Who invented the lawn? From Cretaceous grass to modern turf with That's Absurd Please Elaborate

Tiny Matters

This week, Sam and Deboki are joined by Trace Dominguez and Julian Huguet, the hosts of That’s Absurd Please Elaborate, a podcast where they do serious research to answer silly questions like, "What if the world had more sheep than people?" and "What would happen if you filled a volcano with concrete?"

In this episode of Tiny Matters, Trace and Julian answer the question, "Who invented the lawn?" It may sound like a question with a simple answer, but that is not the case! (Not even close). Their story begins in the Cretaceous period and ends with the lawns we know — and waste a whole lot of water on — today. This episode brings the perfect Tiny Matters mix of interesting science, fascinating history, important societal context and a sprinkle of goofiness.

Transcript of this Episode

Sam Jones: Hi Tiny Matters listeners! Sam here. We have a super fun episode for you today that has our favorite combo of things — interesting science, fascinating history, important societal context and … a sprinkle of goofiness. Our guests are Trace Dominguez and Julian Huguet — the hosts of the podcast That’s Absurd Please Elaborate, where they do serious research to typically answer very silly questions.

Deboki Chakravarti: And before we get into the show we have a quick request. We would be so grateful if you could take a minute now or after the episode to rate and review us. It helps so much. And at least a couple podcast apps now automatically stop downloads if you don’t have phone space or haven’t listened recently, so go double check that you’re still subscribed and getting our episodes every other Wednesday.

OK, that’s enough housekeeping. Let’s get into the episode — we think you’re gonna love it.   

Julian Huguet: I'm Julian Huguet. I have been a science communicator for 10 years, working mostly for Discovery Digital's YouTube channel DNews, and then later, Seeker.

Trace Dominguez: I'm Trace Dominguez. I'm a science communicator. I've been one now for 12 years, and I worked for Discovery News, Seeker, and now I host a show for PBS about medical research called Research Detectives, and another one about astronomy called Stargazers.

Julian Huguet: And we, together, host a show called That's Absurd Please Elaborate, and Trace had to one-up me as a science communicator for 12 years.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, watch out.

Julian Huguet: Ooh.

Trace Dominguez: You threw in the years. We could have just both been science communicators, but you started the competition.

Julian Huguet: I wanted to have a minimum of a decade of experience, so people know.

Deboki: Yeah, when you guys get in a debate over something, is it like, "Well, I've got two years."

Julian Huguet: Well, I've got two years on you.

Trace Dominguez: It does feel a little bit like twins being like, "You know, I'm older."

Sam: Yeah, by three minutes.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, exactly.

Sam: Perfect. Well, we're super psyched that you guys are joining us. Can we hear a little bit about That's Absurd Please Elaborate, because we both love the show, we think our listeners would love the show. Tell us a little bit about it.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah. We've always wanted to explore podcasts and having these longer-form pieces, and we know how to do this science communication research. So eventually, we kind of came to, "What if we just asked silly questions, and tried to do the science, and see if there's any there?"

Julian Huguet: So every other week, we have an episode where each of us goes and researches a silly question from a listener, and then we come back and we just present it to the other one, and it's a blast, and we get to have fabulous guests on as well.

Trace Dominguez: That's right.

Julian Huguet: If it wasn't clear, Sam and Deboki are going to be guests in upcoming episodes.

Trace Dominguez: I think some of my favorite questions we've gotten to answer have almost all come from just some random person who sent us a question. One of our early questions, what if the whole world were more sheep than people?

Sam: Incredible.

Trace Dominguez: It was really fun. That one was really good.

Julian Huguet: I had to do a lot of math.

Trace Dominguez: What if you plugged a volcano with concrete was really fun. We got from a 5-year-old, how long would it take to make a Lego replica of the sun?

Deboki: Wow.

Trace Dominguez: That was fun, because I had to figure out how many Lego pieces we make in a year, and then how many Lego pieces it would take to build a full-size sun.

We're almost a year into the podcast now, which is really exciting.

Sam: Exciting. 

Trace Dominguez: We've done like 30 episodes. It's really cool.

Sam: Nice. If you guys are game, I would love to hop into today's topic. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the question that, what should I say…  stemmed today's episode?

