Northern Research Station News Releases

Across Diverse Regions, Lawn Care Practices and Motivations are Similar

Keeping up with the Neighbors is Motivating, Especially if You Know Them by Name

New study looks at how factors such as age, income and peer pressure may influence decisions on lawn management. Image by Eric Doroshenko from Pixabay Baltimore, MD, November 13, 2019 - Together, U.S. homeowners are managing a chunk of land roughly the size of Georgia with a few common tools, mixed ecological effects, and very similar motivations. A new study by a team that included U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service scientists gives urban land managers insight into how income, age, and how well we know our neighbors relate to three common yard management practices: irrigation, fertilization, and pesticide application.   

Lawns cover more acres of land in the United States than irrigated corn, the Nation’s leading agricultural crop. “As the population grows and housing expands, lawn is increasing in area nationwide, resulting in complex environmental impacts,” said Dexter Locke, a research social scientist with the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and the lead author of the study. “The influence of lawns on continental-scale ecosystem processes will continue to increase, which makes it important to understand not only how people are managing their lawns, but why they do what they do.

The study, “Residential household yard care practices along urban-exurban gradients in six climatically-diverse U.S. metropolitan areas,” was funded by the National Science Foundation and was published today in the journal PLOS-ONE. It is available through the Forest Service at: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/59111

More than 7,000 people in six cities across many of the Nation’s major climatic regions – Boston, Mass., Baltimore, Md., Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., Phoenix, Ariz., and Los Angeles – completed a telephone survey in which they were asked about their use of three common yard management practices: watering, fertilizing, and applying pesticides. More than 80 percent of survey respondents said that they had watered the lawn in the past year, 64 percent reported using fertilizer, and 53 percent Preservation System used pesticide. Researchers also asked survey respondents how many neighbors they knew by name; they found the odds of survey respondents having irrigated or fertilized their yards in the last year was about a 9 percent greater among respondents who knew more of their neighbors by name.

Scientists found an anticipated correlation between income and age and lawn care, but multi-level, analyses pointed to a more nuanced picture of how people manage lawns and how peer pressure relates to management at different spatial scales, for example household to neighborhood to city to region. 

“This analysis of lawn care practices and influences gives urban land managers insight into how people are using common tools and, more importantly, it offers a deeper dive into how factors such as age, income and peer pressure may influence decisions,” said Morgan Grove, a team leader with the Northern Research Station’s Baltimore Field Station and co-author of the study.

In a 2017 study that is part of the same research project, Grove and his partners found that lawns across the same six metropolitan areas are more similar to each other than to native vegetation and, while there is a surprising level of diversity in plant species in American lawns, even plants making up this diversity are similar across the entire study area.

Locke and Grove’s co-authors included Colin Polsky of Florida Atlantic University, Peter M. Groffman, CUNY Advanced Science Research Center and Brooklyn College;  Kristen C. Nelson, Jeannine Cavender-Bares and Sarah E. Hobbie of the University of Minnesota; Kelli L. Larson and Sharon Hall, Arizona State University; James B. Heffernan, Duke University; Rinku Roy Chowdhury, Clark University Graduate School of Geography;  Neil D. Bettez, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; Christopher Neill, the Woods Hole Research Center; Laura Ogden, Dartmouth University; and Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, University of Vermont.

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The mission of the Northern Research Station is to improve people's lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.

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The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains world-renowned forestry research and wildland fire management organizations. National forests and grasslands contribute more than $30 billion to the American economy annually and support nearly 360,000 jobs. These lands also provide 30 percent of the nation's surface drinking water to cities and rural communities; approximately 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originated from the National Forest System.

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USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. To file a complaint of discrimination, write to USDA, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Stop 9410, Washington, DC 20250-9410, or call toll-free at (866) 632-9992 (English) or (800) 877-8339 (TDD) or (866) 377-8642 (English Federal-relay) or (800) 845-6136 (Spanish Federal-relay).


Last modified: November 13, 2019