On a recent solo drive from Minneapolis to Fargo I had nearly 4 hours to let my mind wander. Driving past Otsego, which is home of a new medical marijuana dispensary and has resulted in the town being nicknamed Potsego, got me to thinking about grass. Growing up, the building my dad worked in had signs out front that read “Keep Off Grass”. I am pretty certain that the word “the” was not on the sign purposefully, as it was city hall and it helped emphasize that the sign had two important meanings.
Grass (the type you mow, not the type you blow) has long been the default standard for many geographies. In the suburbs it is often tended to, manicured, fertilized, and watered to near perfection giving the illusion that a golf course groundskeeper might be the home owner. This is slowly starting to change as natural vegetation water gardens and prairie grasses are growing in popularity. One of the core problems with grass is that the way it is maintained generally makes it a carbon source, meaning that it emits more carbon than it can store. To give some perspective, an acre of grass holds about 920 pounds of carbon per year, whereas prairie grasslands hold about 2,700 pounds and an established forest holds about 5,000 pounds. So, once the typical care, fertilization, and maintenance is applied to that acre of grass over a calendar year, it shifts from being a carbon sink to a carbon source.
Even if we assume we are mowing with a rotary hand mower and not imposing fossil fuel based chemicals on the lawn, we can still do a lot better than grass in terms of helping the environment. Grass definitely has its place and is a superior surface for countless sporting events, but that does not mean it is a great choice for everything as the turf industry has conditioned us to think. In the US, we have an estimated 20 million acres of lawns and while I am not trying to put my brother in law out of business; I do think what to do with your property to make it more efficient and beneficial for the environment is a worthy investment. There are many organizations that can help evaluate and aid with these types of projects. Locally, BlueThumb is a well-known one that even offers grants in many cities, counties, and watershed districts.