Trace Dominguez: Oh, good pun.

Julian Huguet: The question that germinated this episode?

Sam: Ah yes.

Trace Dominguez: Oh, wow. Excellent. A guy named Brian wrote in and wrote, "My uncle presented me with a question that he and his friends came up with during a night at the local bar."

Sam: Love it.

Trace Dominguez: "He thought it was the funniest question ever. Who invented lawns?"

Julian Huguet: I picture a bunch of half drunk dudes in their forties at a bar and they're like, "I just realized something. Someone must have invented the lawn, right?"

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, yeah. I picture a bunch of people in New Balances, just very meme dads. They're all in New Balances that are green, stained green from all the lawn mowing. It's just talking about lawns, like you do. So we put together an answer to this that goes all the way back to the beginning of grass. So if you want, we can start there.

Deboki: Yeah.

Sam: I love it.

Trace Dominguez: Julian, do you want to tell us about how grass started?

Julian Huguet: He says "beginning," Trace is the one who tackled this question and Trace hit me with this. He's like, "let's go back to the Cretaceous period, 140 million years ago." So, in the Cretaceous, you have yourself, some dinosaurs, you have some trees, you've got algae, but try as you might look far and wide, there is no grass yet. It's all just covered in ferns and mosses. You don't start seeing grasses until about anywhere from 80 to 66 million years ago. It's at the end of the Cretaceous before dinosaurs disappear, and then we get grass.

And the reason grass starts coming about, the thing that makes it different, is it goes through photosynthesis in a different way. Instead of using C3 photosynthesis, which about 85% of plants today use, grass uses C4 photosynthesis. Do you want me to elaborate on the differences?

Trace Dominguez: Yes, please.

Sam: We love an elaboration on Tiny Matters.

Julian Huguet: So there's this thing called photosynthesis. It's what plants use to turn light energy from the sun into chemical energy, and it stores it in sugar, in a 6-carbon sugar called glucose. But part of that process is called the Calvin Cycle. The Calvin Cycle uses an enzyme called RuBisCO. It takes CO2, it attaches it to a 5-carbon molecule, and that kicks off the whole process that ends with a 6-carbon glucose.

But the problem with RuBisCO is sometimes, instead of taking CO2, it grabs oxygen, and this is called photorespiration, and it lowers the efficiency of photosynthesis. Sometimes you're just not getting as much of that tasty great sugar that you're trying to make if you're a plant. Well, C4 photosynthesis that grass uses splits up parts of this cycle and at first takes CO2 and sticks it on something to make a 4-carbon molecule, and that gets adjusted a little bit, and then it gets shipped to an entirely different cell in the plant. And there, it's all CO2. There's none of that oxygen that can get in the way and mess things up, and RuBisCO can then take it and turn it into what it needs to. So it wastes a little bit of energy shuffling stuff back and forth, but it's more efficient in terms of actually making glucose.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, so grass was a pretty big deal for evolution, if you will, or for the evolution of plants.

Julian Huguet: Mm-hmm. It uses C4 photosynthesis. It's good for hotter, drier climates. It's great in dry soil. You don't need a trunk like a tree. It just sticks right out of the ground, your little photosynthesizing blades.

Trace Dominguez: It's basically like a root with leaves on it, as opposed to roots, trunk, leaves. It's just roots, leaves. You kind of cut out the middle bit.

Deboki: Keep it simple. Keep it simple.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, keep it simple.

Julian Huguet: So today, there's about 10,000 different species of grass. You might not even realize it. Bamboo is grass. Rice, wheat, rye, oats, corn, barley, and sugar cane. Those are all examples of grasses.

Sam: Did not know sugar cane.

Deboki: Oh, interesting. So when we look at a corn field, we're looking at a lawn?

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, kind of.

Julian Huguet: If you choose to see it that way.

Trace Dominguez: If you want to think of it that way, sure.

Julian Huguet: Yeah.

