Curbing that lawn obsession

Vancouver is slowly turning the tide on manicured turf...

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Vancouver is slowly turning the tide on manicured turf, writes Granville columnist Allen Garr

We were once green with envy when we looked at our neighbours’ lush lawns. But now that more and more of us would rather grow it than mow it, that envy is turning to disdain.

Lyle Davies, Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer’s grandfather, was a man well ahead of his time. Just after the Second World War, Davies moved to the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver. One day when his wife was off at work, Davies ripped up his front lawn and planted potatoes. When his wife returned home she was surprised. The neighbours, though, were outraged and, according to a story that is still retold at family gatherings, a “delegation” piled onto his front porch to let him know it.

That neighbourhood anger was simply a sign of the times. Author Ted Steinberg lays it all out in American Green: The obsessive quest for the perfect lawn. North Americans, and particularly those living in new suburbs, had turned lawn maintenance into a kind of “moral crusade.” The point of salvation was reached when you had a thick, pampered expanse of grass that was uniform in its makeup, as close-cropped as a ’50s brush cut and, most importantly, weed-free.

Yet that cultural climate didn’t just blossom overnight; it was nurtured over hundreds of years. The principal influence was Britain, where rich folks lived in mansions surrounded by endless rolling swaths of lawn maintained by small armies of serfs armed with scythes. Wealthy Americans travelling abroad admired and then imported the foreign grass species that originated in Africa, Asia and Europe.

What Steinberg refers to as the “eventual democratization” of the lawn came in 1830. Gone were the slaves and serfs and scythes. Enter the lawn mower, again from Britain. First there was the push mower, then a machine that could be drawn by horses. It wasn’t until 1893 that a power mower was introduced, fuelled by either gas or kerosene.

And all that foreign grass needed water – lots of water. The lawn mower was followed by the sprinkler in 1871, which spread in use as communities developed central water systems.

Those new subdivisions with their abundant lawns led to a new industry known as “lawn care,” and one essential element in that care was pesticides, which apparently owed their origins to chemical warfare products developed during the Second World War.

Homeowners got hooked. In the year 2000 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service observed that homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops. Meanwhile push mowers were replaced by gas mowers, trimmers, and leaf blowers, and that obsessive quest is today a serious threat to the planet. No, just because it’s small doesn’t make it innocuous: running a power mower for one hour is the pollution equivalent of driving a car 1,050 kilometres.

The passion for lawns has begun to fade recently, but judging from the teams of two-stroke terrorists who regularly invade my neighbourhood to cut and trim and blow my neighbours’ lawns, that fade is slow.

In 1994 the City of Vancouver launched its Green Streets Program, which encourages folks to replace boulevard lawns with gardens. In 2005 the city followed other municipalities in the region and passed a bylaw banning the use of cosmetic pesticides. And last spring Vancouver’s mayor Gregor Robertson allowed a large chunk of the city hall lawn to be torn up so vegetables could be grown. There are even some potatoes. And no delegations turned up on his porch to complain.


Allen Garr is a Vancouver journalist with a passion for birding and beekeeping. Read his past columns here >>