Get Off My Lawn

By Christopher Crown

March 25, 2019 5 min read

Many Americans dream of having a vast expanse of thick rolling green grass -- no patches, no weeds or other plants at all, just rampantly growing emerald turf, ready to be mowed and watered. However, many counties are starting to face water crises, Americans are switching their focus toward more frugal living, and the nationwide trend of environmental sustainability is gaining traction. It's becoming apparent that the "traditional" lawn might not be the best option. Many lawn care experts and environmental authorities have weighed in, proposing that this lawn-standard is not only wasteful and detrimental but also unnatural.

To back up this claim, Harvard Magazine journalist Nell Porter Brown quotes botanist Peter Del Tredici, then a senior research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum, in her 2011 article on grass alternatives. Del Tredici notes that the normal equilibrium in almost every natural environment is heterogeneous: a mixture of many different types of plants and animals. This is how ecosystems function and stay resistant to change or environmental pressures. Del Tredici continues that by forcing lawn homogeneity -- only one species -- humans are creating an "artificially enhanced monoculture" that demands ample chemicals, additional watering and expensive lawn care services and fails to create ecological diversity in neighborhoods.

By diversifying the plants that inhabit your lawn, you can create a more sustainable and pollinator-friendly ecosystem on your property and also avoid contributing to the huge environmental toll that traditional lawn care imposes on our land, water and air. In an article in Garden Design, a prominent authority on DIY lawn care and plant selection, contributor Ruth Chivers cites a 2006 study by the California Air Resources Board to highlight the unseen detriments of conventional lawn care. According to their results, lawn mower engines, per gallon of gas, contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions than cars. And although many are switching to electric lawn mowers, water runoff pollution is another hidden menace. Chivers notes that in order to keep a constantly green lawn, homeowners must apply an extremely wasteful amount of extra water -- when native plants could survive with much less aid -- and also that this water carries all the added fertilizers and pesticides into the drinking water system.

Now, some homeowners may not be interested in the environmental benefits of diversifying their lawns, but there are financial upsides as well. Contributors for an article from Elemental Green, an online resource for low-maintenance grass alternatives, note that the upkeep for traditional grass lawns often multiplies homes' utility bills. From fuel for mowers and fertilizers to pesticides and watering, these costs add up over weeks and months to create a fairly large yearly deficit compared to more natural lawn alternatives. Through Gilmour -- whose website covers gardening information, appropriate planting zones and lawn water preservation -- contributor Linda Ly mentions that the historical tradition of a green grass lawn originated in the 17th century as a status symbol. Now, the best way to preserve your financial status might be to ditch this concept all together!

Although the switch to a nontraditional lawn sounds like a no-brainer, many get stuck in the details. Brown cites several examples of successful lawn rebuilds. It all depends on your geographical region, as the right plants in the wrong climate are a recipe for failure. But many ground covers -- e.g., drought-tolerant grasses such as purple fountain grass or ornamental millet, mosses such as Polytrichum juniperinum and aromatic herbs such as chamomile, thyme and mint -- are a great first change toward a healthier and cheaper lawn. Not only do they grow slow and low, but they offer a soft and fragrant step when you are out on your lawn. Other nonherb ground covers include creeping Charlie and red clover. Both of these stay short, are easy to start and produce expanses of beautiful small flowers.

Brown goes on to mention other alternatives such as berry bushes/trees and raised gardens. By selecting species that will thrive in your region (ElementalGreen.com is a great resource for this) you can populate your lawn with attractive species that give back even more than grass. From vegetable gardens that fill your pantry to fruiting plants that attract livelty birds and insects, your green space can become much more than just a sea of wasteful turf.

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