Blogger Richard Jurin. HOA common areas are there for all to enjoy. Lots of grassy areas are typical, but present their own problems from maintenance to ecological sensitivity. What do you think?
I grew up in Britain where people who were lucky enough to have gardens tended to plant either flowers and/or small food-crop plots often with the ubiquitous bit of grass lawn for accentuation – 50-80 square feet not unusual. The vast lawns of cultivated grassy areas was reserved for country estates of the wealthy and nobility. As common people could afford homes where there was a little bit of garden, the addition of grass was a public statement of the growing affluence of that family. Today, even in small home lots in Britain, the expense of a lawn is considered a statement of being able to grow something just for its esthetic nature. I still recall a neighbor cutting his 80 square foot lawn every 3 days to putting-green perfection.
It does tend to rain a bit in Britain so watering a small lawn is not such a big deal in water conservation. The temperate climate of Britain means that they do not take much maintenance except during the rare droughts when watering with a water hose might be required. Most grass varieties naturally thrive between temperatures of 40-75F and go dormant outside that range.
Grass today is a major esthetic aspect of many American homes. When I came to the states I was surprised by the size of lawns and effort required to keep them green. Before I came to Colorado my homes all had large lawns. As a teacher of sustainability, I came to Colorado with its semi-arid climate and decided to have a xeriscaped garden that was more suitable to the climate and used considerably les water. This is important in a region where water use in coming years is going to become a major issue as more homes are built and hotter, dryer summers seem to be occurring more regularly. The amount of water needed to keep grass green in continuous extreme heat (above 80F) is a major point of debate by water managers throughout the west. In some places like Las Vegas, grass is no longer allowed for new homes and its removal from existing homes is encouraged as essential in conserving water resources.
Here in the USA, lawn water use and the application of lawn chemicals are an environmental problem often ignored and swept under the proverbial rug. The short article below emphasizes some of these problems.
The Problem of Lawns by Lakis Polycarpou (June 4, 2010). Earth Institute, Columbia University
One of many vivid impressions I have from childhood visits to Cyprus, where my father grew up, is that no one there had a lawn. In retrospect I can see, of course, that in the hyper-arid, drought-prone climate of a place like Cyprus, widespread use of lawns would have seemed an absurdly extravagant use of scarce resources.
Did the cousins I played with on my visits suffer appreciably from lack of green? Not that I could tell. When we were there we played soccer on dirt lots and hide-and-seek between houses, and no one I know is worse for the wear. (As compensation, the children of Cyprus eat the best watermelon and drink the best fresh lemonade in the entire world.)
Still, my reaction and surprise was telling. In the United States, lawns are so ubiquitous that to my young eye (and many others) they seemed to be almost a basic human right. That’s a serious problem, given the enormous resources that our North American lawn-fetish consumes.
Historically, lawns first became popular among the gentry of Western Europe, where they were managed either as pasture or by labor-intensive hand sheering or scything. The modern lawn seems to be a deprecated form of the highly manicured English landscape gardens which became popular among the nobility in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. But wasn’t until the 19th century with the invention and mass production of the lawnmower that lawns really took off in North America.
Today, American lawns occupy some 30-40 million acres of land. Lawnmowers to maintain them account for some 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution – probably more in urban areas. Each year more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment—more than the oil that the Exxon Valdez spilled.
Homeowners spend billions of dollars and typically use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops; the majority of these chemicals are wasted due to inappropriate timing and application. These chemicals then runoff and become a major source of water pollution. Last but not least, 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns. Most of this water is also wasted due to poor timing and application.
Fortunately, there are many alternatives to conventional lawn care. The lawn care center at Purdue University suggests two paths: “evolutionary” and “revolutionary”. In the “evolutionary” approach, the homeowner makes some small, modest changes for a big effect. Such changes include getting an electric or hand lawnmower, planning for more efficient watering and applying less fertilizer and pesticide at more appropriate times. Of course organic fertilizer is preferable. The revolutionary approach includes changing the type of grass, interplanting with clover, native landscaping or xeriscaping.
Actually, once you get over the idea of high-maintenance lawn-for-lawn-sake, a whole world of low-maintenance landscaping possibilities opens up–from beautiful, low-maintenance groundcovers like creeping thyme, to trees, shrubs, native grasses, wildflowers or even patios and stone paths. Or—even more radically, why not grow some food?