Trace Dominguez: What a beautiful lawn. America's lawn, when you're driving through Iowa, and all you see is America's lawn. So then, once grass evolves, it obviously has this more efficient photosynthesis. It also can be spread on the wind, and that means it can colonize rocky areas and hard-to-reach spots. But it also means that it can change the landscape more easily. It doesn't need to spread like a tree where it just drops an acorn or a pine cone or something like that. It can just spread far and wide. And that means that the landscape changes over time. So today, a third of the planet, it's grassland, prairies and steppe savannas, and animals are able to then go and eat those plants anywhere that those grasses grow, including mountainsides, which previously trees had trouble growing on, or ferns needed more water, and so they couldn't do that.

So if you fast forward millions of years, humans and grasses have this nice kind of symbiosis. We're domesticating them for food, as we mentioned, things like grains, and it's grown all over the world. So today we use it for bread and alcohol, obviously staple foods like rice, we have oats and sugars, and all of that is thanks to the grasses evolving. But that's not really related to lawns, but it is a nice benefit. The lawn as we know it, though, it came out of this idea of a garden, and gardens, there's really two types of gardens. I used to work at a museum, and we had a working garden with herbs in it, and it was an educational system. You could go out and show people like, here's the herb we use for cooking, here's an herb we might use for medicine, here's an herb, lamb's ear, that we might put on a wound or something like that.

So we can use these herbs for all sorts of things. If you're going to have land that you cultivate, if you think about it, you want it to be useful. You want it to be doing something. You're out there working it. And then if you were wealthy, you could essentially afford to have a pleasure garden, which it was land that you were paying to use and work, but you weren't getting anything out of it other than your own enjoyment. You weren't fruit, you weren't getting herbs, you weren't getting vegetable. And so that's where we see the start of lawns, because we get these big trees, these cultivated plants, walls and paths and canals and things that when you think of, old world gardens you can picture.

Julian Huguet: Just a big flex of “check out all the nothing I'm growing here, peasants.” So the question though was, who invented the lawn? And Trace, in his research, actually went through the history of how pleasure gardens changed over time. And again, Trace being thorough, went far back to Pliny the Younger... He actually went farther than that. He went back to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in the eighth century BCE.

Deboki: Got it. I thought it was going to be Pliny the Elder, but...

Julian Huguet: Oh yeah, no, that guy got buried by Mount Vesuvius.

Trace Dominguez: I think we can all agree that Pliny the Younger's a nepo baby, so he just gets the benefits these days now.

Sam: Yeah, true.

Julian Huguet: What I love about Pliny the younger, when Trace was telling me about this on our show, is he talks about his pleasure garden in a letter. And to me it just sounded like a bunch of lies. It sounded like a flex where he's like... This is what Pliny the Younger says about his pleasure garden. He says, "You descend from the terrace by an easy slope adorned with the figures of animals in a box, facing each other, to a lawn overspread with the soft, I had almost said the liquid, acanthus. This is surrounded by a walk enclosed with evergreens shaped into a variety of forms." And to me it's like I just picture he's got a busted Chevy in the yard on cinder blocks, and he is like, "Oh, but my garden's wonderful."

Trace Dominguez: Oh, so good.

Deboki: Yeah, who's going to know?

Julian Huguet: New home is great. I don't miss you all back in Rome, or wherever he's writing to. I don't know. But I just thought it was so funny. But again, we don't have an actual grass lawn yet. He mentions walking on this acanthus plant. What exactly was that again, Trace.

Trace Dominguez: It's like a ground cover. It's funny that he calls it a soft, almost liquid. But it's like a ground cover plant. My mom, the master gardener, could tell us more, but I don't know off the top of my head.

Deboki: Let's bring her on.

Trace Dominguez: At that point, I went into the research of, "Okay, well where did we go from there?" And we get to the Sakuteiki, which is a Records of Garden Making, which is the oldest known text on garden planning. So they started to get that. That was in the 11th century. It's Japanese. And they talk a lot about how to arrange a garden, and they use stones and they use plants and they have different styles, but again, still, no grass. We're all the way into the 11th century, so we're getting pretty close to today, and there's still no lawn until, surprise, surprise, the colonizers arrived in the Americas.

Deboki: Always a turning point.

