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Creating 20 Million Acres of Monarch Habitat

Oct 28, 2016


  • Conservation Stories

Article originally contributed by Ilse Gebhard and adapted by Monarch Joint Venture.  

You might be surprised to learn what the largest irrigated crop in the United States is. It’s not corn or soy, it’s our grassy lawns - and they take up over 63,000 square miles of space (Milesi et al. 2005).  

After seeing the runoff from her California neighborhood, NASA researcher Christina Milesi was inspired to find out how much lawn was out there, and how much of an ecological impact it has on the U.S. In 2005, her research found startling results from satellite imaging on lawns in the U.S. The data are a bit dated, but the subject is more compelling than ever (NASA, Looking for Lawns, 2005). Milesi found:

  1. Lawns take up more than 40,000,000 acres in the lower 48 states.
  2. Lawns use 3 times as much space as irrigated corn.
  3. 1.9% of continental US surface is lawn.

The EPA estimates that nationwide, landscape irrigation accounts “for almost one-third of all residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day” (EPA, 2013). This does not include the staggering amounts of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides that get spread on lawns, with potentially devastating effects on not only insects, but also other wildlife and water quality. In 2004, 60% of the 90 million households with a lawn or garden at that time applied fertilizer (Martini et. al, 2015). A wide variety of chemicals are used in lawn care, with a range of toxic effects. Lawn fertilizers are also a source of runoff into waterways and downstream ecosystems.

Just imagine if the lawns in the US were reduced by half and replaced with pollinator and bird-friendly plants. This is something we can all accomplish in our yards and we can also help other places like churches, parks, and corporations do the same. One small piece of advice is to always incorporate signs, paths, benches, or the like in lawn or more publicly viewed restoration areas. These elements help show that the habitat is not only useful to insects and other wildlife, but is enjoyed by many.         

Achieving this is easy. Check out the MJV Gardening for Monarchs handout, and many other resources on the MJV website to help get started. Local nurseries, Master Gardeners or Master Naturalists, Native Plant Societies and Wild Ones chapters are great local support networks for you as well.

There are several chemical-free ways to eliminate your lawn to prepare the area for planting. If you don’t feel like manually digging it up to remove the sod, you might try using fallen leaves as a thick layer of mulch to kill a patch of lawn. A year later that patch will be ready for planting pollinator and bird friendly plants. An added bonus is that as the leaves decompose over the year, the soil is enriched, which ensures a better start for your new planting.  The many options for site preparation are covered in this guide by the Xerces Society.     

As I (Ilse Gebhard) travel around my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan I have become particularly impressed with a neighborhood just outside the central business district. The lots are small and often too shady to grow a lawn. Sometimes the only area that gets enough sun is that no-mans land between the side-walk and the curb that is hard to mow. What better place to put in a garden bed with plants flowering from spring to fall? And that is exactly what some of the homeowners have done. The curb area is also an excellent place for a rain garden to reduce storm-water runoff. 

Restoring the habitat needed to support monarchs into the future and reducing the environmental impacts of our communities will take an all-hands-on-deck approach. Converting the lawn beyond our doorsteps is an important part of the equation.

Lastly, the MJV wants to hear about your lawn conversions (past, present, or future)! Please share your monarch habitat projects through MJV’s Monarch Habitat Success Stories map.


Resources and more information:

Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them. Washington Post. August 4, 2015. 

Looking for Lawns. NASA. November 8, 2005.

Martini, N. F., Nelson, K. C., Hobbie, S. E., & Baker, L. A. (2015). Why “feed the lawn”? Exploring the influences on residential turf grass fertilization in the Minneapolis− Saint Paul metropolitan area. Environment and Behavior, 47(2), 158-183.

Milesi, C., Elvidge, C. D., Dietz, J. B., Tuttle, B. T., Nemani, R. R., & Running, S. W. (2005). A strategy for mapping and modeling the ecological effects of US lawns. J. Turfgrass Manage, 1, 83-97.

Reduce Your Outdoor Water Use. Environmental Protection Agency. May 2013.

The American Lawn is Now the Largest Single ‘Crop’ in the U.S. The World Post. August 17, 2015.


The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo by Ilse Gebhard shows a lawn habitat restoration site at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery.