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Climate Cast: Grass isn't always 'greener'

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Lawn mowers
A man looks at a lawn mower at the Costco store May 4, 2006 in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
Tim Boyle | Getty Images File

Grass covers more land in the US than any other crop.

It's estimated that there's up to three times more acres of lawns than corn, according to NASA

Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides on per acre on their yards compared to what farmers use on their crops, according to the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

A study from the Cary Institute  found that nearly 80 percent of those surveyed watered their grass and 64 percent used fertilizer. 

This water usage adds up fast. The EPA estimates that just under one-third of water from public sources goes toward landscaping — with over half of all outdoor water being used on grass. 

The American obsession with lawns has its roots in 18th century England where open areas with big trees made the landscape "picturesque." 

Fredrick Law Olmsted, who is considered the "Father of landscape architecture" in the U.S., democratized English landscapes with the idea that open lawn space should be in front of each residence and their beauty can be shared with passersby. 

"This is deep in the DNA of our democratic outlook on land in this country," Joan Nassauer, University of Michigan Professor of landscape architecture told MPR Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner

From there an obsession was born, which fuels what is now a $40 billion industry. 

Sprinkler test
Tucson Water auditors test a sprinkler at Merri Pendergrass's home in Tucson.
File photo Nick Cote for MPR News

"We know that the degree of perfection that we came to expect of turf and our lawns in the 20th century was really different from when this aesthetic and this way of maintaining urban landscapes arose more than 100 years before," Nassauer said. 

"That degree of perfection relies on fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and, very importantly, irrigation," she added. "All of those inputs have environmental effects, and then add to that the carbon emissions from the fossil fuel based machines we use to cut grass and blow leaves."

One hour of using a gasoline powered lawn mower can emit as much air pollution as a 100-mile road trip.  

Nassauer suggests taking a page from your grandparents or great-grandparents and limiting the use of inputs like fertilizer, herbicides and gas-powered tools from your lawn care routine. 

"A useful way to think about this is not so much an alternative to lawns, but as combinations with mown turf with other kinds of covers," Nassauer said. 

Combination is the key.

She suggested scaling back turf and replacing those areas with prairie grass gardens and low shrubs. 

"There's lots of room for play," Nassauer said.  

Another idea is to create a low area in your lawn far from your house, and let it puddle up now and then after a rainstorm. She says that will enhance carbon storage in the soil. 

Huttner recommends letting nature do some of the work for you, and skipping the sprinkler when storms are ahead.

When it comes to making changes in your yard, baby steps can lead to big results. Strive for improvements every season.