Putting Purpose Back in the Landscape

by Sarah Parsons, EMGV

128,000 square kilometers. 

31,629,488 acres.

Approximately the area of the state of Mississippi.

This number represents the estimated area of lawn space in the U.S. according to a 2005 NASA study1

This area is almost 3 times larger than the area of U.S. cropland designated for irrigated corn, one of the largest cash crops in the nation1.

The conclusion:  Lawns, not corn, are America’s largest irrigated crop1.

The results from this 2005 NASA study put a large onus on homeowners and landscapers throughout the nation.  Together we are all responsible for how we care for our lawns.  The consequence for irresponsible lawn care could result in negative impacts on our environment and our limited natural resources. 

According to the 2005 study, America’s lawns would require approximately 200 gallons of water per person a day if they were properly maintained1.  Water used for lawn care is usually potable drinking water.  In addition to using large amounts of potable water on our lawns, we are also using large amounts of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides were used in the U.S in 20072. Eighty percent of these pesticides were used in the agricultural sector2. However, twenty percent of that 1.1. billion pounds (200 million pounds) were used in other sectors, most likely in the landscaping and residential sectors. Putting large amounts of chemicals in our environment comes with a cost, and we would be wise to be more conscious of how and in what quantities we apply chemicals on our landscapes.

These statistics raise concerns with regard to environmental health, but they also raise societal and ethical concerns. At what point will we as a society begin to value the services that our environment and our ecosystems provide, e.g. clean air and accessible clean drinking water? There are a variety of ecosystem services our environments provide everyday that go unnoticed, and as a society we do not readily value them. For unlike most services provided to us through service industries, the ecosystem service industry does not function for a monetary profit. We cannot put a price on clean air or clean water. However, we as homeowners and landscapers can begin to value our environments and our ecosystem services by being more conscious of the inputs we put on our lawns. Simple acts, such as using plants on your landscapes that are not water intensive and selecting disease resistant varieties of plants, can make a large and meaningful difference. For more information on how you can change your landscaping approach, visit these resources provided by the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension.




The statistics from the 2005 NASA study also raise a concern about the purpose of the American lawn.  Do we want to continue to expend precious resources on solely lawn aesthetics, or do we want our lawn be more than just a pretty face? Not only can our lawns play a role in helping our ecosystems function better, but they can also serve a gastronomical purpose. The edible landscape movement is growing rapidly across the nation. This link provided by the NCSU Extension offers ways that the individual homeowner can seamlessly incorporate edibles into his or her landscape. Should you prefer to be more bold in your approach to incorporating edibles into your landscape you can put a beautiful vegetable garden in your front lawn. Vegetables can be beautiful and delicious! Recently the nursery business has realized the potential of kale and chard in adding color to a winter landscape. New ornamental varieties of kale, chard are increasingly becoming available in nurseries throughout the U.S. For more information on how to tend a beautiful and organic vegetable garden, you can visit the “Growing Small Farms” website through the NCSU Cooperative Extension.

As the human population on our planet grows, and as our limited natural resources increase in demand, we need to be wiser about how we use our natural resources and impact the environments around us. As homeowners and landscapers, we can make a difference by altering the management of our landscapes in small but meaningful ways. Let us together change our landscapes, so that they serve a purpose beyond our property lines. Let us make purposeful landscapes that create both a healthier planet and a healthier people.

1 Milesi, C. NASA. “Looking for Lawns.” http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/. November 2005.