Michele Tibodeau has a new front yard, courtesy of her watershed district in Maplewood.

Last week, she gave a tour and listed some of the new native plants she'll see for the first time when they bloom this summer. At this point, they are all just exotic names on her smart phone.

"Prairie dropseed," said Tibodeau, 33, as she scrolled down. "Butterfly weed. Blazing Star. Autumn Magic Black Choke Berry."

Her yard, with three rain gardens, a porous walkway and prairie grasses, is a staging point for a cultural shift in the way homeowners everywhere live in the urban landscape -- and come to grips with the fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals that can run off their yards and pollute local creeks and lakes.

Not long ago, few thought much about what happened to all that runoff. Now, Tibodeau's yard has become, literally, a classroom as cities and suburbs try to protect water by changing deeply embedded, quintessentially American cultural norms about the lawn.

Turns out it's a whole lot harder than fixing factories and wastewater treatment plants, which are regulated by law.

"It's a little more difficult to deal with," said Cliff Aichinger, administrator of the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, which includes Maplewood. "I can't go to a homeowner and say, 'I want you to change.'"

Maplewood has the same problems that plague much of the Twin Cities and other urban areas. There are nearly a million acres of lawn in Minnesota, and they generate thousands of pounds of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen that are carried in storm runoff into lakes and streams. They come both from natural sources -- pet waste, rotting leaves -- and unnatural ones like fertilizer. The result: algae blooms that foul the water, excessive plant growth, and eventually lakes without oxygen or wildlife.

"It's not just the lawn that is the problem," said Sarah Hobbie, a University of Minnesota professor who studies urban ecology. "It's a bigger issue of the way we constructed our urban system to get water off our paved surfaces as quickly as possible."

In some places, the problems are truly critical. The city of Cold Spring recently had to drill three new wells for drinking water because of dangerous nitrogen concentrations in the old ones. City officials say some of the nitrogen comes from natural sources and some from area farms, but that some also comes from homeowners overfertilizing their lawns.

In Cold Spring, where an unusual geology sends surface and groundwater straight to the water table below, the city wants to protect those new wells, in part by educating homeowners about lawn care.

"There is some impact from every human being," said public works director Paul Hoeschen.

But, like Aichinger, he's finding that cultural change comes slowly. Only about 10 people showed up for a recent class with an expert from the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Next, Hoeschen plans to send out mailings; this summer he'll set up a series of four test plots in a city park to prove that less fertilizer works just as well as more.

"The one that doesn't get any [fertilizer] won't look as good," he said. "But the other three will look similar."

An American dream

Where did this love affair with the perfect lawn come from? The American dream, of course.

"The idea of the perfect lawn is something that emerges in the aftermath of World War II," said Ted Steinberg, an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University and the author of "American Green," a treatise on lawns in the United States. Lawns were part of the surge in home ownership and the rise of suburbia. The competitive lawn -- "mine is greener than yours" -- was also fueled by the advertising and marketing campaigns of chemical companies looking to expand their products beyond agriculture, he said.

They helped create an "ecological conceit," Steinberg said. In most parts of the country, grass is difficult to grow. But the social norms and corporate advertising made lush green lawns both imperative and achievable -- with the right products that had to be used season after season.

"The perfect lawn is tailor made for capitalism" he said.

It's also gradually becoming an artifact of the past, experts say. These days, few people want to spend so much time taking care of a lawn. In the West, water scarcity has prompted some cities and local governments to start "cash for grass" programs that pay homeowners to take out thirsty lawns. Minnesota was one of several states that banned phosphorous in lawn fertilizers. New Jersey limits the use of nitrogen fertilizer, and other countries, including Canada, have banned many common lawn herbicides.

Peer pressure

In Minnesota, changing habits reflect a growing awareness of the link between urban landscapes and water quality -- though a recent survey suggests there's a long way to go.

In 2008, U researchers surveyed 15,000 homeowners in Ramsey and Anoka counties, and found that half fertilized their lawns or planned to do so in the future. A fifth of the homes provided a whopping 70 percent of all the nitrogen from fertilizer.

Rates of fertilizer use varied widely by community -- suburban areas tended to use more -- and 24 to 41 percent of the households used more than is recommended by lawn experts. Slightly fewer used too little. The majority had no idea that fertilizer contributes to water pollution.

The researchers also found that environmental concerns ranked low among homeowners' motivations -- well behind "what the neighbors think," "easy to care for" and "looks nice."

"It's really hard," said Judith Martin, a professor of urban studies at the U, who was not involved in the survey. "This stuff is deeply imbedded in how people think about themselves in their landscapes."

'Mr. Lawn'

That culture clash is easy to find in Maplewood.

The Maplewood Nature Center teaches standing-room-only classes on rain gardens and environmental lawn principles. That's how Tibodeau and her husband, Mike, found out about the contest they won last year for a free green yard makeover funded by the city and the watershed district.

"We are of the generation that's heard enough about being eco-friendly," said Mike Tibodeau, 38. "Why wouldn't you control what you can to help make things better?"

But just down the street is Dege's Garden Center, the home of Mr. Lawn -- 70-year-old George Dege. He's been teaching classes on lawn care for years, and during the spring and fall has an hourlong radio show where he takes lawn care questions from listeners. This time of year his days are booked with one-on-one customer consultations.

Dege says he promotes healthy lawns. He doesn't hesitate to recommend a whole host of fertilizers, nutrients and carefully applied herbicides if a lawn needs it -- including one called Chickity Doo Doo, which contains phosphorous. It's legal, he said, because it's an agricultural product, and he doesn't think the phosphorous ban makes sense anyway.

"I don't get so much into the green thing," he said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394