Sam: Yeah.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, yeah. So, obviously, there were landscapes similar to what I alluded to, about corn. They were tended by these First Peoples, by these Native Americans, by these people living in North, Central, and South America. They were managing the wilderness. They were managing these landscapes just like any other society would. And so there were trails and roads and working gardens and orchards. They didn't have pastures for livestock because livestock weren't really native to the Americas when the Europeans showed up, but they did have landscapes for hunting and fishing. So they were using them in the way that they needed them to be used. And there were grasses in New England, but they were low-nutrition grasses, because they didn't support animals. And they would go dormant in the winter, which anyone on the east coast of the US knows, your grass turns kind of that yellow brown. It doesn't mean it's dead. It's just dormant, waiting till summertime.

Sam: Actually, I didn't know that, which is so silly, because of course it's not like every lawn is regrowing fully every single year, but when I see a plant and it looks like so withered and brown, I just assumed it was dead and it's not. That is fascinating. All right.

Trace Dominguez: I think that's pretty normal. We look at trees with no leaves in the summer and we're like, "Oh, that tree is not doing great." But if you know that they drop their leaves and you see that happen... But with grass you don't, because it's just a leaf. It doesn't work the same way, right?

Sam: Right. Yeah.

Trace Dominguez: Fun fact about leaves, one of my favorite facts that I learned in any video I ever made is the color of the leaf is always there. You just don't see it because the chlorophyll is green. So when the chlorophyll goes away, it's similar to chlorophyll leaving the grass. Grass is always that color. It's just the chlorophyll in the leaves is what gives it its green color. So as the chlorophyll retreats, you see what the color actually is.

Deboki: Yeah. It's like masking all of that color, right?

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, which I think is really cool.

Sam: Yeah, so interesting. So everything is typically ugly, but chlorophyll helps a lot.

Trace Dominguez: Chlorophyll gives us that beautiful green.

Deboki: I don't know that that's how a lot of people would call the New England foliage ugly...

Julian Huguet: That almost sounded like it was going to be an inspiring quote. Hey, everything's ugly underneath. Like, wait, what?

Trace Dominguez: Wait, what? Damn.

Julian Huguet: That's doesn't make me feel better. Everything's ugly underneath. You are just also ugly on the outside. Wait, Sam, no, you're hurting my feelings now.

Sam: Sorry. It's been a long week, okay?

Deboki: So at this point that we're talking about in history, it's just growing long, wild, and free, basically. That's what the green grass is.

Trace Dominguez: Exactly. Yeah.

Julian Huguet: It's natural for livestock and nobody's using it as like, "I'm going to have this as part of my landscaping garden, and I'm going to trim it down to an exact height of one inch all the time." Yeah, no, that's not a thing as of yet.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah. It just wasn't cultivated. They were using it in a different way. They were using it to get the seeds so that they could make breads or oats or whatever. That's sort of where we go next in the story is that because the people from Europe were bringing over their livestock, the native grasses were getting decimated, because in the winter they didn't survive, and the livestock didn't survive either. They had nothing to eat. And so the English brought over their own grasses to see if they would survive the winter, and we end up with all sorts of grass that now all of the dad memes associate with the United States. But Kentucky blue grass is actually from Europe in the Middle East, California turf grasses are from Spanish colonizers. So that's also why different parts of the United States have different grasses that are all not native to here. Like Bermuda grass is from Africa, and so is Guinea grass. So they're all from elsewhere, and they came here and brought their plants with them.

Deboki: So somehow, the European ones are just different and hardier in the winter?

Julian Huguet: Well, if you look at Europe on a globe, you'd be shocked how far north-

Deboki: True.

Julian Huguet: ... in latitude Europe is. So to me it makes sense that these things would be able to survive there. But I don't have any sort of research that confirms that.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah. We didn't do specific research into which species did well and why. But basically, the research that I was able to find said that the native grasses couldn't compete with these new invasive species, which is a pretty common narrative. Anytime there's a new invasive species, just didn't have the same diseases, didn't have the same problems that the native grasses had. And so as they brought over all of these new grasses, they started to spread and they would use them for whatever they wanted to use them for as they started to take over the land. 

But that's where we start to get into the colonization of this part of the globe by the Europeans and others. That changed our culture as well, not just the culture of the United States today, obviously, but it changed the culture of Europe, it changed the culture of the Americas, because they started to separate and they started to copy each other in all these different ways. And that's when the French at the Palace of Versailles started to essentially take the pleasure garden to a whole new level and say, "I'm not going to grow anything here. It's just going to be this small area of grass," which wasn't very big, initially, but it blew people's minds.

