keep their lawns alive—or just kicking themselves, because they’re not keeping it alive,” Rydmark says. “That becomes a really solid argument for asking, What if you could grow something that doesn’t take a bunch of water but still looks good?”
Last year she and her husband transitioned their own yard from grass to native, drought-resistant plants. And despite her passion for sustainable landscaping, it required an adjustment period. “This kind of lawn requires a mindset shift—especially [for] me, as a designer. I’m drawn to orderly lines,” she says. She still has an aerial shot of the manicured lawn from her wedding, hanging in her hallway.
When I drove to her home in northeast Portland in mid-August, I noticed flat yellow plot after flat yellow plot—dried-up grass that was dead or dormant. There was a stillness to the neighborhood as the warm summer sun bent toward the golden hour. But Rydmark’s yard was noticeably different. There was yellow there, too, but also many shades of green and brown, and little pops of white and purple. It had texture, variety, and movement; upon closer inspection, I saw hundreds of bees hovering and crawling through a mix of clover, fescue, yarrow, and English daisy. Rydmark says she and her daughters like to go on scavenger hunts to see what’s blooming. There’s always something new, and some of it she didn’t plant herself: their yard allows for different seeds to blow in on the wind and find a home.
The mindset shift required for this transition extends beyond a preference for clean, orderly lines. Rydmark says we also have to consider what lawns have represented for generations. “There’s been a connection for so long [between] the state of your yard and wealth and image,” she says. “But maybe the true value is in knowing that the land you’re caring for now has a variety of species, and that’s supporting other animals and insects, and you’re cultivating this ecologically healthy piece of land.”
To this end, she hopes that her yard can serve as an example, to show neighbors what’s possible when you let go of that attachment to the grass lawn and think more creatively. It certainly looks better than the neighbors’ yellow grass.
In a neighborhood east of Rydmark’s, I also visited Kevin Ward, who hired Rydmark to redesign his lawn to include native landscaping. It’s been three years since he made the switch, and he loves it—as do his two young girls. He says they love exploring the different plants, collecting sticks and seeds for various make-believe scenarios, and helping with the vegetable garden. “There’s a sense of wonder that happens when they get in there,” he says. “It’s really sparking their curiosity.”
Ward’s backyard is an enchanting mix of flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees, but there is a clear sense of order and cohesiveness to the layout. His favorite aspect is just how little maintenance is required to keep it looking like this. By winter, all of these spindly, viny, colorful plants will go brown and dormant. Seed heads will pop out, and the birds will come to feast. Ward will eventually cut the shrubs back and let the trimmed bits fall to the ground, where they’ll nourish new growth next spring. He used to mow every weekend. Now this maintenance takes place once a year.
After visiting these beautiful yards, I found myself thinking about the little version of me who loved to play outside. Whether I was upside down or right side up, the outdoors was an adventure slowly unfolding to reveal the interconnectedness of life, the fragility of nature, and the magic of it all. I would never want the little girl I once was—the one who cried when she couldn’t save a single bird—to know that one million plant and animal species would be at risk of extinction by her thirties. But I think if she had known, she’d want to do something. She’d feed and protect whatever she could.
I wish the future didn’t involve young people coming of age in a time of unfolding crisis. I wish I could know whether my hypothetical kid will be able to play outdoors year-round, without the threat of extreme heat or wildfires. The grass lawns of my childhood were greener—but perhaps memories of that significance are misleading. Digging deeper into the days I spent outdoors as a kid, I recall the woods behind our house in Connecticut with more clarity than any of the yards. That’s where friends and I tramped across streams and down overgrown trails, where the sweet smell of freshly cut grass gave way to the dankness of soil and skunk cabbage. As I gained the freedom to explore, my inclination was to escape the confines of the yard, to go find places without fences. In fourth grade, my best friend and I hatched detailed plans to run away to Yosemite National Park. We never went through with it, but we researched the plants we might eat and the animals we might encounter if we did. As kids, we knew we were part of nature, and we wanted to embrace that connection. We certainly didn’t care if the lawn was mowed.
The truth is, a green grass lawn is always trying to be something it’s not. It’s one of many ways humans have forced nature into something barely natural—and without questioning the purpose, we’ve held on to that tradition. Why? For our kids? Maybe. But as more and more people switch from grass to sustainable outdoor spaces for their families, I suspect the young ones won’t mind the sacrifice. They’ll keep doing what little humans have always done: getting dirty and learning to love the earth as it is.
outsideonline.com, 29 October 2021