Oh, how we love our lawns. Barefoot in the grass is synonymous with snickerdoodles and a happy childhood, at least in the ideal American dream.
Despite this portrait, keeping that lawn trim is a huge contributor to air pollution and health problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates a push mower emits as much pollution in an hour as 11 cars, and riding mowers as much as 34 autos. Annually, the 3 billion-plus hours we spend cutting the grass amounts to more than 3 percent of the man-made hydrocarbons causing ozone and smog. On top of that, the EPA estimates we spill 17 million gallons of gas a year just filling lawn-equipment gas tanks.
What's a green-blooded American to do?
The answer for most of us lies somewhere between the dramatic steps of getting rid of your old mower or tearing out your entire lawn.
Lawns are basically a flat place for the kids to play, says Lynn Funk, owner of Lynn's Living Designs in Grants Pass. "I don't need a pristine lawn. I don't spray it. I just keep it short."
If you've got a green heart and a big property, this is an important issue. In between acres of grass and an unkempt field — which is a fire hazard and invitation to noxious weeds — is the meadow. Mowing paths through the meadow and placing gardens or destination benches is an attractive alternative.
"Mow trails and leave the rest to grow higher," says Funk. "Sow wildflower seeds and plant some native shrubs." She suggests wild yarrow, balsam root, clover, oxbow daisy and daisies.
Add some big plants, trees or shrubs to your yard and mulch out to the drip line. "Then you have something nice to look at without too much work," says Funk.
She remembers a large property where the owners used big plants, adding a few areas with intensive plantings and ground covers, along with pea-gravel mulch on paths they could walk along. It's a much lower-maintenance property without weekly mowing demands, according to Funk.
You can do the same thing, even on a small property, she says. Use flour to outline the shape your new paths and garden beds will take. Create a flowing design and use plants you will love to look at. Incorporate distant views and hide the unsightly. Funk has a viewing bench overlooking such a garden that fronts the Siskiyou Mountains.
"It gives me great pleasure," she says. "It fills my heart."
Regular mowing is key to maintaining the lawn as a carbon sink, says Gary Zoll, owner of Zoll's Lawn and Garden Equipment in Medford. "If it gets long enough to set seed, basically it thinks it's at the end of its life, so growth slows down," he says.
When it's time, replace that old mower with a new, more efficient version. Consider an electric mower if you have a small property or even a reel mower. The EPA estimates that for every 1,000 gasoline-powered lawn mowers exchanged for electric mowers, we reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 9.8 tons per year, equivalent to removing 230 cars from the highways.
Be savvy when you replace your mower. The amount of energy it takes to extract raw materials and manufacture a new piece of equipment from steel and aluminum is considerable, says Zoll. Equipment manufactured after 1997 is much more efficient than earlier models. Machines manufactured after 2011 will meet even higher standards. In the meantime, maintain your equipment at top efficiency. That means a tuneup every 25 hours of operation, including getting the blade sharpened.
When you finally need that new mower, the EPA suggests recycling, rather than selling or giving it away, so the metal can be converted to raw materials. For more EPA tips, go to www.epa.gov/otaq/consumer/19-yard.pdf.