Sam: Just grass.

Trace Dominguez: It was just grass. There's no trees, there's no vines.

Sam: It's so funny because I feel like when I think about France, when I think about Versailles, I don't think minimalist. I think very ornate.

Trace Dominguez: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Think about it.

Deboki: And then there's a rich person's approach to minimalism too of I have so much that I don't even need to get that ornate.

Julian Huguet: Trace had a really interesting point when we recorded that made me think of things a different way. He said it's the same thing with really high ceilings. Why do you need to have such a high ceiling? Well, it's just kind of a flex that I can heat all of this useless air above me. I can have this big spacious place. I can afford to have a whole lot of nothing. And that's kind of the same statement that grass makes, especially for the French aristocracy.

Sam: Rich people are fascinating.

Deboki: I wonder, how did it shape certain sports? Like soccer couldn't really exist without grass. I don't know what other ones.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah.

Julian Huguet: Tons of them, right?

Trace Dominguez: Any kind of outdoor sports that people play today are probably were played in dirt patches if they existed at this time, and then they started to be played in grass, in part because grass has this natural ability, which we see on coastal environments, to hold the soil together. You don't have as much erosion because these little roots are spread throughout this soil, holding it together.

Julian Huguet: We do get, eventually, a specific person who is the figure in revolutionizing gardens and inventing lawns.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah. Let me just say, the question was who invented it? And so far, you now know where grass came from, all of the different evolutions of it, how it got to the new world.

Deboki: Well, nature invented grass. We have to credit nature.

Julian Huguet: Yeah, start there. But otherwise we've provided nothing of value for answering this question. But Trace, do you want to talk about the king of gardeners?

Trace Dominguez: Yeah. So, obviously when the Palace of Versailles was... they were kind of landscaping it, they were using the landscape knowledge that they had at the time. And the king of gardeners is Andre Le Notre, who was born into a family of gardeners to the king, and he designed these ideas in gardening that we still use today, which is amazing. So forced perspective in gardening, for example. If you go look up a Palace of Versailles picture, it's these long stretched-out avenues of space, and the idea is it gives you this feeling of how big it is, but you can force those perspectives by making the path narrower as it gets further away from the palace, stuff like that, just like they do at Disneyland and stuff to make things seem bigger than they are. And so we still use these today.

He also invented this idea of creating moments of closed and open architecture in gardens, 

where you would walk through maybe a large topiary wall into something with a big tree in the middle, and it was enclosed. You feel like you're in a different, completely different space, or you walk out of something like an archway into a big open space. And he turned these just big, flat open areas into striking gardens. And that included this small bit of green carpet called the “tapis vert,” which was a way to say, again, "I can grow nothing here." But the grass is soft and you can sit down on it and you can walk around on it. And that was just this indication of wealth and status. And as people visited, they started to be like, "Ooh, I need one of these. I could do this."

Sam: Yeah, this is nice.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, this is cool.

Sam: This feels nice to walk on.

Deboki: Speaking of things that could they have been invented without grass, when did the picnic start?

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, exactly.

Julian Huguet: That's a great question. And what were ants doing before that? It's a Ratatouille situation, but with ants…

Deboki: That would be a great Pixar movie, like the ant who's like, "I've got this idea," and no one in his colony believes in him.

Julian Huguet: Andre and the ant.

Deboki: ... and he's like, "No, no, it's going to be great." And then he finds the person.

Julian Huguet: Born in a family of gardeners, but he's like, "I don't have the inspiration in me!"

Trace Dominguez: This one ant changes his life, this month on Disney+. Anyway…

Julian Huguet: So, Andre Le Notre's concepts of gardens are hugely influential to obviously the French aristocracy and also all the other aristocrats around Europe and beyond. Spain, Italy, Prussia, Austria, Russia. They're all like, "I got to get me one of these gardens," and they all design and landscape in similar ways, and of course have paintings commissioned of what they're going to look like. And then over here in our little burgeoning colonies in later United States, we are seeing these images and we're also like, "I got to get me some of that." But as Trace will tell you, all paintings are fake.

Trace Dominguez: That's right.

