The lawn is not in danger

I didn’t need to go as far as the suburbs to get this shot.

Not by a long shot. Every now and then, one of the Ranters publishes a post on the benefits of having a lawn and strategies for responsible lawn maintenance. Far from objecting to these posts, I heartily agree with them. When free of needless herbicides and fertilizer and mowed at a reasonable height, lawns do provide rest for the eyes and recreational space for people and animals. I have no problem with them, though I do like to see them accompanied by healthy stands of perennials and shrubs, with a tree or two thrown in.

It’s the framing of the question that I find disconcerting. Do lawns really need defending, as this post implies?

Are they becoming scarce? Are people with lawns being persecuted or ostracized by their neighbors? Are gangs of lawn abolitionists roaming the cul de sacs of suburbia, torching every lawn they see? No. This is not happening. And, sad to say, the words of enlightened industry professionals and naturalists about the problems associated with lawn culture are, for the most part, not being heard by those who need to hear them most. Don’t feel bad, my friends; there is no need to worry about scaring or shaming lawn-proud homeowners. They are not listening to you and they don’t know who you are.

Lawns continue to thrive throughout most suburban and many urban areas of my region, Western New York, and I suspect that this is true throughout the US. If I were to look only at the gardens of my friends, many neighbors, and everyone on Garden Walk Buffalo, I might think lawns are on the decline. But that view would be beyond blinkered.

We just had another lawn-related incident in our largest suburb, Amherst. A retired university official and longtime environmentalist, Walter Simpson, was reported by his neighbors for allowing Queen Anne’s Lace to grow in part of his untreated lawn area, which also harbors a number of other wildflowers (or weeds: it’s up to you) throughout the season. It’s a “mow what grows” lawn, but the QAL was allowed to remain unmowed during its time of flowering. This endangered it, because it can grow higher than ten inches, which is the height limit in this suburban town for anything in a lawn that isn’t obviously a cultivated flower bed. Here’s a quote from one of several newspaper articles on the controversy: “The homeowner said he and his wife suspect the unnamed tipster is a neighbor whose exacting lawn care includes using scissors to trim wayward blades of grass, [noting], ‘That’s not an exaggeration.’”

The QAL was never removed because the town decided—after many phone calls, emails, and other lobbying efforts by the Simpsons and others—to consider an appeal from the homeowners. Here’s a link to the final article that leads to the 3 or 4 previous articles.  It didn’t hurt that Simpson was a high ranking official in the area’s biggest university; he’s used to getting things done.

I’ll be honest; I couldn’t care less about Queen Anne’s Lace. I do admire the Simpsons for maintaining an untreated lawn—which clearly harbors many other plants than turfgrass—in an area where lawns are still worshiped, with governmental ordinances in place to back that worship up. My point is that cases like these arise on a regular basis throughout the country. There is always an enlightened cadre ready to fight lawn culture—as with the Simpsons—but I am pretty sure that lawn adherents consider these people kooks and radicals. And I am afraid these lawn adherents are—by far—in the majority, with, for the most part, the law on their side.

We can murmur kind, gentle assurances that lawns are OK “as long as …” all we want. It won’t help people who don’t have the juice to fight City Hall.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I live in the south of France. Lawns are basically impossible here. Wrong soil, wrong rainfall, wrong climate in general. But what about the unadulterated boringness of a lawn? Might as well be astroturf, or green painted gravel, it is just so very, very uninteresting. Sorry, but that’s how it is.
    bonnie in provence, formerly in California

  2. .SO true.
    This quote from the news story you linked to makes me think the writer doesn’t know the subject – like any actual garden writer would.
    “In contrast, lawns where trees, bushes, wildflowers and other flora are allowed to grow freely provide more shade and are better for air and water quality and for birds, desirable insects and other creatures, conservationists said.”
    A “lawn” where trees bushes and wildflowers, etc grow freely isn’t a lawn but a yard. My nit-pick for the day.

    • No. These are reporters who may or may not have any awareness of gardening. Though, I have to cut some slack. If there is a lawn in front of those items, the terms could be confusing. And try calling anything a yard in England. Lawn is a prettier word.

  3. About lawns……, “I have no problem with them, though I do like to see them accompanied by healthy stands of perennials and shrubs, with a tree or two thrown in.”

    This is terrible, above. “…with a tree or two thrown in.”

    Meadow next to wild wood is the most potent pollinator habitat. Since before mankind arrived. Nature’s WISDOM and design.

    Pollinators need myriad heights of trees.

    If you advise, “a tree or two”, included should be, ‘native canopy and understory trees’ if possible. Why? Again, maximum pollinator habitat.

    Alas, millions of homes stuck in LAWN jail with home owners associations diktats. Which is death to soils, groundwater, pollinators.

