The Lure of the Lawn

By Wendy Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos by Wendy Mills

For 28 years I’ve lived in Arlington in a one-story, red-brick rambler on a quarter acre of land. Over the years, the house has changed and so, too, has the yard. Perhaps no change is more pronounced than this one: the amount of turfgrass in my garden has shrunk to a fraction of what it originally was. No longer the focal point of the front and back yards, turfgrass now is balanced by a much greater plant palate of perennials, small trees, vegetables, and summer annuals.

My decision to remove most of the turfgrass from my yard germinated over many years and after learning about the state of the nation’s lands and waters. What’s the connection? Our love affair with our lawns—with a thick green carpet of grass, free of weeds—comes at a steep cost to the environment. .

Here are some facts:

Water/Pollution

Across the United States, turfgrass covers an estimated 40-million acres, an area the size of Wisconsin. Each year Americans soak their lawns with enough water to fill the Chesapeake Bay and use about 2.4-million metric tons of fertilizer to maintain them. A survey conducted by the National Association of Landscape Professionals found that 64 percent of Americans falsely believe their grass needs to be fertilized every spring. When we apply too much fertilizer to our lawns, nutrients get washed away by sprinklers and rainwater. The polluted runoff finds its way into local waterways, such as the Potomac River, the source of drinking water for over five-million people in the DC metro area.

Although the Potomac is advancing toward environmental reduction goals for nitrogen and phosphorus, Virginia is falling behind. According to the Potomac Conservancy, urban and suburban runoff, including pollution from lawn fertilizers and pesticides, is one of the fastest growing major sources of water pollution. The problem is made worse by climate change. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation warns that, with more frequent and intense storms, larger volumes of water are traveling at higher velocities over our landscapes, overwhelming the capacity of our lawns to absorb it and inundating storm drains and waterways, wreaking havoc.

Naturalizing Our Communities

The dominant landscape feature, especially in our suburbs and exurbs, turfgrass visually connects communities and is restful to the eye. When home features are ranked, a good-sized lawn continues to be a top priority. But the lure of the lawn obscures a basic fact: where we now grow grass there once was forest. Why is this important? Because turfgrass is non-native to the United States and includes species that adapt poorly to our various climates and soils. This is why our lawns often need supplemental irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to stay green and grow all summer.

In the words of acclaimed entomologist Douglas Tallamy, monocultures like turfgrass are “biological deserts.” At a time when nearly one-million species are at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, according to a landmark United Nations assessment (2019), even we homeowners of humble acreage have a role to play in slowing this crisis. By increasing plant diversity, preferably with native plants, we bolster a web of life that provides, at the macro level, everything humans need to survive—food, medicines, fiber, and energy. At the garden level, that means more bees, butterflies, and birds; more flowers, fruits, and vegetables. As Tallamy says, “Because it is we who decide what plants will grow in our gardens, the responsibility for our nation’s biodiversity lies largely with us. Which animals will make it and which will not? We help make this decision every time we plant or remove something from our yards.”

We all want clean drinking water, safe places to recreate, as well as healthy waterways and lands for fish and wildlife. As a first step, sustainably managing your existing turfgrass is essential. As a next step, consider reducing the amount of turfgrass in your yard or replacing it altogether with native ground covers and more varied plantings. These steps will boost the absorptive capacity of your landscape, reduce polluting runoff, and connect the place you call home to the natural world that needs your help.

For information on sustainable lawn maintenance, check out
For information on alternatives to turf grass, see

For inspiration on creating a garden filled with climate and soil-acclimated plants, spend time in one of the Master Gardener demonstration gardens located in Arlington and Alexandria.

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