Julian Huguet: Right?

Trace Dominguez: All paintings. That's my favorite part about when I'm in DC, go into the portrait gallery, take the tour, and the tour guide will tell you, no landscape in the portrait gallery is a real landscape. They're all compilations of different landscapes put together. Like, "Oh, I think it would be cool if there was a beautiful waterfall with this stag standing in front of this pool with these trees." That place doesn't exist.

Sam: They're just aspirational.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, and they're all just manifesting. They're just out there with vibes. And that's cool. As per usual in the US, we have this distorted view of what everybody else is doing, and so we want bigger, better, more incredible and stuff like that. And so we end up copying these ideas. And so in the US, the early United States, you had a working garden like I was talking about earlier, with herbs and plants that were useful in the kitchen. And then as the richer people, Thomas Jefferson went and saw the tapis vert and wanted one at Monticello. George Washington went and saw, and he wanted one at Mount Vernon. And so they just ended up bringing them over here into the American aristocracy and making them bigger and more impressive in some ways, because they didn't always see them in person, some of them only them in paintings, and they wanted what they saw in the painting, even if it wasn't real.

Deboki: What was the rough time period of this?

Trace Dominguez: So this would've been in the late 1700s, maybe mid 1700s. The first lawnmower, I can tell you that, came out in 1830. So prior to that, to maintain something like the tapis vert, you had to have people out there with literally scythe shears if you wanted it very short. The first lawn mower was in England in 1830, and they got the idea from this local cloth mill where they would use a blade to trim the cloth and kind of shave it down and smooth it, but they use that on grass, and it's essentially the same as a human powered lawn mower that you would see now, with spinning blades that spin when you push them.

Deboki: I'm just stuck on imagining someone on their hands and knees having to cut individual blades of grass.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah, that's the Downton Abbey that they don't show you. And then as the USA grew into the 19th and early 20th centuries, now we get into the modern day of lawns. Julian, you want to jump on that?

Julian Huguet: Yeah. So when the cities were growing during industrial revolution and everything here, people are moving into urban areas and there's just not space for lawns. And then you have people in rural areas and they're still using what they've got as farms, right? And you've got tenant farmers and sharecroppers. And really, the explosion of the lawn in America takes place after the Second World War, with the emergence of tract housing and the suburbs. You've got all these GIs coming back, and you've got suburbs springing up where they just make tons and tons and tons of the same floor plans, models of houses, just mass producing them.

And so now, if you can afford to move out of the city into one of these places and you've got all this land around you, but you're not a farmer, you probably work in the city, what are you going to use that land for? You're going to look to lawns. You're going to look to these ideals that you've seen in the past of what do palaces have? What did the old American rich bigwigs literally like Jefferson have? And they start popularizing lawns as we know them.

Deboki: It made sense like, "Oh, wealthy people are creating this lawn as a sign of like, 'I can waste space.'" I never thought about the rise of lawns is so deeply related to the rise of a middle class, this aspirational kind of lifestyle where they're like, "What's that next level of a thing that I can achieve?"

Sam: Right. I made it to some degree because I have a lawn.

Julian Huguet: Bam. You got it. I've got the house, the white picket fence, and a lawn. Yeah.

Trace Dominguez: And land that I grow nothing on. And that's how we get to today, kind of. It's funny because lawns are associated with these things that, sort of go back a little bit, are made up. We believe that people who are wealthy had lawns, and so thus we wanted to have lawns, and we're holding ourselves to these ideals that aren't particularly old and don't really come from anywhere. You don't need a lawn. It's just a thing that we decided we should have at some point. 18th century French aristocrats liked the look of a small bit of grass in front of their palace, and now we do that too, which makes it feel sillier to me, when you put it that way,

Julian Huguet: By the way, I'm sure people listening might be wondering, "Hey, why would a lawn or grass not be good for somewhere really hot and dry like a desert when you said that their photosynthesis is better adapted for drier climates?" And it's true, they are, but native plants to places like Southern California and deserts and stuff, they use a third different method of photosynthesis called CAM. I won't get into the specifics, but just know that that's even better and more suitable for the environment that we have than grass. So that's why native plants are still better for water consumption if you live in a place like Los Angeles or Las Vegas than a grass. So don't go thinking like, "Oh, it's better than..." No, no, no, no, no, no. Grass is still too water-intensive for the environment here.

