The Future of Gardening by Neil Diboll
Presented at the 20th Millersville Native Plant Conference
June 4, 2010
by Neil Diboll
Prairie Nursery, Inc.
P.O. Box 306
Westfield, WI 53964
Traditional landscapes suck. They suck Energy, Water, and Money. These three “Future Factors” will determine to a large degree the shape and structure of our landscapes in the coming years.
The old whipping boy, the lawn, indeed deserves a good whipping. It is emblematic of an expensive, unsustainable, energy and chemical hungry landscape that supports few forms of life and consumes valuable resources that could be better invested elsewhere.
Size of the American Lawn
There are over 50 million acres of lawn in the United States, twice the size of the state of Pennsylvania.
The total American corn crop for 2009 was 86 million acres.
The total American soybean crop for 2009 was 77 million acres.
The total American wheat crop for 2009 was 65 million acres.
Lawn is the fourth largest crop grown in America today.
Water Use by the American Lawn
Thirty percent of the water consumed on the East Coast of the US goes to watering lawns. Sixty percent of the water used on the West Coast is dedicated to maintaining green lawns, in a region that is facing looming water shortages.
A 1000 square foot lawn requires an average of 10,000 gallons of water per year to maintain in good condition.
One acre of irrigated lawn requires nearly half a million gallons (435,000) of water every year!
Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides Applied to the American Lawn
The average lawn receives 10 times as much chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides as the typical farm field, according to a Yale University graduate study.
Over 80 millions pounds of chemical pesticides are applied to American lawns each year according to the USEPA.
More than 70 million tons of chemical fertilizers are applied to American lawns per year.
The USEPA estimates that 40 to 60 percent of the Nitrogen fertilizer applied to lawns ends up in our surface water and groundwater.
Forty four percent of the Nitrogen and 28 percent of the Phosphorus applied in the Mississippi River watershed ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, greatly exacerbating the anoxic “dead zone” that preceded the BP oil spill of 2010.
Solid Waste Created by Lawns
The EPA also estimates that grass clippings and yard debris account for 20 to 40 percent of the landfill space consumed in America.
Energy Consumption by Lawns
The amount of energy required to mow and maintain manicured lawns is surprisingly large, and is used in every phase of lawn care:
Mowing: Gasoline or diesel fuel to is required to power riding mowers and most push type rotary mowers. Electricity that powers electric lawn mowers is produced primarily by fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, and by nuclear power plants.
Pesticides: Most herbicides and insecticides are derived from or combined with petroleum-based compounds. Of the 80 million pounds of pesticides applied to lawns in American every year, most are synthesized from oil.
Fertilizers: Fertilizers are applied to lawns in staggering quantities. The energy required to mine and transport the 70 million tons of chemical fertilizers that are dumped on lawns every year is significant. Most Nitrogen fertilizers are produced using the Haber Process, in which Nitrogen in the air is converted into a solid or liquid form that can be readily handled and applied. The Haber Process is extremely energy intensive, and vast quantities of natural gas are consumed to produce nitrogen fertilizer for lawns.
Irrigation: Even watering the lawn consumes energy. Electricity is used to purify water at treatment plants, and to pump water to homes and businesses. The underground plastic pipes that are used in lawn irrigations systems are produced from petrochemicals derived from crude oil.
Carbon Footprint of Lawns
As an energy-dependent landscape, the carbon annual footprint consumption of lawns is high compared to prairies and other natural landscapes that require only occasional mowing, no fertilizers, no irrigation, and few if any pesticides. Prairies release carbon into the atmosphere when burned, and when dead organic matter such as leaves and stems decompose through microbial action. However, these releases are offset by new plant growth which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and incorporates it into new leave, roots, and stems.
The incredibly rich prairie soils of the American Midwest are a result of the accumulation of organic matter in the soil over hundreds and thousands of years. Unlike most forest ecosystems, in which organic matter is sequestered in the upper 12- 18 inches of soil, prairie soils typically exhibit high organic matter content from three to six feet in depth. They also have significantly higher total organic matter content than forest soils. This would indicate that over time, prairies are one of the most efficient plant communities at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and providing long term carbon sequestration in the soil.
Economic Costs of Lawn
Americans spend over $25 billion per year on lawn care (USEPA).
Americans spend over $2 billion per year on lawn and garden chemicals.
A 4000 square foot lawn (1/10 acre) produces an average of 1200 pounds of grass clippings per year. The City of Philadelphia Streets Department reported in 2005 that it costs $75 per year to dispose of this material.
Wildlife and Lawns
The US EPA estimates that between 60 and 70 millions birds are poisoned annually due to the application of lawn pesticides.
On lawns that receive regular applications of pesticides, 60 to 90 percent of the earthworms in the soil are killed.
