Don't be a grasshole

Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 2:25am

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Design courtesy of Samuel Turner

In a classic scene from Spongebob Squarepants, Mr. Krabs opens the door of the Krusty Krab to find Plankton and his vast army of green, redneck relatives. Krabs, not realizing what the mob surrounding his restaurant is, asks Plankton, “You planted grass?” The obvious condescension with which Krabs poses the question implies that he doesn’t find a massive ring of grass around his place of business to be threatening. Krabs, however, had never visited suburban America.

I was recently tasked with mowing a lawn in my neighborhood in East Lansing, Mich. Due to some particularly dry weather this summer, the lawn in question was not Spartan green. While I was rubbing my eyes to remove the irritating bits of dead grass that the lawnmower was coughing up, I realized that lawns are nothing but a total waste of time and resources.

Before you, dear reader, assume the role of the armchair psychologist and pin my newfound hatred of grass on my distaste for the chore of mowing lawns, know that my grudge against the lawn isn’t just personal. The cost of maintaining a whole yard’s worth of grass, in terms of water, space and time is a burden not just upon my fellow lawn tenders and me, but upon society and the environment.

While we have grown accustomed to seeing grass just about everywhere and might think that it belongs in as many places as we see it, the truth is that for grass to keep its deep green color and plush springiness, it needs quite a bit of water — more than many American climates tend to provide in the summer. As a result, Americans use nearly 9 billion gallons of water per day to keep their lawns healthy, per Environmental Protection Agency estimates. For the average household, some 30 percent of water used is allocated to outdoor usage, primarily thirsty lawns. In certain regions, especially the West and Southwest, that figure can be closer to 60 percent. Considering the frequency with which that region experiences droughts — like the one responsible for California’s current crop of wildfires — using that much water to make sure your yard has a nice, luscious layer of grass on it seems inherently wasteful. And when one considers that those droughts are going to become even more common in upcoming years thanks to our friend climate change, it becomes worse than wasteful: It becomes irresponsible.

What do we need grass for, anyway? We cover most of our lawns with it, but how is all of that space used? Most of the time, it isn’t. A graduation party here or a Fourth of July cookout there might allow a grassy yard to be used to its full extent. But those events could be enjoyed on a nice brick patio or even at public parks, which might see increased use, interest and funding if Americans abandon the false idol of the grassy yard and turn to more efficient spaces to satisfy their only occasional desires for large outdoor gatherings. 

Some grass holdouts might look beyond these types of private, yet sizable gatherings to justify their lawns. “What about the children?” they’ll ask. “Where are they supposed to frolic and play?” And I’ll respond: “What about them? They’ll enjoy the trip to the park as much as the playtime itself, and besides, most of them would rather be playing Fortnite anyway.”

Where would all of this space — previously hogged by the vertically-challenged villain known as grass — go, you ask? Well, I have a fancy new word for you: xeriscape. This is a school of landscaping design that prescribes the use of native plants in place of grass. These plants aren’t usually the kind you can walk on, but in exchange for the lost space, you get a garden that is much more interesting to look at and, because they’re native, much more suited to survive on the amount of water that comes out of the sky than a mat of boring old grass.

If xeriscaping still sounds unappealing, maybe you will find another alternative worth examining: getting rid of the front yard altogether. Maybe I should have started with this one, because even if we ignore my previous few paragraphs of arguments against grass, surely we don’t need two entire lawns of the stuff? A backyard alone should be enough for any of the recreational purposes I’ve mentioned. Why do we need that all-too-often vacant expanse in between our houses and the street?

Removing one or both yards could vastly reduce the spatial footprint of houses without compromising much. Your next-door neighbors will still be just as close to (or far away from, if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person) you as they were before. You might not have that extra space right next to your house, but if neighborhoods can save space on yards, then more community parks could be created to fill that niche. These parks, serving as the collective lawn of an entire neighborhood, would be empty much less frequently than our many lawns are, while still providing enough space for any reasonable use. By forcing family outdoor time into public parks, this so-called “great lawn exchange” could also foster a deeper sense of community, as families seeking the great outdoors would no longer have the option of remaining aloof from wider society in their own yards.

As the world moves into an era of environmental degradation and social isolation, our long-cherished ideal of the grassy yard might start to look less like an innocuous personal luxury, and more like a major stumbling block on the road to an efficient, healthy society. If Mr. Krabs really knew what grass was capable of, he wouldn’t be laughing — he would be playing America a sad song on the world’s smallest violin. 

Evan Dempsey can be reached at evangd@umich.edu