Trace Dominguez: Scientific American posted that lawns require the equivalent of 200 gallons of drinking water per person per day in the us. And then NASA did a study in 2005 looking at lawns, just American lawns, and they found that there are more lawns than there are fields of irrigated corn by three times. That's how much more land space is dedicated to just growing nothing. I mentioned my mom earlier. Hi mom. She's a master gardener, and so I called her when I was doing the research for this to talk to her a bit about it, and she said there's a big movement right now within the gardening community and within just people who do urban design to get rid of lawns, just to stop encouraging them.

I think we've all felt it if you've read about this space, and they want to replace it with plants that are native, because native plants, as Julian mentioned, are better for water consumption for those regions. But also, it's better for pollinators, because those native plants, species like butterfly only often have one plant that they'll work with. They won't go and land on any flower. They'll only land on one flower, and sometimes one species of flower. So you can't just swap in another one and the butterflies will be fine. And so those pollinators sometimes need those native plants, and having that movement to replace our lawns back to something that resembled the landscape before we started messing with it is big, and it's growing, no pun intended.

Sam: That's fascinating. So who should we blame is the question that I have. Should we blame Pliny the Younger? Should we blame France, generally? Should we blame World War II?

Deboki: Always an easy one to blame.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah.

Julian Huguet: Yeah. I'm going to go with the French aristocracy and say, off with their heads!

Trace Dominguez: Yeah. I feel like that's an easy blame since we've already sort of blamed them.

Julian Huguet:If only they invented some sort of efficient cutting machine that trimmed, for the  lawn, I mean.

Trace Dominguez: I ended our piece on our episode with this quote from Michael Pollan, which I heard years and years ago. He's the author of Omnivores Dilemma, talks a lot about food and also eating plants and why that's important, but he wrote, "Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much." And the idea being that because we don't let the grass grow and give off seeds, it never gets to reproduce. But because it goes dormant in the winter, it doesn't ever die. We just don't let it breed with other grasses, and we also don't let it die. So we just keep cutting the tops off of it and it just keeps trying to grow ,and that makes it... I feel so bad for the grass now.

Sam: Yeah. I'm going to look at grass very differently for a lot of reasons, that being one of them.

Trace Dominguez: Yeah. So interesting. Surprising, how many things that... It's almost like tiny things-

Julian Huguet: Matter.

Trace Dominguez: ... make a big difference. Yeah, they matter. Kind of they matter. Yeah.

Sam: Amazing. Well, thank you guys. That was awesome. That's Absurd Please Elaborate. It's a very fun podcast, not just to be a part of, but to listen to. So definitely, definitely check it out.

Trace Dominguez: Please do. You can find us anywhere you get your podcasts, and you can also find us on our website if you want to ask a question. thatsabsurdshow.com/ask gets you right there, and you can listen on the website as well if you want.

Sam: Amazing. Well, thank you, guys. This was really fun.

Julian Huguet: We had a blast.

Trace Dominguez: Next time you think about the lawn, when you're walking around outside, think about what could be there instead, and if that would be better.

Sam: Yeah. I thought you were going to say "Think of us."

Julian Huguet: Yeah.

Trace Dominguez: Oh, yeah.

Julian Huguet: Also think of us.

Trace Dominguez: When you're walking around. When you're walking around on grass,

Julian Huguet: Yeah. Pull up your podcast app.

Trace Dominguez: ... when you're touching grass, think of us.

Deboki: Yeah. Who first touched grass?

Trace Dominguez: Wasn't Pliny the Younger, I'll tell you that much.

Deboki: Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society. My co-host is Sam Jones, who is also our executive producer. Our fact-checker is Michelle Boucher and the Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and the Charts & Leisure team.

Sam: Thanks so much to Trace and Julian for joining us. Definitely head over to That’s Absurd Please Elaborate and subscribe. Have ideas for episodes? Science-y things you just need to share? Email us: tinymatters@acs.org. If you want another way to support the show, buy one of our coffee mugs! We’ve left a link in the episode description. You can find me on social at samjscience.

Deboki: And you can find me at okidokiboki. See you next time.