Air and Noise Pollution
In summer months, 5 percent of air pollution is attributable to gas powered lawn and garden equipment (National Vehicle and Fuel Assessment Lab, Ann Arbor, MI)
Per hour of operation, a typical lawnmower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbons as an automobile.
Health and Safety
Of the most commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 are known to cause cancer, 14 can cause birth defects, 11 can interfere with reproduction, and 21 can cause damage to the nervous system. (US EPA)
111,000 Americans are sickened every year due to exposure to pesticides. (US EPA)
Over 230,000 people are treated in the Emergency Room every year for accident related to lawn equipment. (US EPA)
The average homeowner spends 40 hours a year mowing his or her lawn – the equivalent of a week’s vacation!
HOW DID WE ARRIVE AT OUR LAWN-DOMINATED LANDSCAPE MODEL?
AN HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
The New World of North America once appeared to be a seemingly inexhaustible resource that held immense promise for the early colonists and settlers. True to their culture, the northern Europeans that swarmed into the vast hinterlands of America created a landscape in the image of their forebears: cut, grazed, plowed, and fenced into submission. The newly broken land yielded great bounty for a growing nation. As the country expanded, the towns and villages took on the names and character of our former homes across the Atlantic: Amsterdam, Birmingham, Gloucester, Berlin, Warsaw, and Rome, to name but a few.
Our goal as a nation and a culture was to tame the wilderness and make it safe for civilization. In so doing, we re-created the Old Country in the New World. As we brought the wilderness under our heel, we took little time to appreciate its unique character and beauty. Most settlers sought bounty, not beauty. In the rush to convert forests and meadows into farms and fields, the flowers mostly went unnoticed. Unplowed, unproductive wild land was a sign of sloth, savagery, and the devil’s work. Indeed, our mandate was to subdue the earth. And subdue it we did.
When our work was finally done, we sat back to take stock of our immense labors, and it appeared that it was good. Mostly. What we had not considered were the terrible losses associated with our great gain. We had gained ascendancy over our young country. In the process, we lost the character of a continent.
Yea, even unto our gardens, we banished the wildflowers and wild things to the far reaches of the countryside and to the corners of our consciousness. And nothing suffered the utter demise and near-total destruction such as that which was visited upon the American Prairie.
The American Prairie: the once-vast kingdom of flowers, grasses, bison and butterflies. This unbelievably rich, unique ecosystem blanketed millions of acres of America’s heartland. These were the flower gardens of North America. Hidden deep underground, among the intertwined roots of a universe of prairie plants, lay the black gold that was to become the currency of the prairie farmer. Here was the inheritance of a million sunny days, hoarded away in the bank account of the prairie soil.
Agricultural, the Industrial Revolution, and the Rise of the American Middle Class
The farmers that tapped into this prairie trust fund found the dividends to be prodigious. No fertilizers were needed to grow bumper crops. The immense yields increased agricultural productivity to levels previously unheard-of, revolutionizing the farmer’s relationship with the land. Now one family could produce food for dozens of others. The day of the subsistence farm was over. Human labor was set free to tend the factory instead of the field. The dawn of the American Industrial Revolution was reflected in the glow of the forge that John Deere used to construct the first sod-busting steel plow in 1836. With the industrial dawn came the sunset of the American Prairie.
The Eastern Tallgrass Prairie of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska was all but obliterated in the span of a few short decades at the close of the nineteenth century. That which was not plowed under was closed in with fences and grazed to the ground by millions of cattle. What were once wide open spaces became food factories and feedlots. Still, we knew not what we had done.
A full century later, we are just beginning to grasp the scope of the loss. The Eastern Tallgrass Prairie is now one of the rarest plant communities in the entire world. Rainforests are commonplace by comparison. Less than 1/10th of 1% of the Tallgrass Prairie remains today. The small refuges where it can be found occur only in small tattered fragments, ripped from the original cloth. Only those pieces that could not be drained, plowed, grazed, or otherwise turned to the service of mankind remain. There was simply no place for wildness in this new American landscape.
The conversion of the New World into the Old Country was complete. All that remained now was to tend the fields and the gardens of plants brought over from Europe, and to make sure that the lawns that replaced that prairie were kept mown and in order.
Order. The watchword of a Puritanical culture that sought to carve structure from the chaos of wilderness. Everything in control. Nothing out of place. Even our gardens reflect this directive. Designs are precise, with each plant in its pre-ordained place, ensconced in a thick bed of bark mulch. The vegetable world must supplicate itself to our omnipotence. Those plants that fail to stay in their assigned seats are branded as weeds, and banished from the garden. And if they should grow wild in nature, how could such peasant plants of common breeding be sufficiently refined to have a place in our gardens?
