Monday, June 3, 2013

Making our Green Lawns "Greener"

The stereotypical green lawn of the cookie-cutter suburban home has a history that reaches back into the Middle Ages as an early symbol of wealth. By the early 1600’s, the English aristocracy had begun cultivating expansive lawns and gardens. The lawn became a status symbol, a symbol that reminded the penniless masses that the aristocracy had so much wealth that it was unnecessary for all their land be used for food production. The lawn as we know it today attained its popularity in the early 19th century when wealthy American families imported the idea from England and popularized it. By the late 19th century, affluent families left the cities for the suburbs bringing their green lawns with them. The subsequent improvements in the lawn mower and creation of the lawn-sprinkler enabled the rapid spread of lawn culture through American society. With the creation of the 40-hour work week and post-WWII housing boom, lawn culture reached its peak with ubiquitous country clubs and golf courses. Today, one study by the University of Montana estimates there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than acres of irrigated corn. Studies suggest that greater amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used per acre of lawn than on an equivalent acre of cultivated farmland.

The National Wildlife Federation reports that as much as half of residential water is used for landscaping, chiefly watering lawns. Extensive irrigation practices combined with the use of as much as 70 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients produce a polluted run-off that is one of the largest sources of water pollution nationwide. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the two major fertilizer nutrients used in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings. As these chemicals run off lawns onto hard-surfaced roads and ditches, the polluted run-off flows back into streams and ultimately pollutes groundwater without the benefit of soil acting as a filter. As phosphorus accumulates in rivers and streams, it creates algal blooms, turning the water green and suffocating fish and other species by depleting oxygen. An example of this pollution is the “Green Monster” in North Florida. Every so often, a massive algal bloom chokes the St. Johns River due to the wastewater effluent dumped into the river, failed septic tanks, and excessive fertilizing.

Recognizing the environmental consequences of excessive lawn irrigation, the Florida Legislature enacted the “Florida Friendly Landscaping” law (s. 373.185) in 2009 which allows homeowners to create lawns that conserve water, protect the environment, and are adaptable to local conditions. Under this statute, each water management district is tasked with creating, publicizing, and monitoring incentive programs encouraging local governments to adopt “Florida-friendly” landscape ordinances and practices. The statute even exempts homeowners from deed restrictions or covenants that would prohibit Florida-friendly landscaping on their properties. Many resources exist for homeowners to plan and cultivate “green” lawns. UF’s IFAS office publishes several helpful guides and resources toward this end. You can find them and others linked at the end of this blog post. Using these sources as a guide, you can help reduce the ecological impact of your own lawn thereby reducing the strain on and pollution of our aquifers and creating a more beautiful and natural Florida for all to enjoy.

Resources for cultivating your “Florida-friendly” lawn:

-Stephen Holmgren, Legal Extern