Is it time to rethink your lawn?
June 1, 2018
Who doesn’t love the smell of a freshly mown lawn? Not to mention that tidy, calming expanse of green. Alas, grass isn’t green. The lawn as we know it has a big, bad impact on the environment. Carbon-spewing mowers, frequent watering, chemical fertilizers, weed killers … All of that really adds up in a country with enough lawn to carpet Texas.
“Changing the way we think about and deal with our lawns might be the easiest and most significant step we can take in our own yards to help the planet,” says landscape architect Sue Reed, co-author of Climate-Wise Landscaping: Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future.
If getting rid of your entire lawn works for you, great! More likely, you’ll just want to scale back and/or take steps to make your lawn greener. At the same time, you’ll make it healthier and probably more low-maintenance.
Read on for Reed’s tips on how to rethink, replace, and revive your lawn. What it comes down to is treating your lawn (and your whole yard) as part of the larger ecosystem. Because in fact, it’s a living thing in a web of relationships — not a carpet!
Rethink: What’s wrong with the lawn?
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (England), wealthy landowners had huge pastures mowed by their sheep. Those close-cropped expanses became a metaphor for wealth, says Reed, and so the idea of the lawn got firmly planted in society. Now add intense marketing by the many companies trying to sell us lawn care products.
What’s so bad, exactly? Well …
Direct CO2 emissions. Unless you’re keeping your lawn in check with sheep, goats, or a people-powered reel mower, mowing requires a lot of energy. According to the EPA, America uses about 800 million gallons of gas each year to cut its lawns.
Indirect CO2 emissions. Buying fertilizer etc. and transporting it all to and from the garden center adds up too. Fertilizers themselves are often petroleum-based.
Excess water use. An estimated 30 percent of household water is used for outside irrigation, mostly for lawns. (In dry regions that get under 20 inches of rain a year, a lawn is rarely a sustainable choice, says Reed.)
Loss of diversity. Everywhere you have lawn, you don’t have trees, shrubs, and other plants offering habitat and food for wildlife, cooling shade, and better carbon storage, among other things. Trees build equity in your yard too!
Replace: Take an intentional, incremental approach
The first step is to get intentional about your lawn, says Reed, as opposed to taking it as a given. “What do you want the lawn for? Are your kids going to be playing soccer, or are you just going to be having a picnic with your husband?”
Once you decide how much lawn you actually need, you can start eliminating the excess. “My best tip is to do it incrementally,” says Reed. “Your lawn may already be revealing the places where it wants to grow healthy and the places where it’s kind of struggling. Pick a spot that’s not doing well and start there. Or gradually extend the borders of other plantings to make the lawn smaller and smaller.”
Reed’s book has a whole section on getting rid of lawn, but here are the main options:
Just stop mowing. Let things evolve. Welcome some semi-wild areas into your yard. It can be fun to see what plants and critters show up over time. (If you live in a tick-prone region, bear in mind that these carriers of Lyme and other diseases like tall grass.)
Shade out the grass. Eventually, grass will be outcompeted by trees or by plants with big, umbrella-like foliage. Very shaded areas might support moss.
Smother with lasagna. “Lasagna mulching,” or “sheet mulching,” is a simple, ecological way to get rid of grass. You deprive it of sun with cardboard and pile grass clippings, leaves, wood chips, and other organic stuff on top. The whole thing gradually decomposes into grass-free soil ready for other plants.
Bake till done for. Put plastic over the grass you want to replace, and you’ve got a solar oven. The heat will eventually kill the grass. Then you can plant over it.
Wholesale removal. Sod cutters cut big strips of grass and roll them up. It’s kind of a last resort, though. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and you’ll need to replace both the grass and the soil. Plus, disrupting the soil releases carbon.
You can replace your lawn with all manner of trees and plants.Here’s some info on the best and worst trees for your yard. For lawn-ish alternatives to grass, check out Fine Gardening's picks for ground covers and low-growers.
Revive: How to create a truly healthy lawn
Whatever amount of lawn you decide to keep, you want it to be healthier and more sustainable. Four basics to that end:
Accept imperfection. A truly healthy lawn doesn’t look like a golf course. It helps support other life above and below. “Dandelions, little violets, or anything that wants to come up in the lawn, that’s pollen for pollinators, nectar and stuff for bees,” says Reed. “They keep the whole system of the world working better.” And when there’s a dry spell, she says, save water and let your lawn turn brown (unless you’re in a fire-prone area). It’s not dead, just dormant.
Choose your grass well. If you’re in a position to plant new grass, research the best, least water-hungry variety for your region.“Mostly it’s a question of how much it can tolerate heat and drought,” says Reed. Be sure to check out native grasses, and also “no mow” types that top out at about 8 inches and need cutting maybe once a year. Building a new house? Beware, she says: “Usually, builders cheat on the soil and use crappy soil or very thin soil. That’s basically a guarantee.”
Nurture the soil. Chemical herbicides and fertilizers mess up your lawn’s ecosystem. Instead, says Reed, spread a layer of compost over the lawn once a month or so (ideally, compost that you made yourself). Microorganisms will magically absorb it into the soil. “You just don’t want to smother the grass. It has to continue to photosynthesize and allow water to get through.” Super-compacted soil might need aeration (there are tools for poking it full of holes).
Get reel. With a smaller lawn, you might be happy with a people-powered reel mower. No gas, no nasty smell, no cords, no noise! Reel mowers make your grass healthier because they clip it like scissors, which is less traumatic. They’re good for your health too — you’ll get more of a workout. One drawback: too long between mowings, and cutting the grass becomes hard or impossible. Learn more about reel mowers here and here.
READ NEXT: Is your yard ready for climate change? Reducing your lawn is just one way to both shrink your carbon footprint and help your property meet the challenge of warmer temperatures and extreme weather.
Filed Under: For Homeowners