To its devoted disciples, the move to smaller, more environmentally friendly lawns is kind of like watching grass grow.
Has the idea taken hold? Have homeowners, businesses and institutions begun in any real numbers to question the American ideal of a vast expanse of deep green, thick grass that goes on as if forever? Is anything happening?
Yes, said John Alexopoulos, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Connecticut, who, when advising clients, suggests a lawn no larger than necessary for the client's lifestyle. Having said that, he added, "I would say not as much as you would hope."
"It's kind of a quiet movement," said Glenn D. Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London, which sponsors workshops each year on ways to reduce the size of lawns, which typically demand repeated infusions of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and water to remain lush.
"But as people think about it more, they realize maybe there are alternatives to all this chemical nonsense," Dreyer said.
Scientists say these lawns come at considerable environmental cost, and for at least a decade there have been efforts to rein them in. Excess nitrogen washes from the lawns, contributing to algae problems in rivers and estuaries, for example, and lawn mowers contribute to air pollution.
Gordon T. Geballe, associate dean and a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said he finds it paradoxical that people will hang a bird feeder in the same yard they bombard with pesticides that kill insects and plants the birds could feed on.
Things are changing, if slowly. Some towns, through their zoning, now insist that when subdivision land is cleared, stands of trees be left, which can help reduce lawn sizes once the houses are built. And many larger institutions, often motivated by the desire to keep labor costs down, have converted lawns that had to be mowed every week into meadows or minimal-care plantings. Public education efforts such as the Connecticut College workshops also have influenced public taste.
"There is a large and growing segment of the population that is interested in being more environmentally responsible in their own home landscape and in learning how to do that," said Kristin Schwab, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Connecticut who, with another professor, taught a course last year titled "The Great American Lawn."
In Fairfield, Conn., landscaper Michael Nadeau's Plantscapes Inc., an organic landscaping company, converted 1,800 square feet of lawn into a rain garden in recent weeks.
"Most people think if they have land, it has to be lawn," he said. But there are many options. At the Fairfield home, rainwater from drainage and roof gutters is directed into a low area that now is planted with plants that prefer periodic inundation. "It's a neat way to allow rainfall to stay on the property, and it allows the use of plants you normally can't use." Gone is a big patch of lawn.
Ruth Parnall, a landscape architect in Conway, Mass., often gives public lectures on reducing the size of lawns, and her company, Learning by the Yard, specializes in naturalistic landscaping of schoolyards.
Through discussions with school officials, she determines what part of the landscape must be paved and what part has to be grass -- for ballfields, for example. "Then everything else to me is up for grabs as far as not mowing," she said. Some areas will become meadow, some woodland edge, some shrubs, some wildflower meadow. She emphasizes native plants, and her landscapes become adjunct classrooms.
Even today, Parnall said, in a typical new subdivision, a couple of acres are cleared and planted in grass, with some ubiquitous shrubs that have nothing to do with local ecosystems.
"So it begins to not look like Connecticut; it begins to look like any subdivision across the temperate U.S.," she said. "It loses regional identity, which is important to me. You lose that regional identity that the native landscape provides."
One problem is that people sometimes don't know what to do if they have a massive lawn that has been intensively cared for. One solution is convert it to what Geballe calls a freedom lawn. You don't fertilize it, or treat it with pesticides or water it. It won't be as uniformly perfect as the intensely managed lawn, but it will be tough, and it will grow, he says. Allow parts of that big lawn to go to meadow, and even the amount of mowing is reduced.
Alternatives such as wildflower meadows or shrub and flower gardens are often used to reduce lawn sizes, though such changes do not necessarily mean less work or expense for a property owner.
"It doesn't necessarily make your life easier; I think it does make your life more interesting," Geballe said.
Even a meadow, for example, "takes some care, more than just planting it and walking away," Alexopoulos said. "I think that can discourage people a little bit."
Still, Alexopoulos said, one obvious benefit of a smaller lawn is that it means less mowing and, with planning, less work overall. Alexopoulos said many people with an acre or more of lawn to care for are "crying for help. They could easily reduce it by half and still have the most beautiful lawn."
"Think about that. If you had one less hour a week mowing, think what you could do with that -- sit down and relax," he said.