Lawns, according to research compiled from satellite images and aerial photography, are America’s largest irrigated crop, covering 40 million acres. Keeping all this grass green, mowed, and weed-free requires amazing amounts of water, energy, and chemicals. It also washes excess nitrogen into our waterways, choking them with algae and harming aquatic ecosystems.
If that’s how you keep your lawn green, well, then perhaps it’s time for a second look. Lawns give us a place to play and buffer us from a hard, paved world. Not everyone is willing or inclined to tear up every inch of turf, but many are interested in reducing maintenance and saving water. For some, the first step may be to maintain their current lawn area but reduce its impact on the environment. This is not so hard to do. It requires some changes in three main areas: mowing, watering, and nourishing our fields of green.
The wild meadow was tamed in 1830, when Edwin Budding invented the lawn mower in England. Later, in America, the grand parks in cities gave working people the chance to experience a lawn. By the time our soldiers marched home from World War II and occupied the suburbs, synthetic fertilizers and herbicides such as 2,4-D were helping create the chemically dependent, monoculture lawns we know today.
Then, in 1967, came a pivotal event in lawn history: The Masters Tournament broadcast its first golf game in living color from Augusta, Ga. Americans watching their new color televisions saw the greenest greens they’d ever seen, and they wanted the same thing in their front yards.
Folks in the lawn-care industry still call it the Augusta syndrome, says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and founder of SafeLawns.org. Because we remain mesmerized by the Augusta syndrome, Tukey and other experts preach more responsible ways to a green lawn.
A noisy, two-cylinder, gas-powered lawn mower produces many times the air pollutants of an automobile. If you really want to maintain a lawn, why not reduce the need for power mowing? First, plant a slow growing species that’s easy to cut. Next, trade up to a human-powered push mower. Many people tend to mow too much—or at the wrong time—doing more harm than good. They cut the grass when it’s wet, hack it too short, and leave their lawn more prone to fungal diseases, insect infestation, and weeds. To fix the problem they’ve created, they pour on petroleum-based fertilizers and weed killers. And it all costs money. A few tips to reduce these costs:
Don’t mow during the heat of the day, or when the grass is wet from rain or dew. Don’t bag clippings; they can provide up to half of the nutrients your lawn needs.
Use a mulching mower.
Set the mower height so you never remove more than one-third of the grass plant at once. And keep the blade sharp.
Watering is the second issue. Most people water the grass too much, which is bad for the lawn and the planet. Some guides suggest an inch a week during the growing season, but factors including the grass species and soil type alter that rule. New products such as moisture sensing sprinkler controls can be combined with older technologies such as rainwater harvesting to reduce H20 demands on local utilities. A few general rules:
Water deeply and infrequently. You want to soak the roots, so grass grows down into the soil.
Water in the early morning, so the lawn surface can dry during the day.
- Don’t water in the evening, because a damp lawn is prone to fungus. If you’re too busy in the morning, set a sprinkler on a hose timer.
- Along with timers, check your sprinklers. The back-and-forth, sweeping models are popular, but they waste water to wind and evaporation. Rotary and impulse models are better for large lawns. Pick types with the patterns and coverage that put maximum water on the lawn, not on the driveway and sidewalk. Use a rain gauge to see how much water you’re delivering, and where.
It's also important to choose the right grass. In the north, Kentucky bluegrass is popular. Much of the south is carpeted with Bermuda grass. But both make for very thirsty lawns. Alternative species, such as Buffalo grass in the north and centipede grass in the South, require a fraction of the water or fertilizer. And they don’t need much mowing, either. If your lawn is a nitrogen-sucking water hog, maybe it’s time to think about low-mow grasses.
Nourishment is the third issue. Instead of becoming addicted to synthetic fertilizers, an organic lawn is fed with natural compost. Top dressing a lawn with ½” of good-quality “finished” compost in the spring and fall provides the organic matter a lawn needs to thrive. To speed the process, brew some compost tea. When it’s ready, spray the solution on your lawn. A healthy lawn has fewer problems with weeds, which some lawn owners define as anything but grass. Applying corn gluten in the spring can help control pre-emergent weeds, although timing is crucial. Spot weeding by hand, or with sprays that use vinegar or citrus oil, can finish off the survivors.
But the best solution for weeds may be attitude control. Before 2,4-D came along, the typical lawn contained clover, which helps create the nitrogen that healthy lawns need. Now clover is considered a weed. Tukey suggests adding 5% clover to a lawn, calling it “the best weed money can buy.”
Less is Greener
Beyond proper cutting, watering, and nourishing, a sure way to a greener lawn is to have less of it. That means less water, less cutting, and less time. Just as the sprawling faux chateau is falling out of fashion for housing, so is the lawn that’s too big to mow, but too small to farm.
- Shrink Lawn Area. Why not set aside the turf you need for sports and recreation, and convert the rest of your yard to other surfaces?
- Think Beauty. Depending on your climate, ground cover such as sedum, juniper, and sagebrush can hold soil and block weeds. Ornamental grasses create year-round visual interest, even in northern climates when gardens die back.
- Add Hardscapes. Between grass and ground cover, use natural landscape materials such as gravel and stone for paths and walkways. Brick nuggets, which are recycled chunks of waste brick, are especially eco-friendly.
- Go Wild. If your subdivision and neighbors will tolerate it, let a corner of your property go wild, and watch it evolve into a habitat for birds and other critters. Fight for your rights. Neighborhood covenants are among the stiffest obstacles to a greener lawn. So are the chemically based practices of big lawn-care companies, which now perform roughly half the lawn maintenance in America.
Grass Roots Change
Will the day come when we feel embarrassed to be seen mounted on a riding lawn mower? It could happen. You can sense the subtle psychological shift coming from the bottom up at small companies such as ecoLogical Lawn Care in Boulder, Colo., which uses only organic fertilizers and cuts with electric mowers recharged with wind and solar energy sources.
A few years ago, you couldn’t find an environmentally responsible lawn care company. Now, when you search, you’re almost sure to hit pay dirt. In the Seattle area, for instance, the Coalition of Organic Landscapers offers sustainable lawn and garden services. Many companies in other states belong to the Ecological Landscaping Association.
Change also is happening on a larger scale, from the top down. In late 2010, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the nation’s most restrictive fertilizer standards. The new bill limits fertilizer use, and requires manufacturers to phase in 20% slow release nitrogen in their products. Other states and communities are taking similar actions.
There’s no reason to wait for regulation. People are looking for novel ways to reduce lawn care, beautify their home, and become the envy of the neighborhood. Moving away from boring, resource-intensive lawns, toward low-maintenance landscaping, is a common sense transition.