Ever since the conformist fifties, a green front-yard carpet worthy of 18 holes at the country club has been a mark of social status. As argued in books such as Ted Steinberg's American Green and The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession by Virginia Scott Jenkins, the care and maintenance of lawns are very much about class - the new world vegetable equivalent of a family name or pedigree.
Thanks to global warming, however, a new kind of social one-upmanship is underfoot, one that is not about the fetching green of our perfect lawns, but about how green we are in their care.
This spring, in my well-intentioned Toronto neighbourhood, we received so many flyers for environmentally friendly and organic lawn-care services that I began to fear for the trees.
And yet, as I learned from the tracts of such eco-enterprises as Clean Green and LawnSavers, our little grass obsession has a big impact.
A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study found that Americans spend more than three billion hours a year using lawn and garden equipment, which is bad news for the air we breathe, considering that a conventional gas-powered mower emits as much hourly pollution as 11 cars. And then there's noise pollution, adding up to such an unpleasant urban cocktail that cities such as Los Angeles have banned the use of gas-powered leaf blowers.
Enter a business opportunity that even in this recession has big momentum.
Across the U.S. and Canada, lawn-care alternatives are springing up like fresh new shoots.
Colorado-based Clean Air Lawncare, for instance, uses biodiesel-fuelled mowers and electric blowers. In Minneapolis, a company called Earthworm fertilizes lawns with organic corn gluten and runs its mowers on vegetable oil.
In eco-forward Vancouver, horticulturist Sheldon Ridout of The Silent Gardener has been maintaining properties as large as two acres with organic fertilizers and Amish-made manual mowers for close to a decade.
"The big part is educating people that it's doable," Ridout says. "All these years of better living through science [made people think]that the more chemicals you're using and the more noise you're making, the better job you're doing."
Meanwhile, some, like Miriam Goldberger of Ontario-based Wildflower Farm, are rethinking the lawn itself. Eleven years ago, Goldberger created a mix of drought-and pest-resistant native grass she called Eco Lawn, which requires minimal upkeep and cutting. Now, thanks to what Goldberger calls "a real grassroots movement," where customers came into garden centres demanding it, Eco-lawn is starting to generate big buzz in the multibillion-dollar, big-chemical lawn and garden industry. "To put it this way, we now have the flattery of a cheap, Chinese knockoff," she says.
You know that alternative lawn care has entered the mainstream when global mega-corporation Husqvarna has committed significant research and development funds to develop the world's first hybrid electric and solar-powered robotic mower (the Automower looks like a large plastic beetle, has no emissions, low noise and will set you back $3,000 (U.S.) to be the first on the block with robo-cut grass). But the most fanciful lawn-care alternatives are less high-tech than back-to-basics.
Like Virginia-based Goatbusters, Tacoma-based Goat Trimmers and Napa Valley's Wooly Weeders, Akyla farms in La Conner, Wash. rents out herds of goats (supervised by a llama) to clean up your lawn.
And in Australia, apparently, the latest rage is a herd of wallabies.
In Toronto, where llamas and wallabies are few and far between, the latest word in green is a herd of hungry college students.
Two years ago, Troy Neil, the founder of an environmentally activist company called Grün, which introduced a premium German-made push mower called the Brill Razorcut to the Canadian market, had the brilliant idea of enlisting college kids to cut lawns the old-fashioned way.
This summer, Carbon-Free Cutters, a lawn-care service using these new/old school rotary mowers was launched in the Toronto area. Based on the College Pro Painters model, the kids work in their communities going door to door offering estimates (according to Neil, the cost of carbon-free service is on par with conventional gas-powered lawn maintenance).
By the sounds of it, the start-up hasn't been easy. As any parent of a college-age child knows all too well, empowering them can be like herding cats. But the enthusiastic response from both this green generation of students looking for work and lawn-proud consumers searching for alternatives has been encouraging.
As of the start of this month, there are about 100 homes across the Greater Toronto Area whose lawns are being serviced by college students using push mowers as delightfully low-impact as a silent film.
They arrive on their bikes, towing their Brill mowers in specially designed bike trailers, working those abs while earning much-needed cash - and leaving zero carbon footprint.
"I know it sounds evangelical," says Neil, "but every one of these lawns we service shuts down a gas mower. It makes you realize that there really are solutions and alternatives that can make a difference."
So pumped is he by the "real, physical paradigm shift" this new enterprise represents that his goal is nothing less than to change Canada's footprint "one lawn at a time."
Truly, keeping up with the Joneses never had such purpose. Now, the only reason to be green with envy over anybody's green lawn is that you didn't think of it first.