Look what they’ve done to the organic lawn demo on the Mall



Remember the happy announcement last fall that SafeLawns was doing a demonstration organic lawn on the National Mall so the whole world could see how great it looked without the use of toxins and pollutants? Well, fast forward to the great unveiling – which you see in the top photo, taken in April of this year.  Lush, huh?

But that was before the invasion of the Class of 2008 (from some area school, presumably one with parents influential enough to have snagged this precious site for their kids’ graduation ceremony), and you see the result in the second photo.

Here are shots of the SafeLawns test site in April of this year and again in May.

April:  Thick, green and beautiful.

May: AFTER the Graduation Ceremony.

From Paul Tukey:

“Black plastic tarp was laid over the entire site, then chairs were set out and the lawn just cooked and cooked and cooked. Then, the graduation ceremony was held on which thousands of people walked, stood and sat on Mallaftergrad2_2the black plastic tarp while the lawn continued to bake.  You can see the ‘aisles’ on which the tarp was not covering the turf – still lush, green and pesticide free in May.

“We’re sending this information to the media and complaining to the local Park Service people but in the end, what a wasted opportunity to teach the public that they CAN really give up the poisons and pollutants without incurring the scorn of their neighbors.”

Wonder if SafeLawns is expected to pay for the re-planting, like they did the original planting and care.  I checked their partnership agreement with the Park Service but funny thing, there’s nothing there about the Park Service’s obligations under the agreement, just what’s required of SafeLawns.

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. I agree with Shira – a disgrace. Are the folks at the Park Service really that dumb? Any idiot knows you cover living things in the sun with black plastic, and they cook and die. One would think the Park Service (P-A-R-K being key here) would know that and keep it from happening. And Safe Lawns needs someone to look out for their interests when they enter into agreements . . . .

  2. Wow, that’s just heartbreaking. It was really exciting to see the SafeLawns concept taking off. I’ve been reading gardening magazines for roughly 5 years now and People, Places, Plants is one of 2 that were worthy of a subscription in my opinion.

    I don’t get why they needed to cover the lawn with black plastic to begin with?

  3. If you don’t put something on the lawn, the legs of the chairs sink into the turf and make the chairs unstable. However, there are better choices than black plastic tarp. Our university graduation is held on the football field (which is natural turf — it’s a tiny little university), and there the chairs for faculty and graduates were set out on perforated rubber mats. The whole thing was laid out the afternoon before, and picked up right after the ceremony.

    But then again, it was a football field — imagine the uproar if someone damaged the precious football field.

  4. Hmm, graduation on the Mall…. Oh right, that would be George Washington University, over 20,000 people, yes over 20,000 people! That’s why they ( GWU) use the Mall!!! They have had commencement on the mall since 1992.They ( GWU) also paid $250,000 for the use of said Mall, so the Parks dept has the money to re-do the lawn!
    I wonder what the lawn would look like even if they hadn’t put down tarp – 20,000 plus people, chairs, high heels ,etc would probably have left a worse mess!

  5. Thanks for that RD, and can we have just a skosh of perspective here and remember that is is in fact…grass…that we’re…mourning…


  6. Whoever decided to put the plastic down must pay for the lawn to be put down again.

    I just cannot imagine why this was done – ugly and purposeless.

    Whoever approved this should also be financially accountable – and fired!

  7. Thanks for explaining the reason, Reading Dirt. Still, black plastic seems like a poor solution and one I’ve never heard of in my neck-of-the-woods.

    My in-laws are very involved with the Oregon Jamboree, a 3-day country music festival, which draws hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of people – and their chairs – to town. As part of his duties, my FIL has consulted with Tom Cook, OSU, regarding the lawn (how to help it survive and recover) but their strategies never included putting anything over the lawn to protect it. Ditto for the events that go on in downtown Portland in the Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Blues Festival, Brewfest, Taste of Portland, and the Rose Festival are just a few of the events that occur directly on the grass, not on any other surface. That’s not to say that it’s a perfect solution. The grass can get trashed if it’s recently rained or is raining (as it seems to do during the Rose Festival every year since its inception) but I can’t see eco-conscious Portlanders tolerating the black plastic over lawn scenario.

    And yes, it is only lawn – gorgeous, organically-grown lawn – but I don’t think it deserves to be treated as a throw-away surface.

  8. And about that patch of grass we’re mourning, it’s there to prove to the world that poisons and pollutants aren’t needed, so it’s an unusually high-profile and important patch of grass.

  9. Maybe it’s not the loss of grass (organically grown or not) that we’re mourning so much as the carelessness and disregard shown by people who should have known better….

  10. I checked photos of this year’s graduation – my guess is the trap was put down to prevent the lawn from becoming a swampy quagmire – it rained before, and judging by the umbrellas it rained during. Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t. But at the end of the day, it is just grass. It will grow back. It’s not like anyone died ! The Mall IS a public space, the day they put up “keep off the grass” signs will be a sad, sad, day…

  11. The condition of the National Mall was covered in a CBS Sunday Morning story this week. Instead of wringing our collective hands, there is a private non-profit trust that has been formed: http://www.nationalmall.org

    There are plans afoot for not only better maintenance of “the nation’s front lawn,” but also to improve and expand it. Small items like public restrooms will really turn it into something special. Here is their mission statement:
    The Trust for the National Mall will help restore, revitalize and preserve the National Mall, home to the enduring symbols of our democracy, for present and future generations.
    We will succeed in this mission by focusing on the following:
    · Supporting the National Park Service as it undertakes the National Mall Plan, which will address park use, maintenance and facilities
    · Raising the necessary funds to maintain and restore the National Mall as a world-class park befitting this great nation
    · Connecting visitors with the National Mall’s rich history
    · Developing engaging programs and events that will educate and inspire current and future generations
    · Funding an endowment to insure the future maintenance and upkeep of the park

  12. Ginny, thanks for that great idea. I did write to them directly about the issue, but sure, why not help promote the Trust? I think I’ll run right over there and ask for an interview. S

  13. This just in from Pamela Burton at SafeLawns.org:

    Dear Susan,

    Individuals upset by the use of black plastic tarp on the SafeLawns organic test site within the National Mall should send their comments to:

    Mary A. Bomar
    Director, NPS
    [email protected]

    Joe Lawler
    National Capital Regional Director, NPS
    [email protected]

    Judy Scott Feldman
    Chairman of the Board of Directors, National Coalition to Save Our Mall
    [email protected]

  14. I really don’t like the effect on the mall lawn either, but I did see a bright point. It is proof positive that black plastic will kill what is under it. If a person really needed to that somewhere???? Mother Nature is gladly, very resilient.

  15. [RD said “(GWU) use the Mall!!! They have had commencement on the mall since 1992.”]

    Is this the first time in all those years that the grass was unable to handle the traffic? I hope something more robust is used to replace it!

  16. Whoever is responsible for maintaining that portion of th Mall should file an insurance claim with the liability insurer of the vendor that set out the black plastic. To get a permit to use the Mall they surely have a certificate of insurance on file with the Mall authorities. That liability policy will pay for damages the vendor caused.

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