Rethinking the Suburban Lawn
Saturday morning; time to do one of my weekly chores before the summer sun makes the work unbearable. I open the garage door and pull the lawnmower out. It is a manual mower, a simple machine of horizontal blades connected by an axle to the wheels. The mower’s source of power is the human operating it. Gasoline-powered lawn mowers were not standard in those days. When it is pushed, the blades rotate and cut the grass. Considerable effort is required to go through thick turf, but that wasn’t a problem with our tiny lawn, which was a collection of grass, dandelions, clover, and other assorted weeds. My father used to say, “If it’s green, let it grow.”
Back then, lawn maintenance was simple: you mowed the grass every couple of weeks. The lawn’s primary function was to cover the ground so we could play on it. We lived on a small lot in a blue-collar neighborhood. The residents of our street kept their properties tidy but had minimal concern for the front yard's appearance other than grass mowing and 1 or 2 pots of flowers by the front door. Very different from the elaborate suburban lawns of today.
Modern-day lawns are immaculate, manicured, weedless, bug-free carpets of green.
They look like miniature golf courses. They are maintained with power mowers, edgers, and leaf blowers. Artificial chemicals fertilize, kill weeds, and prevent insect infestation. Lawn maintenance companies come to the house five or more times per season to apply these chemicals, riding gasoline-powered tractors to disseminate the liquid and granular treatments. Irrigation systems are used to water the lawns regularly to keep the grass green and growing.
But this obsession with the perfect lawn comes at a cost. The average lawn receives ten times the fertilizer application farmers use on their fields, and much of this inorganic fertilizer drains into the groundwater. This pollutes lakes and streams and causes the growth of toxic algae, which harm fish and contaminate drinking water. Chronic exposure to herbicides and insecticides on lawns causes cancer in animals and kills beneficial insects like pollinators, including the endangered Monarch butterfly. Studies have shown that these chemicals are present in the circulating blood of our pets and even us.
The gas-guzzling machines we use to mow, trim, and blow away grass and leaves are inefficient, using an estimated 800 million gallons of gas per season in the US.
They are not subject to the same pollution controls as cars and trucks. Five percent of the total US air pollution comes from these machines. A gasoline leaf blower releases more carbon into the atmosphere than a pickup truck, and they contribute to noise pollution in our quiet neighborhoods.
But what are the alternatives? Lawns have some redeeming environmental value, such as keeping the underlying soil cool and not reflecting the heat from the sun. They provide areas for children and dogs to play and adults to engage in sports and have picnics. Complete eradication of grass is not the objective, but organic methods to maintain the lawn and conversion of at least some of it to more environmentally friendly gardens should be considered.
Five ways to a “greener” property with lawn alternatives:
1. Plant trees. They add interest to your property, reduce heat and attract birds and beneficial insects. Studies have shown that people that live in neighborhoods with trees are healthier both physically and mentally.
Adding trees to your yard is good for you and the earth! The Arbor Day Foundation has a very helpful “Tree Wizard” to help choose suitable tree species for your needs.
2. Convert areas to perennial gardens. Select native, low-maintenance plants that add beauty to your yard and provide habitat and food for pollinators and birds. Here in the Midwest, some good options for perennials are hostas, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and daylilies, to name a few.
3. Plant ornamental grasses. They are easy to grow and add interest to the property even in winter when they turn light brown and develop seed heads. They are great hiding places for suburban wildlife like rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and toads. Feather reed grass is prevalent on our property in Indiana; it is not a native plant but is non-invasive and low maintenance.
4. Start an organic vegetable garden. It doesn’t have to be a demanding, labor-intensive activity. A single raised bed using a frame of cedar wood planks filled with topsoil and compost provides an excellent way to start growing nutritious food. Tomatoes, green beans, peppers, and herbs like sage, basil, and oregano are easy to grow from seed or transplants. I use the “square foot” gardening method described by Mel Bartholomew; click this link to learn more about the technique described in his books.
5. Make your lawn chemical-free. Let white and red clover grow naturally, and watch the bees and butterflies enjoy the food source. Clover is a legume that “fixes” nitrogen in the soil, adding a natural fertilizer for the grass. Mulch grass and leaves in the yard with the mower rather than bagging and discarding them. This increases organic material in the soil and adds nutrients.
Lastly, and maybe the most challenging change to consider is this: stop the war on weeds. They are not the enemy; they can help the environment by attracting pollinators and covering the bare ground. If there are certain ones that you can’t tolerate, put on your garden gloves, grab a trowel, and dig them up. It's good exercise and so much better than applying toxic chemicals.
Global warming, pollution of the environment, and declining bees, butterflies, birds, and other species are all issues that deserve our concern. What better place to act than our properties, the little piece of earth on which we live? For more information on making our yards better for the planet, see this excellent article from Princeton University’s Student Climate Initiative: https://psci.princeton.edu/tips/2020/5/11/law-maintenance-and-climate-change.