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America’s gift to the world: giving up sprawling lawns for trees

A satellite survey by NASA, published in 2005, found that lawns large and small cover some 40 million square acres of land in the lower 48 states.
A satellite survey by NASA, published in 2005, found that lawns large and small cover some 40 million square acres of land in the lower 48 states. (Ann Marie Surovy)

Over the weekend, as fires continued to destroy parts of the Amazon rain forest 3,000 miles away, I drove past many houses in Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, with many men and women on sit-down mowers cutting lawns. Lots of lawns. Acres and acres of lawns. Long, wide swaths of lawns. Sprawling lawns. Lawns and lawns and lawns.

We have so many lawns. Lawns mowed with machines powered by gasoline. Lawns fertilized with chemicals. Lawns debugged and de-grubbed with more chemicals.

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What a gift it would be to the world if Americans gave up their lawns for trees. How many carbon-sequestering trees could we plant on all those lawns, lawns, lawns? How many chemicals would we no longer need, need, need? How much gasoline would we no longer have to burn, burn, burn? How much water would we save?

People are more concerned than ever with climate change, according to public opinion polls. But people wonder what they can personally do about it because climate change seems like such a huge, beyond-our-control problem. Well, look at your lawn, if you have one. Imagine turning it into a little forest, or maybe a garden of native grasses and plants.

Here are some facts culled from government reports and research papers:

1. Residential and commercial lawns covered about 63,000 square miles (or roughly 40 million acres) of land in the lower 48 states by the time NASA published a survey of lawns in 2005. To give you some perspective, the authors of that study estimated that there were three times more acres of lawns than irrigated corn across the country.

2. The highest concentrations of lawns were in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island, followed closely by California, Florida, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio.

3. Those lawns are regularly mowed, and most of the mowing is powered by engines that burn gasoline. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that Americans burn 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline a year in lawn mowers (and we apparently spill a lot of it, too). There are electric, propane and more efficient gasoline-powered mowers on the market now, but to what extent that has put a dent in overall greenhouse gas emissions from lawn cutting my homework for this column could not confirm.

4. Emissions from gasoline-powered lawn mowers and other garden equipment are a significant source of pollution and pose health risks to workers and others near them, according to the conclusions of a 2015 EPA study. “They release compounds known to cause lymphomas, leukemia, and other types of cancer," the report said. "Ground level ozone and fine particulate matter cause or contribute to early death, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancer.”

5. The Environmental Protection Agency says American households use about 9 billion gallons of water per day for “landscape irrigation.”

6. Lawn-care is a $40 billion a year industry, and that estimate is several years old, from Ted Steinberg’s 2006 book, “American Green.” With the continued growth of suburbia, it’s a sure bet that the industry — providing chemical fertilizer, pesticides and the labor to apply them — has grown even larger.

While these facts provide perspective, most Americans in urban and suburban areas know well our lawn obsession; many of us suffer from it. But when you stop and think about it — stopping and thinking being a good practice now and then — we pay a huge price for mowed grass and the aesthetic it creates. Big lawns are the stuff of Downton Abbey. It’s a way of saying you’ve made it, that you own a baronial manse where the Prince of Wales might suddenly appear with his polo team, or where your friends, the Kennedys, might gather for a touch football game.

When you stop and think about it, lawns are a big waste of money and a bigger time suck than Facebook. And they do little for the environment.

Little does not mean nothing. Lawns sequester carbon dioxide, but not like native plants and grasses do, and certainly not to the extent trees do. Homeowners in the Villes — Cockeysville, Clarksville, Churchville, Crownsville, Sykesville — could do a lot more for the environment by giving up just a portion of a sprawling lawn for trees. Or you could do something more interesting and challenging; you could plan a “victory-over-climate-change garden” of native plants and bushes. You can find, as I did, all sorts of alternatives to sprawling lawns on the internet. Here’s some practical advice from a gardening blog: “Don’t make your lawn any bigger than you need. Have just enough to let the kids play a bit, and to make the house look good. If you don’t use the lawn, consider making it a natural wildlife place. If you have a larger lot, consider reducing the amount of lawn by converting some of it to a more natural environment.”

I suggest trees. They’re burning in the Amazon, and California lost 18 million of them to wildfires last year. If homeowners with sprawling lawns in just the mid-Atlantic were to convert from grass to trees, they would help make up for some of those tragic losses. They would be restoring the land to its historic best. They would be acting against climate change instead of just worrying about it. And they’d be giving their children and grandchildren a better future, and trees to climb and swing from.

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