The Life and Death of Grass
Despite the comfort and nostalgia it inspires, many are beginning to question the reign of grass. What if this plant, a remnant of the Middle Ages, was quite simply out of sync with our lives and our values?
Text — Gabrielle Anctil
Illustrations — Valérie Mercier
Grass: we either love it or hate it. It’s deeply anchored in our culture and can hold a powerful emotional charge. On one hand, it symbolizes afternoons spent lounging in a park, family barbeques in the backyard, and soccer games. On the other, it’s associated with the awful noise of the mower, constant watering, and the monotony of the suburbs.
Grass is everywhere: it covers two per cent of the territory of the continental United States, a surface area three times bigger than any other irrigated crop, making it the most significant monoculture in our part of the world. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that we don’t even notice it. But its impact on our lives and on the planet is huge — and more and more people are taking notice.
Has our love of grass reached its limit? Let’s take a look at the big picture.
The French word pelouse, which translates as “grassy area” or “lawn,” comes from the Occitan word pelosa, which in turn stems from the Latin pilosus, “hairy” or “furry.” Long before showing up in our backyards, grass was used throughout medieval Europe by villagers who would graze their cattle in communal fields. With all that chomping, the vegetation remained cropped, like hair in a brush cut. The appearance of these stretches of green pleased the castellans, who began to put their animals out to graze on the other side of the walls. Bonus: in this way, the guards also gained a clear, unencumbered view of the area around. Aristocrats were prepared for war at all times, plus their grass was well maintained.
At the end of the 17th century, André Le Nôtre, gardener to Louis XIV, was putting the final touch on the new gardens at Versailles: a grandiose carpet of green, perfectly rectangular and maintained by hand using a scythe. This new invention became all the rage, and throughout Europe, garden design began to be done with a protractor.
At least until an English gardener, known as Capability Brown, challenged the reign of the straight line by adding artificial hills, asymmetrical lakes, and thickets scattered here and there. In the midst of all this, he would place a lawn discreetly maintained by cattle, which served exclusively as a setting for the bucolic landscapes that surrounded it.
In this way, the opulence of British aristocrats was openly displayed: just the possession of such swathes of land, put to such unproductive use, hinted at a well-stuffed purse. Lunches and garden parties were held on the grass — the royal version of picnics.
On the other side of the Atlantic, European colonists in the Americas discovered a significant problem: the native grasses were not sufficient to feed their cattle. As a result, the boats that followed arrived loaded with grass and clover seed, among which were scattered the dandelion and plantain seeds cursed by horticulturalists to this day. In 1672 22 species of European grasses were planted around Massachusetts Bay.
And that’s how our now-old friend, Kentucky bluegrass, came to be in North America.
The lawn mower was invented around 1830 to keep grass trimmed while reducing maintenance costs — because even if there were animals to graze on it, a gardener was still needed to refine the job. On both sides of the ocean, grass could be seen growing around houses — at first around homes of the nobility, and then of the bourgeois. It was in the United States that the marvellous idea of building the house in the middle of the lawn (rather than at the roadside) was first made reality: a way of enhancing the view for those passing by in a car. And voilà — the suburb was born.
Cheap lawn mowers eventually democratized the practice among the middle classes, who had also moved out of city centres, and thereafter spent Sundays maintaining their plot of land. This became part and parcel of a family’s reputation — and in many places, it was required by law.
The popularity of grass has held firm since the 1950s. In 2017 Americans spent an average of nearly 60 billion dollars annually on the lawn industry, for maintenance products and the hiring of specialized help. In 2019 a story went viral about Florida native Jim Ficken, who was fined $30,000 for letting his grass grow. And he’s not the only one: all over the world people are persecuted, whether for grass that’s too long or for trying to put in a vegetable garden on a front lawn.
And if we needed more proof of a love that won’t die: at the height of lockdown, lawn mower sales jumped in France. Is mowing the lawn an essential service, then, even during a pandemic?
A love-hate relationship
Our passion for grass is clear. But why are we so attached to this plant that is, all in all, quite a run-of-the-mill specimen?
“It’s a symbol of nature,” says Justin Lapointe, author of a master’s thesis on grass as a distinguishing symbol of the suburbs. “But a form of nature that’s perfect: uniform, smooth, and hardy.”
His research highlights all the contradictions that surround our love of blades of grass, beginning with this one: it happens to be a non-indigenous monoculture. We’ll have to look elsewhere for symbols of wild nature. “We often criticize the suburbs and urban sprawl, but the thing that’s really taking up space is not houses: it’s the lawns that surround them,” he adds.
The reason we love them so much, Lapointe believes, is because they embody a certain stability in a world that’s constantly shifting. Otherwise why would we try to banish every last tiny plant from our lawns — those we wrongly call “weeds” — especially when many of them are edible and richly nutritious? It’s not hard to see in this a metaphor for the society we live in, which is suspicious of any and all divergence from the “norm.”
