The "no-mow" movement is gaining steam, and I've joined it, after I've had the luck to see firsthand how beautiful a natural meadow can be.
Several years ago, I moved to a tiny town in the Coast Range of Oregon. When we pulled up to the house where we would be staying — on 40 acres without a neighbor in sight, I took one look at what I saw as the overgrown grass and added "mow lawn" to my mental checklist. When I looked out the back door (see image above) the sea of grass took my breath away. "This is going to be a huge job," I thought to myself.
Meadow grasses are attractive, and provide habitat for a variety of plants and animals. (Photo: Starre Vartan)
I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York, and my grandfather taught me how to mow our acre of lawn deep in the woods when I was 8 years old. The first two months he sat on a rock wall and supervised and offered critiques, but I was mowing on my own by the end of the summer. I kept that lawn — later learning to weed wack the edges — until I left for college, and most summers during my studies I was home for at least part of the season, and took care of it then, too. We played croquet on the lawn a couple times a year, but mostly it was for looking at.
Later, I bought my own home in Connecticut, and the house came with a small patch of lawn out back. By then I had been writing for Audubon magazine and had learned (in a research sense) how pointless lawns were. I wanted to install a butterfly garden, and plant native perennials, maybe reduce the lawn to something quite small, or just have grass pathways. At 27, I was already sick of mowing. But we kept the lawn, as my partner was rightly concerned about the future resale value of a house without a back lawn. So, I've only known lawns for most of my life.
Once I had spent a couple of very busy weeks acclimating to Oregon life, I realized that the meadow that surrounded my new home in the mountains wasn't an unkempt lawn, but one of the local types of ecosystems that flourish here naturally; they form post-fire. And in my first weeks enjoying my new favorite place in the world — the back porch — I was stunned and delighted by the plethora of life the meadow supported. And I immediately thought of that life extinguished if I had started mowing.
Sarah Baker, who is battling her town for the right to keep a meadow rather than a lawn, puts this death-by-lawn into numbers when she writes in the Washington Post: "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."
Baker isn't alone in the fight to preserve natural landscapes. Professor Maria Ignatieva of the University of Western Australia and Marcus Hedblom of Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences wrote a paper discussing the detrimental effects a lawn can have on the environment. Ignatieva does say a lawn provides some benefits such as producing oxygen, sequestering carbon, reducing soil erosion and water runoff and increasing water infiltration. However, she says it's the way people maintain lawns that does more harm than good.
Most lawnmowers run on gas, which releases pollutants into the air. Also, many homeowners use an abundance of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to maintain a perfectly, manicured lawn. Also, lawns require constant watering and use up to 75 percent of a household's water consumption. Lastly, most lawns only use a handful of grass species — many of which aren't native to the area and are invasive.
My meadow is a mostly balanced ecosystem — with some non-native, invasive plants — that's not just pretty to look at. While yes, there are lots of insects, that means a healthy variety of food for the incredible number of songbirds that I now share my home with. And considering the disturbing decline of songbirds in the United States, they need all the help they can get. The smaller birds, voles, mice and moles attract larger birds, so bald eagles and several types of hawk fly overhead.
Between the birds and the bats, pounds of insects are devoured each day, and so I've not had any bug issues. I haven't even seen a tick or a flea in two years. The deer love the tall grasses — and the coyotes have followed the deer and squirrels. Contrary to what many people expect from high grasses, I've found that I have fewer pests, because it is a balanced system.
There are butterflies and moths galore, wild ground strawberries and edible greens, beautiful wildflowers and mosses beneath the grasses that come to fore in the wet winter months. The meadow is never the same, like a lawn is expected to be; instead it changes from week-to-week because it's a living system.
Now that I've lived within a thriving meadow ecosystem, I can't imagine going back to what I now see as a "dead zone" of they typical American lawn — especially those that are covered in pesticides and herbicides, and fed with fertilizers, all of which run into local water supplies.
Not only that, but a meadow requires almost no maintenance! And I didn't even mention the bees that thrive on the meadow wildflowers and provide big jars of flavorful honey that couldn't be more local. So the meadow isn't just providing feeding and nesting grounds for declining songbird populations, but threatened bees as well.
As Baker writes in her anti-mow article, "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."
As human beings take over more and more of the natural landscape, animals, birds and insects need as many bridges as possible — and a lawn isn't one. They are noise-pollution-producing timesucks (as another writer called them), that do nothing for threatened native life, and to top it off, they're boring. I'm done with them forever.
And the sound of wind through tall meadow grasses? Incomparable.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2015.