The beginning of Spring is a good time to rethink your lawn. Grassy lawns are incredibly popular for good reason – they give neighborhoods a unifying feature, the hold up well under heavy play and foot traffic, and they look great. A recent NASA study estimated the total lawn area in the U.S. to be equal to the size of Texas. Grass is our single largest crop!
Great … but when did modern lawn maintenance become an environmental disaster?
- Saturdays in my neighborhood involve far more fossil fuel-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers than seem necessary.
- We pour millions of tons of proven and suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, and polluting fertilizers into our lawns. From there, they drain into watersheds where they pollute rivers and streams and, not incidentally, our drinking water. Lawns typically are treated with 10 times the quantity of herbicides and pesticides as industrial farmland! That’s a lot of poison flowing downstream!
- And lawns are water hogs, accounting for 50% or more of residential water use.
My family’s drinking water comes from the Rahway River, smack dab in the middle of suburbia and downstream from the agricultural heart of New Jersey. The impact of all this activity on water quality is a very real issue to me. I can’t figure out if my Brita filter eliminates all this stuff or not, but I’m not optimistic …
Here are 3 realistic strategies for reducing your lawn’s environmental footprint.
1. Simply stop using chemicals and minimize water use
A healthy lawn shouldn’t require weed killers and artificial fertilizers. Don’t cut your grass too short – that weakens the grass and allows weeds to sprout. If necessary, use organic rather than inorganic fertilizers. Over the summer, let your lawn turn brown. I’ve done this for years. It’s not dead – it’s just dormant. It will green up in the Fall as the weather cools off. Crab grass may sprout opportunistically, but I usually find that it’s gone by the next Spring.
Sometimes soil needs to be replenished organically to support a healthy lawn. Be careful what you buy when you look for organic fertilizers. Look for OMRI-approved products (Organic Material Review Initiative) – not just “natural”-sounding brand names. Or Google “organic lawn care” in your zip code.
2. Replant some of your lawn area with alternative ground covers
Alternative ground covers of many kinds are both beautiful and practical. Many can stand up to some foot traffic (not as much as grass, though) and require no mowing and no watering. Once established, they keep weeds to a minimum, requiring no inorganic chemicals for maintenance. Here are several resources to inspire your thinking in this direction:
- Gorgeous Grassless Yards That Still Scream Green
- Lawn Alternatives
- The Secret To Converting Lawn To Garden
- Low-Maintenance Alternatives to Lawns
3. Transition to a sustainable lawn
If you want to keep your lawn and it doesn’t do well without artificial support, try experimenting with another variety of grass. There are varieties that develop very deep roots and grow very slowly. This combination means that they need little or no watering and/or cutting. Learn more here:
- Unchain Yourself from the Lawnmower with No-cut Grasses
- Grass That Doesn’t Need Water Could Keep California Green
- Yes, You Can Have a Lawn You Don’t Have to Mow
Solutions #2 and #3 do require some real work, but think how much better you’ll feel about rolling around in the grass with your kids and/or your dog. Think about what you won’t be tracking into the house, and what you won’t be putting into your drinking water.
– Chet Van Wert
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