Federal Study: Peer Pressure Influences Lawn Care Practices

Most of us view keeping up a great lawn as a three-step process: you water, you fertilize and you apply pesticide. But a federally-funded study into America’s growing number of residential showpieces suggests that peer pressure also keeps our mowers mowing. 

According to the newly released $2 million National Science Foundation survey of 7,317 homeowners in six regions across the country, keeping up with the Joneses is keeping America’s growing urban and suburban lawns in check. In fact, respondents who knew some of their neighbors by name were 9 percent more likely to irrigate and fertilize their turf than those who didn’t.

Why did the NSF wander into keep-off-my-lawn land? The peer pressure questioning was something of an add-on to finding out more about the growing number of urban, suburban and exurban (wealthy rural) lawns in the United States. Lawns, the study found, now cover nearly four times as much land as its top crop, irrigated corn.

Surveyors asked questions of people in six metropolitan areas — Boston, Baltimore, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix and Los Angeles. They were asked about their lawn habits — whether they watered, fertilized or applied pesticides. By learning how people care for their lawns, the NSF hopes to guide future policies and programs associated with water use and chemical application.

The study, titled “Residential household yard care practices along urban-exurban gradients in six climatically-diverse U.S. metropolitan areas,” was published Nov. 19, 2019, in the journal PLOS ONE.

U.S. Lawn Area Is the Size of Georgia

Survey crew member Dexter Locke, a research social scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service in Baltimore, says the researchers hope to learn more about how to manage the climatic changes associated with yard expansion. 

“If you add all the lawns in the contiguous 48 states, it’s about the size of the state of Georgia. So when you add up the impact from local hydrology, irrigation, the chemical inputs from fertilization and pesticide application on downstream organisms and maybe even human health, it’s really continental-scale bio-geochemistry,” he says.

Percentage Who Water, Fertilize, Apply Pesticide 

So how does that legion of lawn tenders fare across the lower 48? According to those who completed the 32-question telephone survey:

Americans lawn care habits
A large-scale federally funded survey found the watering, pesticide application and fertilizing habits of Americans in six cities.
  • 80% of residents reported having irrigated their yard in the last year. Irrigation was positively and significantly correlated with income and the number of neighbors known by name. Baltimore had the lowest proportion of irrigation (60%), and exurban communities in Phoenix had the greatest proportion of irrigators (94%).
  • 64% of all respondents fertilized in the past year. Fertilization was positively and significantly correlated with income and the number of neighbors known by name. The odds of fertilization in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, Los Angeles and in exurban Minneapolis-St. Paul are significantly higher than in urban Boston, Minneapolis, Baltimore and exurban Baltimore.
  • 53% of all respondents indicated that they applied pesticides to eliminate weeds or pests in the last year. When it comes to outdoor pest control, income was strongly correlated to this practice, with wealthier respondents more inclined to apply pesticides. Households in the exurban Phoenix region were most likely to apply pesticides, while urban Minneapolis-St. Paul and Boston exhibited a significantly lower proportion of households that applied pesticides.

Peer Pressure a Factor

The NSF concludes that the peer pressure responses provide strategies for future land management planning.

“We found that knowing more neighbors by name is associated with elevated odds of irrigating and fertilizing. Neighborhood social networks may therefore be important for planners and government agencies seeking to influence residents to use more environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional landscaping.”

‘Landscape Mullet‘ Proposed

Locke admits that while the peer pressure question may have discomforted some, it’s a reality that’s important to include in future land management research. As climate change hovers, could our keeping up with the Joneses’ yard reflex one day be modified to a more bio-economical alternative? Locke is sufficiently curious to pursue a thesis on what he calls the “landscape mullet.”

“I hypothesized that if (yard) visibility is reduced if not completely eliminated, for example from front yard to backyard, those social pressures for conformity also might be reduced if not completely eliminated. I call that the ‘landscape mullet’ — business in the front, party in the back,” Locke explains. 

“A neighbor may think, ‘If there is a difference in management objectives or intensity, I’m doing the least amount of maintenance possible so my neighbors don’t give me side-eye, but in the back, I want to keep my kids safe or I want to have barbecues or I want to grow food or throw horseshoes or whatever.’ So by comparing front yards to backyards, it’s a way of answering how much does peer pressure matter and what are the environmental consequences.”

Understanding Homeowners’ Lawn-Care Habits

As the number of lawns continues to spread and their vegetation, nutrients and pesticides continue to be, in Locke’s words, “Home Depot-ed” to every lawn in the country, knowing how home gardeners feel about their lawns and landscapes may one day be crucial to saving them. 

“We need to understand homeowners. This is distributed land management. It’s not like a national forest where there is a forest with one owner, the U.S. Forest Service, for example, under one management regime; it’s hundreds and thousands and millions and tens of millions of people making billions of decisions about the landscape,” he says. “So we really need to understand the motivations, capacities and interests of residential landowners. Our paper took one small look at that about yard care practices, but we hope to look at social norms and pressures in more detail.”

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Veteran freelance writer, blogger and humorist, Jay MacDonald's work has been widely honored with awards from Forbes Best of Web, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).