If the garden is truly the place where people and nature meet, it is almost always the gardener who determines the terms of the meeting. Will the gardeners of the earth choose to work with Nature to create beauty in the landscape? Or will we attempt to overpower her with an arsenal of chemicals, machines, and “maintenance programs?”
We are finally coming to realize that the practice of paying homage to a uniform, idealized landscape of seamlessly interconnected lawns is an illusion. This becomes eminently clear when one realizes that the centerpoint of this landscape is a nearly lifeless, two dimensional expanse of turf, to which we slavishly devote much of our increasingly rare and precious free time. We pour on the chemicals, mow the grass to within an inch of its life, and kill any and all bugs that have the temerity to share the landscape with us. Perhaps most annoying, this national pastime called Lawn Care is really quite expensive.
For many, their lawns are like an addiction. They will pay almost any price to satisfy the cravings. The price is paid in money, time, environmental degradation, and in some cases, one’s health. We have so completely divorced ourselves from Nature that the only connection to the natural world is by watering and mowing their green carpets!
It is indeed a costly divorce from Nature. Enforcement of our unnatural landscapes consumes billions of dollars every year. Lawns, ornamental plantings, and even perennial gardens require constant attention if the desired order is to be maintained. Without intervention by the human hand on a regular basis, these landscapes soon fall victim to the invading hordes of weeds, trees, brambles and vines. Left unguarded, the walls of the domestic garden are stormed by the Vandals and Visigoths of the Vegetable Kingdom. Without the indulgences of their human benefactors, the meeker and fairer plants of the garden are quickly pillaged and displaced by the roving thugs of the plant world.
History of the American Lawn
The modern lawn has it origin in the country estates of landed gentry in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a status symbol of the wealthy, for the working classes typically possessed no land, and could ill afford a lawn eve if they did. With our Anglo-American heritage, we looked to the mother country for our social cues in the 18th century as the American middle class emerged during the industrial revolution. The newly wealthy purchased homes and estates and installed lawns as one of their symbols of having “made it.” Lawns quickly became one of the status symbols associated with the new middle and upper classes.
The great American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, referred to the lawn in the late 18th century as “The Great Democratizer” of a newly ascendant nation. Rather than installing fences and barriers between neighboring properties as was common in Europe, Americans had a seamless carpet of green grass unifying their properties, all sharing in the new ethos of a mutual affluence.
The lawn quickly became a socio-economic symbol, denoting order and devotion to a non-economic crop that only those with expendable income could afford. As the middle class in America grew after World War II, the occupants of newly-built suburbs embraced the lawn as one of their icons of success and comfortable living.
The lawn was now cemented into American culture. Woe be unto he who violated the unspoken contract of “keeping up appearances” and allowing one’s turf to “go native” and grow beyond the socially acceptable four inches in height. An un-mowed, unkempt lawn was a sign of slovenliness and anti-social tendencies. Social breakdown and chaos could not be far behind.
This is why the lawn is so ardently defended by so many. It is a symbol of an entire social class and lifestyle. It is far more than a near-lifeless green expanse that requires an inordinate amount of time, money and chemicals to maintain. It embodies the hopes and dreams of average Americans, and symbolizes the triumph or order over entropy. It is a shared middle class bond that transcends politics, religion, and ethnicity. In many communities you are judged by your lawn first, and your character as a human being second. And do not for one minute believe that the first does not influence the second.
Why do we Persist with Our Addiction to Lawns? What About Wildlife?
1) It’s simple and easy! We know how to do it: Fertilize it, spray it, and mow it!
2) You don’t really have to know anything about plants or gardening to grow and manage a lawn – just follow the directions provided by the purveyors of fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides provide you!
3) Lawn is a cheap fix. Although less costly to install than native landscapes, lawn has a high life cycle cost over a period of many years. Native landscapes typically have low long-term maintenance costs, with lower life cycle costs.
4) Lawns don’t attract bugs or wildlife (except for geese), so you know you and your family will be safe from snakes, vermin, and those annoying insects! So what if insects are the foundation of the food chain, and support a myriad of birds and other desirable creatures. We’ve been brainwashed that bugs are bad, so we have to make sure they don’t inhabit our outdoor living spaces.
5) NO BUGS, NO BIRDS!
6) Everybody says they love Nature, but nobody ever invites her over to their yard.
7) I knew my prairie was a success when I saw Meadow Jumping Mice (Zapus hudsonianus) and Hog Nosed Snakes (Heterodon platirhinos) in it. These creatures provided evidence that I now had a functioning ecosystem, not just a garden. If you like hawks and owls, you better be able to feed them: rodents and reptiles are some of their preferred foods.
