The weed empire strikes back

As Roundup-resistant weeds surge, we should consider the long-term costs of our own excessive lawn maintenance.

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    A father and son work on their lawn. What's the price of our obsession with lush lawns?
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Weeds are back, with Nietzschean resilience.

Several varieties of Roundup-resistant weeds (no, not just Kudzu) are surging across the South, an AP article notes, forcing farmers to resume environmentally harmful herbicide and tilling practices to control their spread.

“We’re talking a pesticide treadmill here,” one food safety scientist said. “It’s just coming back to kick us in the butt now with resistant weeds.”

Recommended: Earth Day: Five ways we affect the planet

Just as the BP oil spill is alerting Americans to the cost of our oil addiction, perhaps this weed boom could awaken us to the cost of our own backyard “farming.”

Consider the resources that are wasted in the effort to keep our lawns looking like putting greens. According to People Powered Machines:

Each weekend, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year and producing tons of air pollutants. Garden equipment engines, which have had unregulated emissions until very recently, emit high levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, producing up to 5% of the nation's air pollution and a good deal more in metropolitan areas.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a traditional gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars each being driven 12,000 miles.

And speaking of gas, the EPA states that 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. That's more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, in the Gulf of Alaska.

That’s on top of the water, herbicides, fertilizers, and other chemicals we use to keep lawns looking green.

And then there’s the incalculable opportunity cost of the human talent, time, and labor devoted to grass maintenance. Last week, while on vacation in Cape Cod, I saw crew after crew of young men sweating in the salty air to give lush lawns a buzz cut. These days, any job’s a good job, but it's hard not to wish that all that money and labor were channeled elsewhere – say to building better schools.

So what are the alternatives?

Those with smaller lawns can trade in expensive, self-propelled gas guzzling mowers for cheaper electric or push-reel models. The result is free cash, free exercise, and a better cut.

Those with bigger lawns have to think more creatively until hybrid riding mowers go mainstream. Options include:

Synthetic turf

“No mow” grass, specially designed to grow just a few inches high

• Ground cover like clover, or other native grasses

• A really big vegetable garden

Like the weed killer Roundup, gas-powered mowers are convenient and effective – for a time. Our instinct is to turn to technology to build a better mousetrap. But maybe it’s time we figured out how to turn the proverbial mouse into a pet.

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