July 29, 2022

Forget the Grass, Trees Need Your Help

Written by Jem Ashton
The base of a tree trunk situated in a small plot of grass The base of a tree trunk situated in a small plot of grass Jem Ashton

A perfectly green lawn, a long-time indicator of a functioning household and a long-time indicator of wasted resources. The Western fascination with grass lawns goes way back, originating in the gardens of the 18th century English and French upper-class. Drawing inspiration from launds – grassy clearings among trees - in the surrounding European forests, the wealthy sought to recreate the experience in their expansive gardens, leading to what we now recognize as lawns. Lawns eventually made their way to the Americas in the 19th century through our own historical elites – like Thomas Jefferson, an avid horticulturalist. Although home gardens in the US remained dedicated to consumable vegetation for several decades, by the mid-19th century, focus shifted to the ornamental. After the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where the USDA presented a how-to exhibit on growing your own grass lawn, interest steadily grew throughout the next 100 years. After several innovations made in lawncare in the early 1900s, grass lawns became a standard in the booming American suburbs. Now, another 100 years later, lawns are still as commonplace as ever, but do we have the means to keep this tradition alive?

In short, yes, we do. Despite the megadrought and surging heatwaves, our lawns can survive, because they’re well-propagated for hardship. Of all the plants in our garden, grass is sure to be the one that needs the least amount of water to survive. Although it might brown, it’s still alive and the green will return next year. This browning is part of grass’s seasonal cycle. Like other perennials, grass enters a period of dormancy once it undergoes the stresses of their disfavored seasons. This stage in its annual cycle can be delayed with extensive watering, but our limited resources would be best spent on plants in the garden that need it more.

Trees need our help most. Arguably the most valuable plants in our gardens because of the benefits they provide for our homes and communities, trees should be our top watering priority. While grasses only need half an inch (~1 quart) of water every 2-4 weeks  to survive the season,  trees require 5-50 gallons of water a week (or more, if the tree is especially large). As sturdy as they appear to be, trees are far more delicate than grass and they need our help to survive the ongoing megadrought, which is predicted to end in 2030 at the earliest. Paired with the fact that extended drought events are expected to become more severe and more common, our focus-shift away from grass and towards trees will likely and necessarily be permanent.

Salt Lake City’s canopy has been steadily receding since the early 2000s, largely due to trees being neglected within recurring periods of drought. Without adequate water, trees either die off or they become too brittle to withstand high winds and dense snow fall, leading to broken branches or treefall. In addition to causing damage to anything beneath them when this happens, we lose the irreplaceable benefits old-growth trees provide. Benefits like cleaner air and shade – things we’ll be immeasurably thankful for in the harsh Summers ahead, things grass can’t provide. Grass doesn’t do much for us and it doesn’t need our help, so let’s concentrate on the plants that do, trees.