WE ARE NOT A NATION OF GARDENERS:
WE ARE A NATION OF MOWERS!
WHY DO WE CARE WHAT WE PLANT IN OUR GARDENS
Many of us care deeply about the state of our planet and the loss of biodiversity that is occurring on a global scale. Although we all think globally, most of us can only act locally. Together, we can have an impact in our own gardens and landscapes, as well as those of our friends and neighbors. For those of us in the landscape design business, we can promote sustainable landscapes composed of native plants that require little or no fertilizers, pesticides, watering, or mowing (just burning!). This alone, when compounded over time as more people opt for sustainable landscapes, can have an impact.
The looming question for us today is the on-going loss of biodiversity. Restoring native ecosystems is one way we can help support not just native plants, but also invertebrates such as rare butterflies and moths, bees, wasps, and all manner of the generally unloved lower castes of bugs and creepy crawly things. Yet they are all important, and each has an important place in the web of life.
Homo sapiens, is presently presiding over what is believed to be the Sixth Great Extinction. Although we have yet to reach the catastrophic levels of past extinction events, we are well on our way and showing only a few signs of abatement in our drive to subdue and conquer the earth, as we serve our ever-expanding need for food, fuel, water, and living space.
But does it really matter what we do as individuals? A society is composed of all its individuals, and their actions determine the face of that society. Most of us are working to restore the integrity of native ecosystems because we believe it is the “right” and good thing to do, and that we are “doing it for the planet.” But does it really matter? Does the planet really respect our actions? Or is it all irrelevant?
The Earth has been subjected to massive extinctions in the past, some fairly recent in geological history. The planet has always recovered, with the development of new species and a wealth of new life forms. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, and she apparently fills it rapidly. All of the work I am doing on my property to control invasive species and restore native plants will someday be negated by the next advance of the glacier, as unlikely as that may seem at this point in geological and meteorolical history. Of course, my landscape will probably be invaded by garlic muster, buckthorn, honeysuckle and other non-native thugs soon after my demise, unless some equally deranged and determined individual picks up where I leave off.
SO WHY RESTORE THE PLANET? DOES IT REALLY MATTER?
If one takes a long-term geological perspective, it doesn’t really matter what we do. Even if we nuke the joint, something will survive and a whole new set of life forms will evolve. Maybe the next sentient beings will be smarter than us, and actually take care of the planet.
We Restore the Earth Because It Is Good for Us!
We need a quality of life that includes clean air, clean water, trees, flowers, ferns, birds, and all the wonderful life forms with which we share the planet. We aren’t just preserving habitat and restoring native plant communities out of the goodness of our hearts – Our very economic and psychic survival depend upon it!
We have yet to fully value the economics of a healthy environment. But as the planet is further degraded, the value of high quality living spaces only increases.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Ultimately, our future landscapes will be in large part determined more by economics than ecology. This is an unfortunate consequence of the human condition. As a quality living space becomes more valuable, more value will be placed upon it. We will protect it more diligently. It will sell for a higher price. People will begin to view the natural environment more as an asset, rather than as a resource to be exploited.
All of this will most likely be precipitated by shortages of water, rather than a shortage of oil or other energy source. You can live without oil, but you cannot live without water. As the price of water increases, the incentive to conserve it will increase. We will need landscapes that do not require huge inputs of water and chemicals to sustain them. We will need to overcome our cultural taboos of “messy” natural landscapes and move beyond viewing lawns as status symbols and a rite of passage into the middle and upper classes.
Someday pride of place will belong to those with the least lawn, lowest water bill, and no chemicals in their garages. Society will value those who work to preserve our environment, rather than those who can make the most money by despoiling it. I personally cannot wait much longer for that day to come.
AT A GLANCE:
TODAY: LAWN, an ecological and economic disaster
TOMORROW: SUSTAINA LE ECOSYSTEMS, composed of native plant
communities that require little or no fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation, o
TODAY: MONOCULTURES of mowed lawns
TOMORROW: DIVERSE ECOSYSTEMS that support a wide variety of life
TODAY: FEAR and mistrust of the natural world and its attendant organisms (bugs,
mice, snakes, etc)
TOMORROW: RE-INTEGRATION of people into nature and an understanding that
everything is connected and interdependent
WE MUST ENTER INTO A JOINT VENTURE WITH NATURE TO PRESERVE OUR PLANET AND THE SYSTEMS UPON WHICH ALL LIFE DEPENDS.
ONLY THEN WILL WE LIVE IN HARMONY WITH OUR FELLOW CREATURES ON THIS PLANET.
OUR QUALITY LIFE AND LONG-TERM SURVIVAL DEPENDS UPON THE SURVIVAL OF THE SYSTEMS AND ORGANISMS THAT SUPPORT US.