07/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Curbing Our Enthusiasm for Perfect Lawns

Americans love their lawns. Cultivating a well-tended patch of green is etched in many a homeowner's DNA as an indication of civility and a sign of respect - not only for the value of your own home, but for the neighborhood itself. When my husband and I first moved into our suburban community a neighbor remarked that it mattered little what we did on the inside of the house as long as we kept up a tidy appearance on the lawn in front. It was a humorous -- if somewhat clumsy -- attempt at a welcome, I thought. Fourteen years of watching those around me go at their lawns with an arsenal of chemicals each time a piece of clover sprouts has revealed the true meaning of that verbal gauntlet.

But the need to create a thick mat of civilized green has come at a cost. American soil has become a de-facto dumping ground for lawn-care chemicals that threaten our water supply; perhaps even our health, according to a mounting body of evidence from environmental groups and government studies, including a ten-year New York State task force study.

Toxins dispensed into the ground eventually make their way into nearby waterways where they stimulate the growth of algae, block sun and deprive water of oxygen. The result is a slow asphyxiation for any living thing (plant or fish) in that water. It's the trickle-down impact of pollution; not especially noticeable at first, but the kind of damage that makes steady headway throughout streams, rivers and lakes in America. (One of the most extreme examples of this process is in the Mexican Gulf where flow from over-fertilized land in the nearby Mississippi River Basin has created a dead zone of water the size of Connecticut).

Curbing homeowner chemical zeal when it comes to maintaining a perfect lawn isn't so straightforward, though, particularly during a time when the value of homes has been plummeting. As one landscaper in my area put it bluntly: "We all know the property value of a home is linked to the quality of a lawn."

Still, some communities appear to understand what's really at stake every time you douse the ground with fertilizer. In Westchester County, for example, local legislators have just put a new law into effect that regulates fertilizer use - not actually banning it outright, but requiring that it be phosphorous--free and utilized only during certain months of the year. "This bill is about what we bath in, cook with, drink from," one of the lawmakers told me.

County officials pushed for the bill because of evidence that the New York Watershed - a water supply source not only for Westchester residents, but for those in New York City as well - is slowly suffocating because of phosphorous and nitrogen run-off from fertilizer use.

You'd think that this type of relatively benign legislation would result in wide support. Instead, the law was preceded by two years of contentious debate. Lawn care professionals argued that the bill would jeopardize their ability to satisfy customers; fertilizer manufacturers argued that fertilizers minus phosphates does not sustain turf growth and health and would eventually lead to increases in erosion and pollution, the very challenges lawmakers were trying to remedy. There was even a protest from those spearheading the burgeoning field of organic lawn care who pressed for an exemption in the bill for fertilizers containing organic phosphates because proponents say they don't cause damage.

What to make of all the fuss? Clearly, the issues of lawn care - however prosaic on the surface - cut deep into issues of health, police and business. Americans spend forty billion dollars a year on the upkeep of their lawns, after all.

It also speaks to deep cultural divides that are notoriously difficult to budge. Some might see that as the type of suburban denial that allows us to grill steak and drive SUVs (including the crossover hybrids that seem ubiquitous today) even when there is convincing evidence to dissuade us from those choices, at least when considering the health of our planet. That mindset is something I've seen first-hand in the many years of living in one of the country's most stalwart suburban areas. In response to the new law in our area, one friend expressed her exasperation at being thwarted in her efforts to rid her lawn of unwanted invaders. "You can't get rid of the stuff without fertilizer; I don't care what it does," she said.

She has a point. Every time I step out of my front door and view my own clover-covered sprawl -- which if truth be told is as much a result of benign neglect as it is about my preference not to use synthetic chemicals on the same ground my kids regularly roll around on -- I feel a sliver of chagrin that my lawn looks so shabby.

Laws like the one taking effect in Westchester this summer might alleviate that feeling. But for lasting change, homeowners need to turn the cultural norm of a perfect green lawn on its environmentally-incorrect head and ask themselves whether a patch of perfect turf is something to be prized after all.