The green war

A frontline battle for the planet is raging in our literal backyards.

I mowed the lawn the other day. Whoa, cool story, Joe. Glad I signed up for a climate-action newsletter only to be catfished by middle-aged Dad Content. Stick with me…

Technically, I didn’t mow; I brush-hogged. For those who don’t shop at United Ag & Turf: A brush hog is a large set of brutal rotating blades that you tow behind a tractor. It thwacks down the thick vegetation that would throw a choke-hold on a typical HOA-approved Sunday driver. If your push mower is a paring knife, a brush hog is a machete. It won’t deliver a clean-lined outfield stripe or a manicured welcome patch, but that’s not what it’s for.

Most people don’t need a brush hog, because they don’t let their grass go untamed for 9 months like we did. We’re not (just) lazy: We let our lawn languish because we wanted it to die—and make way for a wilder lawn full of native plants and wildflowers, a superior carbon sink where birds and pollinators can frolic and play. That was the plan, anyway, and yes, we had an actual plan. (My wife Christine was in charge, so it was a good plan.) Why?

Lawns are ridiculous, and turf grass is a stupid plant. It’s fragile, has shallow roots, and doesn’t support much wildlife. The stuff we plant in this country isn’t even from here, and yet we worship it: spending untold sums of cash and natural resources on irrigation, specialty equipment, and services to keep our green god happy.

It can be hard to quit, too, especially if you are dealing with a large amount of it like we are. Over the past few months, we’ve spent countless hours and drink-spitting sums of money to evict the grass that came with our house. We’ve strategically scraped the ground, purchased sacks of seeds and carts full of plant-starts that were supposed to out-compete the non-native turf. Then it didn’t rain for weeks and the birds ate all of our ambitions and we ended up with nothing but very tall grass and so many ticks that my mother was popping doxycycline before the end of her last visit. (Sorry, Mom!)

So the other night we said fuck it and declared meadow bankruptcy. We waited until right before a storm system rolled through, chopped down the uppity bluegrass, and sowed again. 

“A photograph of a beautiful wildflower meadow.” Credit: Made using the Dall-E image generator.

The image above is not our yard; I had the robots make that. But it’s pretty close to what I imagined when my wife laid out her plot to nuke our lawn. Here’s what it really looked like before I razed it the other evening:

Credit: Joe Brown

Still kind of pretty, but that’s just long turf grass and a European variety of bedstraw that was supposedly used to line Jesus’ cradle. In Bethlehem. Want to see our non-Palestinian lawn looks like now? Keep reading. 👇 

Kick your grass

If you’re looking for a way to improve the world, consider abandoning your dreams of a perfect American yard-carpet. Nobody plays pitch-n-putt at your house, and your neighbors hate your lawn. Not the humans next door, your other neighbors: the birds, bees, butterflies, and various critters who depend on our horticultural benevolence to survive. 

One UK study found that even a small wild patch could support triple the amount of animal species versus an Olmstead-approved, uh, stead. So if you don’t want to give up the Jarts course (respect), don’t feel like you can’t contribute. Converting part of your yard can make a difference, and that tiny minimeadow can act as a crucial rest stop for migratory birds that can’t take shelter in a carefully cropped sun/shade mix. 

Replacing a lawn with native foliage is nearly a no-lose proposition. In addition to being better for the non-speaking animals, it’s also better for us. The main downside is cost, which you can mitigate with your choice of seed. American Meadows has some pretty good options for every region—good sales, too. You can also collect seeds from existing wildflower meadows; and organizations like the USDA, state cooperative extensions, or even your local library may give away native mixes as well. 

Purchasing wildflowers and meadow grass seed is definitely spendier than the contractor-mix you’d buy at the battle of Homes Deep, but if you factor in that you don’t have to mow it every week for the rest of your days, it should even out. That no-mow moment also cuts your backyard’s emissions significantly. 

Significant is the right word to describe the impact of American grass. Our lawns cover nearly 32 million acres of our nation’s ground, and we spend about 9 billion gallons of water on our personal greenspaces annually. That’s 23 percent of our 39 billion gallon consumer total on around 1.5 percent of privately-owned acreage. And while grass will sequester some carbon dioxide like any other plant, it’s not great at it. And then we screw up the benefits with our smog-spewing lawnmowers. 

Let’s get this math train chuggin’: The average American lawn is 0.5 acres; turf grass sequesters approximately one half-ton of CO2 per acre, per year. That means your average lawn can suck up around a quarter ton—500 pounds—of greenhouse gas and deposit it in the soil every year. 

That sounds pretty good, until you fire up the ol’ Lawn Dominator. It takes around 0.5 gallons of fuel to mow an acre of grass; if we use a passenger vehicle’s figure of 19.6 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline burned (Ha ha—ever stand next to a lawnmower?), and assume that we mow weekly for the 32-week mowing season, maintaining that half acre comes at an environmental cost of 313 pounds of CO2 per year.

Using our generous math, the lawn comes out ahead, but against meadow, it gets turfed. Meadow grass and wildflowers, with their much deeper root systems, sequester in excess of a third of a ton more greenhouse gasses per acre more than grass does. Factor in the gas you don’t have to burn on the lawn you don’t have to mow, and a wild patch keeps nearly four times as many planet-warming emissions out of the environment. Add in increased biodiversity and the lack of fertilizer, and turning your lawn into a wildland is a sustainability no-brainer. 

Making it happen

Though you do need brains to plot how to do it—especially for a larger piece of land. We’re still in the process, so I figured I’d share some of the things we’re reading to get there. 

  • My wife is the driving force behind Operation Meadow, and she started with this book. It’s full of great information and cool ideas. The author, Owen Wormser, is also pretty good on Instagram, posting realistic projects instead of just unattainable dreamscapes.

    Image from Amazon. one5c isn’t playing the affiliate game, so click away!
  • We get a lot of seeds from American Meadows, and their how-to videos are great.

  • The blog over at Hudson Valley Seed Company, which is better for wildflowers than grasses, is an excellent source of information about how to get started.

If you’re also on a meadow journey, please feel free to comment or hit me back with any good tips. If all goes well, I’ll post some photos toward the end of the summer. If it doesn’t, uh, maybe I’ll post some photos anyway, because failure is fun. Speaking of which, here’s what the yard looks like now:

Credit: Joe Brown

Take care of yourself—and the rest of us, too.