MU Environmental Network News

July 2004
Vol. 10 No. 7

Editor - Jan Weaver
211 Lowry Hall, MU / Columbia MO 65211

Curbing the Lawn

by Jan Weaver

What are the top four crops in terms of acreage in the United States today? Corn, Wheat, Soybeans and Grass Clippings. Residential lawns, golf courses, roadsides, cemeteries, ball fields, corporate headquarters and parks cover 45 million acres of land with 50 different imported grass species naturalized to the American landscape because of their ability to tolerate mowing. These expanses of lawn use 70 million tons of fertilizer and 70 million pounds of pesticides every year, or about 10 times the amount of pesticides per acre that are used on crops. The 35 million lawn mowers in the U.S. use 580 million gallons of gasoline per year, and watering lawns uses about 13% of residential water use or between 15 and 20 gallons per day per household. The average homeowner spends 40 hours and $500 a year to send grass clippings amounting to 21% of municipal solid waste to the local landfill*.

This preoccupation with lawns has serious environmental and health consequences. There is a significant loss of wildlife habitat when forests, meadows or even pastures are converted to single species lawns because of the reduction in food, shelter and water sources for birds, small mammals, herps (amphibians and reptiles) and insects. Watering lawns may draw down local water supplies. For example, residential water use in the West is about double that of the East, and most of that may be due to the struggle to keep lawns green - even in an Arizona summer. Over 100,000 people are sickened by pesticides each year and 75,000 visit emergency rooms for mower injuries. Indirectly, runoff from urban lawns can cause contamination of waterways with fertilizers - which cause algal blooms leading to shading and a decrease in dissolved oxygen when the algae die - and pesticides - which kill aquatic invertebrates. And the two stroke engines most lawn mowers are fitted with are much more polluting than car engines for their horsepower, so emissions from lawn machinery make up about 5% of all polluting emissions.

So what is the attraction of this time consuming, expensive, and environmentally damaging landscape ? Even today, a well kept lawn is seen as a reliable indicator of moral virtue. Plus, it enhances the curb appeal of a home, adding as much as 15% to its potential value and shortening the time it has to be listed for sale. Evolutionary psychologists believe this appeal has deep roots, possibly going back 100,000 years. Lawns share a lot of the characteristics of savannas - low relief, sparsely wooded tropical grasslands. In particular, they provide a vista which allows us to monitor the local environment for dangerous predators, something you can't do in a woodland. Add a refuge - the home, flowers - which bear a promise of fruit, a visible water source, and a few large herbivores - for eating, and you have heaven on earth. The tendency to recreate this landscape artificially in parks, large yards and even the grounds of corporate headquarters reinforces the idea that humans find this arrangement inherently pleasing, even though we are no longer dodging lions.

If we are hardwired to desire lawns, it may be difficult to persuade us to do without them altogether. However, we could strive to make them more environmentally friendly. The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System for golf courses (endorsed by the U.S. Golf Association) promotes landscaping that benefits wildlife. The National Park Service and General Services Administration (which administers 100 government facilities in D. C.) have both adopted Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a move that has resulted in a 90% reduction in pesticide use, a 33% reduction in fertilizer use and a 10% reduction in emissions. CIGNA corporation invested $63,000 in converting 120 hectares of lawn to meadow and now saves hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in grounds maintenance. Locally, the University of Missouri uses IPM, perennial plantings, and careful planning to minimize chemical and water use.

There are several sources for homeowners that want to curb their lawns (see below). Some ideas include: planting isolated patches of lawn with perennial ground covers or flowers, preferably native, converting corners to curves (saves mowing time), increasing the mulched skirting around trees, sinking edging below grass height so you can edge with the mower, cutting the grass high - about 3" - to shade weeds, conserve water and reduce mowing time, letting the lawn dry out a bit in summer - 1" water per week will get the grass through, and only using pesticides and fertilizer when you have an identified problem.

