Biosphere Daily Earth Science Environment Repost Urban Environmentalist

Environmental protection starts with your lawn

Miami has a lot of problems, but one of these problems starts on the front lawns of its residents. The traditional American front lawn is about as environmentally unfriendly as a landscape can get. In 2016, South Miami switched to organic landscaping. This change focused on stemming the flow of herbicides and fertilizers into the local environment.

Closely shorn grass lawns originated in England during the 17th century, and they were limited to the estates of wealthy landowners. The word launde originally referenced an open area in woodlands like a glade or meadow. The name then became associated with the grassy village commons where locals grazed their sheep or cattle. Eventually, around wealthy estates, animal grazing was not enough to keep the grass shorn, and manual labor was needed to crop the grass regularly. Thus appeared the lawn as we know it.

So, to summarize, lawns historically appeared as a display of status and wealth. They still served that purpose to one degree or another. We work to make our lawns beautiful and lush, like jewels of green decorating the areas around our home. 

But there is an environmental downside to this decorative hobby. If irrigation is required, then the lawn becomes a water waster. Also, keeping the weeds and disease out of the lawn requires the use of toxic herbicides and pesticides. But these chemicals then leak into the ground and contaminate the groundwater supplies. 

We want our lawns green, so to keep the grass healthy, we apply fertilizers. Some of these nutrient-rich mixtures inevitably run off our property and into the storm drains. Eventually, they make their way to local water ponds or canals where they help create toxic algae blooms. Lastly, keeping the lawn trimmed with a power mower burns fossil fuels.   

The basics: water

Typical lawns will need between 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week. So, a small to medium-sized lawn at 20 feet by 30 feet will need about 500 gallons of water per week. Now, this may not be a problem in areas of the country that receive a steady supply of rain throughout the year. But put that same lawn in a more arid environment, and the cost in water rises dramatically to approximately 8,000 – 10,000 gallons per summer season.

There are already local municipalities that impose controls on the amount of water used in maintaining lawns. As water becomes a scarcer commodity, lawns will come under further scrutiny. 


In water-rich areas keeping your lawn green comes at another price. The application of fertilizers to encourage growth and keep the grass healthy and green is difficult for most individuals to manage properly. The ideal situation is that the amount of fertilizer applied precisely matches the nutrient needs of the grass. Since this is a complicated calculation to make, the average homeowner (myself included) tends to over-fertilize. A heavy summer rain or irrigation runoff absorbs this excess fertilizer as raw nutrients and washes it down the storm sewer. From there, the nutrients make their way to local bodies of surface water. Ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers receive these nutrients.  Then the algae at the base of the food chain make good use of these compounds. The extra nutrients allow for the overgrowth of algae.

Algae blooms have two main detrimental effects. The first is toxic excrements that poison other life in the local ecosystem. The second is that a massive algae bloom depletes the water of oxygen and kills off the fish and other animals living in the area.

The total effect

Approximately one-third of the public water supply in the USA is used in landscape irrigation. This usage amounts to about 9 billion gallons of water per day. Water makes the grass grow, and then we use some 600 million gallons of gas each year cutting that grass.

When we add the water and fuel usage to the negative environmental effects of over-fertilization and contamination from herbicides and pesticides, then the impact becomes clear. The road to environmental protection starts at home on our front lawns.


Lawn Alternatives (Source: ArcheanWeb) – Also:


This Florida mayor takes his city organic with greener weedkiller and fertilizer (By JENNY STALETOVICH; Miami Herald) – Also:

Lawn History (Planet natural Research Center) – Also:

Another Downside to Your Classic Green Lawn (By Sarah Zielinski; Smithsonian Magazine) – Also:

Outdoor Water Use (EPA) – Also:

FUEL-EFFICIENT LAWNS AND LANDSCAPES (University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science) – Also:

Feature Image: House and the front yard in Blairgowrie, Victoria (By Kgbo) (Modified) –,_Victoria_08.jpg  – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. –

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.