    Garden & Be Well, T

  4. *Everyone* likes butterflies and lightening bugs– if leading horticulturalists were to provide garden specifications to homeowner organizations for safer, easy to maintain ‘lawns’ such as thyme, self-heal, Violets, strawberry, sledges etc. — homeowners could enjoy more butterflies, no chemicals, no mowing in some cases, and less capital outlay for yard maintenance.

  5. It’s true, the lawn adherents are the majority. Lawns are also often a status thing or at least they are where I live. The majority of people here don’t mow their own lawn. But if the very few that do own the biggest, baddest riding lawn mowers to impress the neighbors. One neighbor told me he planned to “set the standard” for the neighborhood (meaning the standard for lawn-care and gardening): His is a big lawn treated with copious amounts of weed-n-feed along with young volcano-mulched trees planted 5 feet apart–an oak, a fig, a peach tree, an apple tree, and a vitex. He has no plans to grow a meadow and could care less about pollinators. It’s all about impressing others. But you know, I don’t care so much. I don’t control the world. I just want to garden my own way in the backyard where today I saw two yellow swallowtails, a sulfur butterfly, two skippers, one monarch, a bunch of bumblebees, wasps, some smaller bees I can’t identify plus a striped skink.

  6. The pro-lawn argument very much depends on where you live. In the Southwest and desert regions all that lawn water is imported from other peoples watersheds often hundreds of miles away.
    In Southern CA, the volume of drinking water demanded by large populations downstream surpasses the volume the Colorado River headwaters can sustainably producers and divert in any given year. I have to wonder if those blissfully unaware (ignorant?) people who aren’t ‘listening to us and don’t know who we are’ will also wonder what happened when the 8’ of water per square foot per year they are now allowed to pour on their lawns disappears entirely in a climate that naturally produces just 13” and is totally dry for up to six months of the year.

  7. You’re certainly are right that the traditional American lawn doesn’t need defending but I think defending a nuanced approach to having a lawn is definitely needed. This is one of those topics in the garden world that is polarizing & I feel homeowners who practice responsible lawn maintenance should be applauded & supported.

  8. Unfortunately, in a polarized culture that favors absolutes (in this case, spotless, chemically-treated yards vs. wild, eventually untended growth), the middle ground does need defending as a viable, accessible and responsible alternative.

    I can appreciate that you must be frustrated by the cases that you cite. I certainly see the same pig-headed ignorance from HOA neighborhoods and lawn purists in my own part of the world, and could easily use such anecdotal evidence to claim that the lawn isn’t going anywhere; but I am also very aware that a contemptuousness for the lawn as a loved garden feature has arisen in many industry and educational circles by “enlightened industry professionals”– and in particular, within state extension offices, whose representatives are often the first point of contact for the average homeowner wanting to do the right thing but also wanting to keep their lawns.

    I have stood and listened to advice to “lose the lawn” as it is meted out to others with a knowing, condescending look. I have overheard the discussions later over “ignorant people who just want their lawns.” And I have watched the results of that advice fail when the realities of summer meet the idealism of spring.

    As I said in the article, most homeowners have neither the desire, nor the aptitude to cope with the upkeep of a meadow or the demands of a large perennial bed – native or otherwise. They love their lawns and don’t wish to be treated like naughty children by those “who know better” however enlightened they are. Perhaps it is them that I defend rather than their lawns. We need to be aware of our messaging for those who ARE ready to hear it, lest we lose them with unrealistic goals. A middle ground should be fairly presented and actively sought. – MW

  9. Seriously? Do we not have more pressing issues to deal with? Say, like Covid?
    As far as lawns go, they are an artificial presence and a waste of water, effort and time.
    There are maybe 2 places in the U.S. where lawns can flourish as they do in England ( where our twisted idea of lawns, complete with 19th century armies of gardeners with scythes, originated. Thanks Capability Brown and Frederick Olmsted.
    Those places are the Northwest and maybe Maine.
    Cooler, moderate temps, lots of rain.
    It sure doesn’t happen with any reliability anywhere else.
    Better plan?
    Plant flowers and veggies. Xeriscape for your region.

  10. A friend forwarded the “In Defense of the Lawn” rant to me, probably because I don’t have anything that could be considered a lawn. It prompted me to write to AHS. It’s a disgrace what AHS has allowed to happen to the meadow they developed at River Farm a few years ago. Last Fall I took 3 friends to River Farm to show them the meadow. Well AHS has let it go to weed. The predominant plants were porceleanberry and bush honeysuckle. I was shocked. I know a meadow requires a lot of work to establish and a fair amount of work to maintain, but they had a plan and a large cadre of volunteers to do that. I wonder why they quit maintaining it.

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