A mutilated garter snake, a sliced frog and countless slashed grasshoppers. That was the scene of carnage in my yard in September, after local officials ordered me to mow my overgrown lawn or be fined $1,000. Three months earlier, I had stopped mowing my nearly one acre of country land in a rural Ohio town. A diverse potpourri of plants began to flourish, and a rich assortment of insects and animals followed. I had essentially grown a working ecosystem, one that had been waiting for the chance to emerge.
So this season, I took a stand and refused to mow at all.
In June, my partner and I received an official written warning from the trustee board of St. Albans Township, stating that our yard had become “a nuisance.” Ohio law allows local governments to control any vegetation on private property that they deem a nuisance, after a seven-day warning to the property owners. But the law does not define what “a nuisance” is, effectively giving local leaders the power to remove whatever grass or plants offend them. In our case, the trustees decided that our lawn was too tall and thick and would attract “nuisance animals” such as “snakes and rodents.” If we didn’t cut it, they would hire someone to do so and bring law enforcement with them.
But the main point of growing a natural yard is to attract wildlife and build a self-regulating environment. The un-mowed plants in our yard attract plant-eating bugs and rodents, which in turn attract birds, bats, toads and garter snakes that eat them. Then hawks fly in to eat the snakes. Seeing all this life emerge in just one growing season made me realize just how much nature manicured lawns displace and disrupt.
There are 40.5 million acres of lawn in the United States, more than double the size of the country’s largest national forest. We disconnect ourselves from wildlife habitat loss by viewing it as a problem caused by industry and agriculture. But habitat loss isn’t a problem happening out there somewhere; it’s happening in our own back yards.
This has serious consequences. About 95 percent of the natural landscape in the lower 48 states has been developed into cities, suburbs and farmland. Meanwhile, the global population of vertebrate animals, from birds to fish, has been cut in half during the past four decades. Honey bees, which we depend on to pollinate our fruits and other crops, have been dying off at an unsustainable rate. Because one in three bites of food you take requires a pollinating insect to produce it, their rapid decline is a threat to humanity. Monarch butterflies have been even more affected, with their numbers dropping 90 percent since the 1990s. Butterflies are an important part of the food chain, so ecologists have long used them to measure the health of ecosystems.
Nature preserves and parks are not enough to fix the problem; much of wildlife is migratory and needs continuous habitat to thrive. Natural yards can act as bridges between the larger natural spaces.
Habitat loss isn’t the only consequence; maintaining a mowed and fertilized lawn also pollutes the air, water and soil. The emissions from lawnmowers and other garden equipment are responsible for more than 5 percent of urban air pollution. An hour of gas-powered lawn mowing produces as much pollution as four hours of driving a car. Americans use 800 million gallons of gas every year for lawn equipment, and 17 million gallons are spilled while refueling mowers — more than was leaked by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops, chemicals that can end up in drinking water and waterways.
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At first I felt guilty. The stigma that comes with the look of an un-mowed lawn was hard to push through (no pun intended). I was afraid of what people would think, because Americans have been deeply conditioned to see their manicured lawns as status symbols. But after we started explaining to people why we had stopped mowing, they were much less critical. If we allow ourselves to truly see a mowed lawn for what it is — a green desert that provides no food or shelter for wildlife — we can re-condition ourselves to take pride in not mowing.
For me, growing a natural lawn doesn’t mean just letting it go. I spend a lot of time weeding out invasive, non-native plants — like thistles, burdock and garlic mustard — that can take over and create a destructive monoculture of their own. But I also think it is wrong to vilify all invasive plants before we fully understand them. After all, a weed is just “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.
I’ve been a gardener for years, but since I stopped mowing, I not only feel more connected to nature, I also see the interconnectedness in nature. Never before have I had so few pests in my vegetable garden thanks to my yard’s newfound biodiversity, including predators that keeps crop-damaging bugs in check. When you stop mowing, you get it; you not only see first-hand all the nature that we have lost start to come back, you get to interact with it.
To prevent the mowing company hired by my township from coming in and flattening everything, my partner and I used a scythe to cut the height of our lawn down to 8 inches. The trustees were satisfied enough to call off the abatement of our lawn for now. It was a compromise, but it bought us some time to figure out our next move.
People should be allowed to live out their values on their own property as long as they are not causing a true nuisance that hinders their neighbors’ use of their own properties. In May, the White House released a strategy to protect pollinators by increasing wildlife habitat. But while the report encourages homeowners to set aside natural habitat for wildlife, it offers them no legal support to do so. We need local regulations of private lawns to reflect science, not the whims of town officials. They should be developed in consultation with ecologists and botanists, to set standards for natural yards that are safe and healthy for both humans and wildlife.
Society needs to adjust its cultural norms on lawn aesthetics. For the health of the planet, and for our own health, we need to start letting nature dictate how we design our outdoor spaces. We need to reassess how much mowed space we really need. By the size of most people’s lawns in my area, you’d think they were hosting a weekly lacrosse match. But the only time I ever really see them on their lawns is when they are mowing them.
Instead of putting nature in its place, we need to find our place in nature. Local officials have told us countless times that our lawn looks bad and is a nuisance. In one public meeting, a brave young boy, Max Burton, stood up and told our critics, “What you are saying is that life itself is a nuisance.” As the planet’s environmental problems mount, the real nuisances are mowed lawns and the laws that enforce them.