Long green in short grass
Gainesville Sun | July 21, 2006
By Nathan Crabbe


Eric Flagg, and Isaac Brown are co-directors of the documentary "Gimme Green," a film about lawns and their effects.

As a kid growing up in northwest Gainesville , Eric Flagg explored a giant drain pipe leading to Possum Creek for fun.

He returned to the pipe as an adult, filming it as part of a documentary on the American obsession with lawn care. The pipe was used to illustrate how pesticides and fertilizer people dump on their lawns can end up washing into creeks.

"Our waterways take the biggest hit," he said.

Flagg and Fernandina Beach native Isaac Brown created the documentary, "Gimme Green," to successfully complete the graduate program at the University of Florida's Documentary Institute. The film is being shown at 6:30 p.m. today as part of the Film and Forum Series at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park .

The movie shows how the traditional grassy lawn requires a tremendous amount of money, water and pesticides to maintain.

While examples of lush green lawns can be found in Gainesville , some residents have replaced grass with native plants and other vegetation. Local clean-water advocates and experts at the University of Florida provide advice on reducing the use of water and chemicals on lawns.

Brown said he's found Gainesville to be more progressive than other parts of the state. But here and elsewhere he found lawns to symbolize excess in American culture.

"No one takes it to the extreme we have," he said.

Nuggets of information about lawn care, taken from sources ranging from environmental groups to NASA, intersperse the film: Every day, more than 5,000 acres of land are converted to lawns in America. Americans spend more than $40 billion a year on their yards. America's lawns require 200 gallons of water per person per day.

The filmmakers spent 1 1/2 years working on the movie, traveling Florida and the Southwest U.S. to document sometimes humorous stories about lawns.

A Marco Island homeowner is shown in a losing battle with city government to install artificial turf instead of grass. He responds by painting his house pink with purple and green polka dots to protest the city's decision.

In Gainesville , Realtor Debra Oberlin is filmed as she explores neighborhoods looking for winners of her real estate agency's "lawn of the month" award. She said lawns have a direct effect on property value, often reflecting the amount of care put into the home.

"It's the pride level - you can tell somebody takes pride in it," she said.

A recent winner of the award, Neeltje Tweed, said she's a computer programmer and uses her lawn as an opportunity to work outside. She said she tries to use a limited amount of pesticides and only waters when the grass looks like it's losing its sheen.

"It's really tough love I give it," she said.

Some area residents take such concerns a step farther, replacing their grass entirely.

George Edwards, president of Friends of Paynes Prairie, said he used a black sheet to cover and kill the grass at his northwest Gainesville home. Once it was gone, he planted a butterfly garden and ground cover that requires no pesticides or fertilizers.

"The more I've worked with Paynes Prairie, the more I realize it isn't too swell to put all the chemicals on grass to make it grow," he said.

Alachua Sink at Paynes Prairie has been declared by the state to have excessively high nutrient levels, in part because yard runoff contaminates the creek that pours into it.

That natural system and others in the area show the importance of preventing such runoff to protect groundwater, said Sally Adkins, coordinator of the Gainesville Clean Water Partnership. The partnership recommends planting yards that minimize water use and chemicals.

"That's healthier for you, healthier for your family and healthier for the water supply," Adkins said.

"Gimme Green" includes bits of information, culled from the group Beyond Pesticides, about lawn-treatment chemicals and their possible effects: Americans apply more than 30,000 tons of pesticides to their yards every year. Of the 30 most-used lawn pesticides, 17 are routinely detected in groundwater. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds nearly half of these 30 pesticides are possible or probable carcinogens.

Many lawn chemicals are overused and end up hurting grass, said Mike Troiano, owner of Lawn Enforcement Agency in Gainesville . But even after recently cutting back, he said the lawn-care company applies pesticides six times a year on the typical yard.

Most people want grassy lawns and the benefits they provide, he said.

"A lot of people like the turf . . . and like to have the room for kids and a recreational area," he said.

But others say lawns are hardly worth the effort. Another lawn of the month winner in Gainesville , James Ritter, said he and his wife were inspired by their son living in Las Vegas to replace much of their front yard with stones to save water.

"I'm getting to the point now where I think we ought to get rid of these big green lawns," he said.

Las Vegas , as documented in the movie, pays home owners $1 per square foot to get rid of their grass lawns. The film links lawn watering to a drop in the city's reservoir at Lake Mead, where water levels have dropped 70 feet since 2000.

Flagg, an environmental consultant and son of former Gainesville city commissioner and state Rep. David Flagg, said the film isn't trying to say lawns are all bad.

People should just be aware that having grassy lawns has consequences and there are alternatives out there, he said.

"It's not unpatriotic to not have a lawn," he said.

Brown said there's a message beyond lawn care in the documentary. Americans need to be more aware of how their actions affect the world beyond them, he said.

"I think the best we can do is get people to think about something they haven't thought of before," he said.