They say the grass is always greener…but should it be?

Every spring, my husband and I have a lawn care ‘discussion.’ By discussion, I mean that we both have strongish feelings about lawn care. A lawn care company sends us their seasonal quote for services, and he’s into it, and I’m like….but whyyyyy. The discussion usually ends with me grudgingly rolling my eyes and him happily signing up for service. He then usually goes to celebrate victory with other neighbors (usually other husbands) in the neighborhood as they compare how their turf is growing and discuss their lawn care strategies for the season.


Before I am condemned and labeled as anti-lawn, let me say that lawn can be absolutely lovely. I love playing outside with my kiddos, and lawn makes those soccer games, cartwheels, and picnics very enjoyable. And let’s face it – most people, myself included, like the look of a nice lawn. Lawns have a history of being a symbol of status and wealth as far back as the 1700s, and having a green, tidy lawn is a way of showing you ‘made it.’ People take pride in their lawns. I get it.

Still, in the last couple years especially, I’ve become more and more perplexed about why we feel the need to expend so much energy and resources on something that does nothing for the environment or local ecosystem. I hear friends complain about the cost or the time it takes to care for and maintain their lawns, and I just want to be like “Then WHY have so much lawn?”

I feel like this is what bees, butterflies, and other pollinators see as they traverse our lawns.

Nothing brings the point home more than now, at the height of summer, where we go without rain for days and weeks at a time. You start seeing those brown patches show up, and suddenly you see more and more sprinklers on – nobody wants to have the brown yard. It’s a logical thing to do, until you really start thinking about the cumulative amount of water that’s being used to water turf and whether we’re really using our water resources wisely.

Our torched side yard in summer 2021.

Case in point: Our community recently received a mailing from our public works department asking residents to conserve more water – particularly in regard to lawn irrigation. Why? Select neighborhoods in our community used over 650,000 gallons of water…just in ONE day. For reference, those same neighborhoods generally use 75,000 gallons per day during the winter months. Lawn and yard irrigation is the primary cause for the magnitude change. And yes, there should be an increase for the summer, but at this point, our water consumption is over triple the recommended amount by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for this time of year.


And as a reminder, those 650,000 gallons per day – that over half million gallons PER DAY – come directly from groundwater sources. That water is pumped from the ground and directly waters something that isn’t food, that doesn’t serve our wildlife or pollinators, and doesn’t serve a purpose beyond our own recreation and perception that lawn is king. Plus, it’s not like the majority of the water is just infiltrating back into the soil and back into the groundwater either- your typical lawn sprinkler loses between 30-50% of the water it sprays to evaporation right off the bat.

Lawn is the most irrigated crop in America. Not corn, not soybeans, not wheat, fruits, avocadoes, almonds, or any other crop. It’s LAWN. That’s where we are choosing to put our water. That is somehow our cumulative priority crop.

Here in Minnesota, the lawn of choice is generally a species called Kentucky bluegrass. It’s a cool-season grass native to Europe and Asia, meaning that it grows best in the cooler seasons but also recovers well after a cold winter. The root system for Kentucky bluegrass though, is something to be desired: it extends only 4-8 inches into the soil.

That shallow of a root system means that Kentucky bluegrass requires copious amounts of water (not to mention fertilizer and amendments) to stay green, lush, and healthy.

Contrast that to some of the native plants from around the region, whose roots extend feet into the soil and are incredibly drought resistant once they are established. Or contrast that to some fescue grasses that may not have as lush look or as dense feel as Kentucky bluegrass, but they can handle more serious heat and drought.

While you likely can’t read the text, this picture delivers a powerful enough punch as is. Root lengths of native plants can be measured in FEET rather than inches (for reference, Kentucky bluegrass root length is at the FAR left).
The University of Minnesota has turfgrass research plots that test drought tolerance of different grass species, including Kentucky bluegrass. Read more.

Perceptions are starting to change – the explosion of the popular Lawns to Legumes program in recent years is a testament to people recognizing that they can expect more from their yard than it just looking pretty. One of my favorite Lawns to Legumes stories comes from St. Paul, Minnesota where a landowner went to work on her homeowners association to replace all the lawn in her yard with native plants and sedges.

Change is not easy, but there are so many ways to start moving away from lawn – you don’t have to be all or nothing. Convert a less-utilized part of your yard (we all have spots that are so annoying to mow) to a pollinator pocket garden or a more drought-tolerant grass species. Or consider planting a bee lawn – a great alternative for folks that still want the lawn look with some added ecological function and habitat for native insects and pollinators.

And if even that is still too much to think about, and you just really want that traditional lawn, do what you can to conserve water. Here are some lawn care tips and tricks:

  1. Your lawn needs about an inch of water per week. Choose to water it only once or twice over that week, making sure it’s a good soak. If you’re unsure of the amount of water the sprinkler is putting out, place an empty tuna fish can (or equivalent) out on the lawn – if it overflows during a watering, you’re watering too much.
  2. Water in the morning and cooler hours to minimize evaporation. Many communities have watering guidelines and schedules – please follow them!
  3. Adjust your mower to mow higher (ideally 3 inches or greater) – this allows grass to grow a bit longer, which also encourages a deeper root structure that can better handle drier conditions.
  4. If you have an irrigation system, invest in a smart controller to help you regulate how much water you use. Smart controllers use wi-fi to access historical and current weather data so you are only watering when you need to (we’ve all seen that neighbors yard where the sprinklers are on while it’s raining). Several communities have rebate programs for SMART controllers.
  5. Invest in a rain barrel or other collection device to capture stormwater and use that water on your lawn when possible.