Conservation Corner: A PAIN in the GRASS

Conservation corner - summer 2006


During the last week of March in Kelowna, we get an opportunity to see the first sign of spring. It is not a robin or a crocus; no, it is the unmistakable ‘chick-chick-chick’ sound of residential irrigation sprinklers. The annual rush to green up the lawn begins!

Why do some people spend thousands of hours and dollars to grow a plant that is not even native to North America? In American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, historian Ted Steinberg traces it to three factors: indoor plumbing, suburbia, and clever marketing on the part of the lawn care industry.

In the days of outdoor privies, families would not dream of spending quality time in the backyard. It was a place for growing vegetables and raising chickens.Homes had front porches or stoops and the front yard was the focus of social activity.

This changed with the explosion of suburban developments after WWII. Front porches gave way to backyard patios. According to Steinberg, “As the practical value of the front yard declined, its symbolic value – what it said about the integrity of the homeowner and the neighbourhood – skyrocketed.”

Enter the lawn care industry. They saw tens of thousands of men returning from the war to a society where leisure time was increasing. These men, disciplined by military service, were looking for something to do in their spare time, so the lawn care industry gave it to them: yard work!

Early fertilizer advertisements used military jargon. Weeds had to be “fought.”  Crabgrass was an “enemy” that had to be “eradicated.” The lawn care industry even invented enemies. One example is clover. Prior to the late 1950s, most lawns were a mix of Kentucky Bluegrass and clover. It was an ideal mix because of clover’s ability to take nitrogen out of the air and self fertilize the lawn. This cut into sales of nitrogen fertilizers, so the lawn care industry decided that clover had to go. Through their marketing efforts, they convinced people that clover was undesirable.

Today, homeowners are faced with myriad lawn care products – most of them totally unnecessary – to create unnatural carpets of green that have a voracious thirst for water. Water systems are built to meet peak demand and I am willing to bet that, in most BC communities, peak demand is created by irrigation. I know that is the case in Kelowna, where summer peaks are five times higher than winter demand.

I am not saying that lawns are bad things. They create oxygen, decrease runoff, and filter pollutants. They look nice, and children can play on them. Even in the semi-arid Okanagan, I would hate to see grass go the way of the dinosaur. While xeriscaping is a viable alternative to traditional landscaping, we have to admit that grass is here to stay. What can change is how we manage and maintain our lawns, and we can do this through education.

It is going to be an uphill battle. More than 50 years of marketing by the lawn care industry has told us how a lawn should look, and how we can get it to look that way. But, the fact is, an ‘organic’ lawn – one grown in proper soil with grass cycling replacing chemical fertilizers – costs less money, requires less maintenance, and uses far less water than a drug-dependant lawn.

Now, if I can only convince some Kelowna residents that it is not necessary to water when there are still traces of snow on the ground. That would be a start!


By Neal Klassen, BCWWA “Watermark” contributor


Posted June 2008

Originally published in the Summer 2006 issue of Watermark Magazine, the official publication of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).