Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Lawn Transformation: Out with the Old, In with the New

Alicia Brisson, Krista Fillion, and Lyndsey Parrott

On Dec. 1, the Vermont Climate Council released and adopted the state’s first Climate Action Plan. This provides strategies to reduce emissions within Vermont to meet the goals of the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act, which includes reducing greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025.

To meet these objectives, significant lifestyle changes are needed. In particular, this includes the way we acknowledge green spaces within Vermont as individuals working towards a collective future.

Transforming turfgrass lawns — the biggest irrigated crop in America — into sustainable alternatives may be one of the most cost-effective approaches to achieving these goals within the state of Vermont.

Historically, front lawns were a luxury of the wealthy, which indicated an investment of time and equipment. After World War II, the middle class emulated the keeping of lawns from the affluent as a symbol of status. Lawns are perceived as a material manifestation of the American Dream and the pinnacle of suburban development.

In many communities today, there is peer pressure to keep a well-manicured lawn to reflect socially desirable resources such as wealth, education and property values. Given this context of lawns as an institution for status, it is time to create new traditions with how we use our green spaces to reflect the values of today.

Many residents misuse the amount of water that is necessary for proper turfgrass care. Lawns do not require water every day, as many believe. Most turfgrass is overwatered daily, which causes excessive mowing, wastes water, and increases stormwater runoff. A recommendation given by a University of Vermont professor states to not exceed 1 to 1.5 inches of water each week, including rainfall. Irrigation of lawns creates a strenuous impact on lakes such as Lake Champlain, due to excessive runoff that includes phosphorus and carbon emissions.

Improper application of fertilizer containing phosphorus during winter months can lead to nutrient runoff into the lake. The Lawn to Lake Initiative of the Lake Champlain Basin Program determined that 1 acre of urban-suburban land contributes twice as much phosphorus to the lake as 1 acre of farmland.

Furthermore, the 2021 State of the Lake calculated that each year, indicates the lake’s tributaries deliver close to 2 million pounds of phosphorus. Lake Champlain, with its proximity to Burlington, is at the receiving end of phosphorus runoff, which can lead to eutrophication, cyanobacteria, reduced clarity, and loss of species.

The perception of a well-manicured lawn, free from weeds and pests, has detrimental effects on the future of natural spaces such as Lake Champlain.

This pursuit of aesthetics is evident in the 5.5 million gallons of gasoline that Vermonters burned in 2019 on lawn care. Tedious maintenance practices — including irrigation, mowing, fertilizer and pesticide application — have been found to add up to 1 ton of CO2 each year per acre of traditional lawns. Shockingly, it takes only a half-hour of yard work with a two-stroke leaf blower to generate the same amount of emissions as a 3,900-mile drive from Texas to Alaska in a Ford Raptor. It takes hours of time invested weekly to upkeep a pristine monoculture of turfgrass at the expense of the climate, all for the sake of upholding outdated norms.

Within Vermont, greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2005 at 9.98 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. This level had decreased to 8.64 million metric tons as of 2018, but a continued reduction is needed to be on track for Vermont’s goals.

Although Vermont has already made strides toward reducing emissions, the size of the state provides an untapped opportunity for improvements. In Vermont, the median yard space is 73,979 square feet, which is the largest yard space within the United States, well above the average of 10,871 square feet. Due to the amount of lawn area in Vermont, curtailing maintenance practices will make a drastic difference.

As stated by the Vermont Climate Council, “It is critical that we act to become more resilient and adaptive to climate change already underway and that we do more to reduce the emissions that have brought us to this point, in order to create a habitable future.”

To meet the target emission goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act and protect the future of Lake Champlain, lawn conversion initiatives can be a cost-effective approach to reduce the overarching threats of climate change without making a large personal sacrifice.

Having a unique polyculture such as a lawn comes with a variety of benefits, both aesthetic and practical. The area around our homes is a place that could be used for pollinator habitats, food production, increased biodiversity and native species. This shift in mentality will deter the excessive use of water, phosphorus runoff, and carbon emissions that are associated with the maintenance of a turfgrass monoculture lawn. Growing herbs and vegetables can serve as supplemental food security — or even income, with some entrepreneurial spirit.

The authors are students at the University of Vermont. Alicia Brisson, class of 2022, is studying environmental studies, Krista Fillion, class of 2023, is studying community development and food systems, and Lyndsey Parrott, class of 2022, is studying community and international development.

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