A lush carpet of grass has been the dream of suburbanites for generations. Lately, however, more of us have learned that it’s not earth-friendly. More of us want a sustainable lawn and garden.
Our concept of lawns started centuries ago in England. The very wealthy loved glades, the clearings in the woods, and wanted to bring them closer to home. Such lawns flourish in England’s climate. As long as not many could afford them, they had little environmental impact.
Not so today in the US. Nearly every house is surrounded by a yard. And instead of trying to imitate forest biodiversity, we have this ideal of an entire swath of land clothed only in grass.
Once upon a time, sheep and goats kept the grass short. Now, we need to use machines to mow it. And since so many of us declare war on dandelions, clover, or anything but grass, we feel the need to apply weed killers. And fertilizer and pesticides.
Not too many generations ago, people used their yards for recreation: badminton, lawn bowling, croquet, etc. Does anyone still do that very much anymore?
Some suburbs require large lots. Homeowners’ associations require expanses of grass anyplace visible from the street. People have gotten in trouble trying to plant vegetables in their front yards.
So we feel obligated to maintain a crop (grass) that we don’t use for anything. Yet we have more acreage devoted to grass than any other irrigated crop. Grass lawns (including parks, golf courses, and ballparks) occupy 1.9% of the land in the US.
Toward a more sustainable lawn
Fortunately, we’re beginning to catch on to the toll our lawns have taken on the environment. Weed killers, bug killers, and fertilizers run off into our streams and sewers. We kill desirable insects along with pests.
And most of us haven’t thought much about the structure and quality of the soil our lawns grow in. Petroleum-based lawn chemicals harm beneficial soil microbes. They can promote undesirable ones––especially when they runoff into streams. Manufacturing them has its own environmental toll.
I’m not one to claim that only organic fertilizers and pesticides are earth-friendly. They, too, must be used intelligently. But one of the best tactics for a sustainable lawn and garden is to use compost you make yourself. Just remember the few things that you should never try to compost at home.
Make friends with clover and dandelions. And as one of my friends pointed out, crabgrass is grass. Biodiversity, even in a suburban lawn, is a good thing. And the truly ugly weeds don’t cause a bad lawn. They’re a symptom of it. You probably planted grass in places that kind of grass can’t survive.
I had one area where I tried to plant grass for years without success. Then I noticed it was lower than the surrounding area. A quarter-inch of fresh compost to raise the low spots improved the drainage. Now I have grass there.
Less lawn, more garden
You can reduce your grass even with the strictest homeowner associations. Plant more shrubbery and flowers. For the greatest environmental benefit, plant whatever is native to your area.
But beware of invasive plants. I have a running battle with wisteria, which twines around trees and chokes them. It’s native where I live. Once it gets established, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of it. Yet I’ve seen wisteria for sale in garden centers. You can get all kinds of other invasive species, native or otherwise, at garden centers, too.
So before you choose what to plant, do some research. Don’t just ask the staff at your garden center. They might not know the environmental impact of everything they sell. And, of course, if they’re part of a chain, they have to sell whatever the chain sends them. For expert advice for a sustainable lawn and garden, ask your local agricultural extension agency.
You don’t need to dig up all your grass. You can make it more eco-friendly by minimizing the maintenance it needs. Not all grass is the same. Some grows best in full sun. Some requires at least part shade. And some needs more water than others. Choose what grows best in the normal rainfall where you live. You don’t have to water it as much. And if you live in a very rainy area or have low spots that don’t drain well, it won’t drown.
And whatever else you plant, get to know your growing conditions. Is your soil clay? Sand? Acidic, or alkaline? How much full sun or shade does it get? Some plants need good drainage. Others don’t mind getting their feet wet. Some tolerate drought conditions better than others. Whatever the conditions, some plants will like it there and others will die.
Here are some other tips:
- Use a mulching blade when you mow. The leaves will compost in place––unless there are too many of them.
- Instead of running a noisy leaf blower after you finish running your noisy lawnmower in the fall, use the bag attachment and empty it on your compost pile.
- Don’t install a concrete patio. Among other problems, concrete absorbs and radiates heat. A wood deck provides the same space for your lawn furniture.
- Do install a rain barrel. Use that water to fill a sprinkling can to water plants.
- You can make a compost tea by letting compost soak in a bucket for a while. Strain it into a sprinkling can. Of course, with both the rain barrel and compost tea, you can invest in more sophisticated equipment to get even better use of them.
- Try to attract birds and beneficial bugs such as ladybugs, spiders, or grasshoppers. They will eat the less desirable ones. Talk about natural pesticides!
5 eco-friendly backyard upgrades / Katie Kuchta, Mother Earth Living. July 20, 2018
How to nurture your small piece of the earth, without harming the rest of it / Adrian Higgins, Washington Post. March 18, 2020
Why our lawns are bad for the environment and how to change them for the better / Jonathan Engels, Permaculture News. June 3, 2016