That may be changing. Scotts, the big fertilizer and yard-care products manufacturer, is developing a new line of organic lawn-care products.
But whether lawns really represent an environmental threat remains hotly debated. Environmentalists point out that all those lush, weed-free acres sop up gargantuan quantities of water and chemicals. In a typical year, the average lawn consumes about 10,000 gallons of water over and above rainfall, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. Nearly a third of urban water use in the Eastern US goes to watering lawns, it adds.
In addition, millions of pounds of chemicals get dumped on lawns. In 1999, the last year such figures were available, 78 million pounds of yard insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides were sold to US households - not including professional applications, the EPA said. If they're overused (and some would argue even when they're not), pesticide and fertilizer runoff can pollute rivers and groundwater.
Then there are the millions of gallons of gasoline used in lawn equipment, whose engines are generally not as efficient as cars and can cause significant air pollution, California Air Resources Board says.
"The consumer, science, and the private sector have interacted in a way to come up with the 'industrial lawn,' something that's always green and always watered and fertilized," says Gordon Geballe, coauthor of "Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony."
He argues that a new set of ethics and expectations is needed to put lawn care more in sync with nature. "Why put out a bird feeder to feed birds, but put pesticides on the lawn and kill worms so they have no food?" Dr. Geballe asks.