*Missouri and a number of other states no longer accept yard waste for landfilling, though places like Columbia provide clear bags for yard waste so it can be composted.

For more information -
Comprehensive article on lawn facts and environmental issues -

Why we like savannas -

Curbing the American lawn - (Missouri Department of Conservation) (local chapter Wild Ones) (local chapter Native Plant Society)

Bioregional Quiz: What widely used garden plant is a native perennial whose latin name means hedgehog?
Hint: it is a composite flower with pink petals and an reddish brown to orange center that looks prickly.

Special Events/Classes/Programs/Talks
BATS ON PARADE: July 13, 6:30 pm Bat program at the library. Storytelling, bat activities, and even a portable cave. Registration begins June 19, call 443-3161 to register. July 17, 7:30 pm Bat program at the park. Watch endangered gray bats fly out of Devil's Icebox and tour Connor's Cave at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. Registration begins June 26, call 449-7402 (all ages - family friendly, young children welcome). July 24, 7:30 pm Bat program at the park. Watch endangered gray bats fly out of Devil's Icebox and tour Connor's Cave (bring flashlight and wear old clothes) at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. Registration begins July 3, call 449-7402 (for teens and adults) for more info
LET'S GO CAVING - Saturday, July 10th 9 a.m. For a fun morning learning about responsible caving, join the Friends of Rock Bridge on July 10th at 9 a.m. We will go on a simple cave tour, learn the rules of cave etiquette and safety, hear how to protect the delicate formations and cave life, and see how water moves through cave systems. Bring a jacket and flashlight, and wear shoes that can get muddy. Program starts at the Park Office at 9 a.m. For more information, call Friends of Rock Bridge at 815-9255.
WEEKENDS ON THE BOARDWALK: Select weekends in July noon to 4 pm on the Devil's Icebox Boardwalk at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

Organization Meetings and Contact Information
AUDUBON SOCIETY: 874-3904 / Meet 3rd Wed 7:30 pm, USGS, 4200 New Haven
BOONE COUNTY SMART GROWTH COALITION:, 1st Wednesdays 7:15 Boone Co Govt Ctr.
CHOUTEAU GROTTO:, Meet 1st Wed, 7 pm, Community Room of the Boone Electric Coop
COLUMBIA FOOD CIRCLE: 882-7463 or email for information.
FRIENDS OF ROCK BRIDGE M. S. P.: 815-9255 or Outdoors Bldg, 200 Old 63S
GREENBELT COALITION: 442-4789 or Meet 1st Tuesdays, 7 pm, Outdoors Bldg, 200 Old 63 S.
MISSOURI NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY: 2nd Mondays in Jan, Mar, May, July, Sept, Nov at 7:00 p.m., Unitarian Universalist Church, 2615 Shepard Blvd, Columbia, MO.
SHOW ME CLEAN STREAMS COALITION: (573) 751-4115 ext 3169 or
SIERRA CLUB: 443-4401 or Meet 3rd Tuesdays 7:30 pm Hillel Foundation, 1107 University Ave
WILD ONES: 499-3749 or email, Meetings 2nd Saturdays. Call for location

Answer to BioRegional Quiz: Purple coneflower or Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench. This is planted in gardens all over Columbia. It is a very robust plant that produces clumps of sturdy stems about 3 ft tall. It blooms from June to September or October and is popular with butterflies and bees. For a guide to other common plants in Missouri, check out - The site has excellent photographs and descriptions of plants organized by flower color and leaf placement - easy for the beginner to use.

Feedback - Got an opinion? If we have space, we will consider publishing it. Submit it by email (envstudy@missouri. edu), snail mail (Environmental Studies, 211 Lowry , MU, Columbia MO 65211), or call Jan Weaver to talk about it (882-7116). MU Environmental Network News is published by MU's Environmental Studies Initiative. All opinions expressed are the responsibility of the editor. Any part of this newsletter may be copied for distribution but please give us credit.

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