Opinion editor's note: This article, part of our New Voices collection, was written by a first-time contributor to Star Tribune Opinion. For more information about our efforts to continually expand the range of views we publish, see startribune.com/opinion/newvoices.


It's hard not to notice the ubiquity of the grass lawn in our urban topography. Grass covers a large area of the overall cityscape, yet few question how dominant the practice of covering everything we can with this short green plant has become.

Not only is planting and maintaining grass expected practice for homeowners, but the state of one's yard carries social implications that extend beyond simple aesthetic preferences. A perfect green lawn says something about its owner; so does a more lackluster lawn.

Although the origin of the grass lawn is hard to pin down, the status associated with it seems to originate from medieval 12th- to 15th-century Europe. For the aristocracy and nobility, large ornamental lawns were a way of demonstrating their immense wealth. Today's lawns remain a leftover of the archaic power dynamics of the feudal era, tied to our social status and often our property values.

Traditional grass lawns do, of course, offer benefits.

Grass is resilient in the face of human movement, making it a great surface for recreational activities. Its low height also allows for clear lines of sight within a neighborhood, which can be important for keeping track of kids playing outside and for neighborhood visibility. Furthermore, the pristine green color that well-maintained lawns radiate is pleasing to the eye, and blends well with other decorative plants.

The continued extensive use of grass does come with a lot of unfortunate consequences, though.

For starters, many lawn grasses require more water than alternative plants do. Fertilizers used by many to improve their lawns can also be problematic for the environment, as nutrient runoff potentially disrupts water ecosystems and poses pollution risks. The tendency of grass lawns to be monocultures can further deplete the nutrients within soil over time. The limited vegetation structure provided by short grass also removes potential habitats for useful insects and pollinators.

This is all without even mentioning the maintenance work necessary to keep grass this short in the first place, as mowing and watering require an immense amount of routine labor.

Luckily, there are many viable alternatives to the standard (and frankly boring) green lawn.

Gardening in residential yard spaces is becoming a more frequent and socially accepted practice. For those with the time and willingness to grow produce, medicinal or ornamental plants, setting aside some space in your lawn for garden plots is a great way to get more utility out of your property.

Those looking to keep to a more traditional aesthetic lawn might consider a clover lawn. These are green, short and need less water than traditional grasses. When clovers die, they leave behind nitrogen traces that also replenish soil nutrients without the need for fertilizer.

Other plants, such as thyme, catmint, chamomile and mints can be good options for ground coverage that resemble grasses. Mixing some of these together, especially in combination with clovers, can make lawns more pleasing and fragrant while overall reducing maintenance and water requirements.

Native meadow flowers and grasses are also a great option for meeting ground coverage needs, especially for those wanting to emulate the native biodiversity of Minnesota meadows. Urban meadows attract essential pollinators while simultaneously presenting educational opportunities to learn about and engage with plants native to the region.

Pilot programs like the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources' Lawns to Legumes program can help applicants install pollinator-friendly native plantings in lawns. The program offers a mix of workshops, coaching, guidance and individual support grants. While applications have recently closed, similar grant opportunities are likely in the future for those willing to foster a pollinator-friendly environment in their lawns.

Traditional lawns will retain many of their benefits; many are content with their grass and don't wish to change. Still, the undisputed dominance of grass merits strong reconsideration, and challengers to grass should be welcomed with curiosity.

Julian Fernandez-Petersen studies political science, global studies and urban studies at the University of Minnesota.