Indeed, grass has been used historically to represent our conformism and even our social status. Justin Lapointe believes it is likely to begin losing ground, because of our desire to individualize our living environments. “It’s impossible to tell someone’s personality from their lawn, which is where we get the rising popularity of vegetable gardens in front, for example. These sorts of changes allow people to express their values.”
And if our values include concern for the environment, it’s true that grass would probably not be our first choice.
Toward minimal maintenance
The good news is that a well-watered, well-fertilized lawn absorbs more carbon than it emits. The bad news is that its maintenance requires an enormous amount of work. And this work emits a phenomenal quantity of greenhouse gas. According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), using a commercial lawn mower for an hour is equivalent to driving a Toyota Camry for 480 km. For commercial leaf blowers, it’s 1,800 km.
In Canada, this translates to the use of 151 million litres of gas every year, just for lawn maintenance.
This is also the reason why some cities, such as Vancouver, want to replace their gas-powered equipment with tools with electric motors.
But the problem is bigger than GHG emissions. There’s also the noise pollution from maintenance tools — we’re talking decibels above the safe levels established by the WHO. There are the numerous injuries each year. And there’s the staggering waste of a precious resource: 70 per cent of all water used in American residences goes to lawns and gardens. More than half this amount is lost through evaporation — hence the urging for people to water in the evening. (A quick note: yellow grass is not dead, it’s just dormant. It will get green again the next time it rains.)
These statistics are having an impact on more and more amateur gardeners, who have decided to join the No-Mow movement. These folks have started letting their grass grow, as the name suggests, or replacing it with plants that need minimal maintenance. Sheep have even been seen again in certain public parks in Montréal, Paris, and Atlanta, trimming the grass with their teeth.
Traffic island gardens
On a blazing hot summer morning, Antonious Petro is visiting the garden where he does his master’s research. Located on the sidewalk of a busy Montréal boulevard, right in front of an unobtrusive mosque, the large concrete squares for trees are full of a disparate assortment of plants: clover, pink echinacea, fragrant camomile, and chives in flower.
For the past few years, various municipal governments have tried to find ways to diminish their carbon footprint while cutting maintenance budgets. In Lyon, France, the city announced at the end of lockdown that it would cease mowing certain stretches of grass in the city’s parks, where the absence of humans had allowed the parks to become prairies again. This would allow “birds, insects, and other animals to find shelter,” a statement reads. This method of differentiated management is often applied on the edges of the highway as well.
Other cities are targeting individuals, inviting them to focus on biodiversity in their backyards.
In Los Angeles, the program Cash for Grass has led to over two million square feet of grass being replaced with plants that are more drought resistant and need less watering.
But Petro wants to take it further. Under the umbrella of the Laboratoire d’intégration de l’écologie urbaine [Laboratory for the integration of urban ecology], (LIEU), he hopes to find plants that might be able to replace grass in some places — such as the concrete blocks for trees along sidewalks, as mentioned, or on traffic islands. “We’re looking for plants that could add to cities’ biodiversity, feed insects, offer microhabitats for small mammals, while also being attractive and able to survive without too much maintenance,” says Alison Munson, professor in the Department of Wood and Forest Sciences at the University of Laval and vice-president of LIEU. Ideal plants would be perennial natives to North America (which need less watering) that can resist damage from pollutants and road salts. A big undertaking.
Despite the long list of requirements, Antonious Petro is hopeful about unearthing the rare pearls that could be used by the City of Montréal. For the moment, he’s amazed and pleased to see residents taking up the project. “It’s important that people enjoy it. Some of these plants are edible, and we want to encourage people to take them.” He points to a chicory plant, used in a popular dish in Lebanon, where the traces of scissors used to clip a few leaves can be seen — a sign of the success of his initiative.
One last pass of the mower
This urban enthusiasm is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to remove the turf in the main haunt for Kentucky bluegrass: the suburbs.
“We’re nearing the tipping point. For the moment, there’s still a gap between people’s values and what they do in their yards,” says Philippe Asselin, landscape architect and co-founder of Nouveaux voisins [New Neighbours], an NGO that hopes to “transform the culture of lawns and our relationship to the land.”
Even if he notices a marked interest for new ideas in landscaping, Asselin affirms that only a handful of trailblazers have put the idea into action.
“Those who transform their lawns into front gardens, for example, are taking a big risk in terms of going counter to cultural norms. They could be fined or be subject to prosecution.”
Instead of becoming discouraged, Asselin sees enormous potential. “We would like to produce a catalogue, like in tile stores, where people could choose a design that works for them,” he explains. “We need to create precedents.” The organization hopes to form partnerships with municipalities as well, in order to set up demonstration spaces in public parks with the goal of inspiring residents.
According to a dream dictionary, dreaming of lying on the grass symbolizes health and joie de vivre. If the trend continues, this definition may soon need to be updated to include thyme and milkweed plants here and there.
Gabrielle Anctil is a columnist and researcher for the program Moteur de recherche on Radio-Canada Première. The rest of the time, she writes for various media including Urbania, Unpointcinq, and Gazette des femmes. She can be found riding her bicycle in all seasons, hair blowing in the wind (she does, however, wear a toque in winter).