Updated: Jun 21, 2019
6/21/19 UPDATE: Check out City of Lawrence's suggestions for mulching your lawn, which means mowing over fallen leaves and lawn debris and letting it decompose on your lawn, enriching the soil and retaining water, among other benefits. https://lawrenceks.org/swm/lawnmulchmow/
This spring I learned about a new concept: a green yard. A close-cropped, perfectly uniform green lawn is not what I mean. In fact, most of our yards are not green at all.
It's part of the American dream, or so we've been told: the neat, lush lawn surrounding a well-maintained house on an immaculately groomed block in a suburban neighborhood. Green spaces that are free of 'weeds' is the ideal to live up to, achieved by laying down chemicals each spring before those pesky yellow Dandelion heads even dare to poke their heads out of the soil. The problem with this ideal is that it does more harm than good to our ecosystems.
Herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are all commonplace in the lawn care section at big box lawn care and home improvement stores. The labels on these lawn chemicals are full of cautionary statements warning you to keep their product out of waterways, away from pets, and away from human contact. You're told to spray them on a mild, windless day when the soil is damp. They might mention the fact that the product is highly toxic to bees, which can cause widespread colony death of an already-imperiled pollinator.₁ If you follow the directions perfectly, your negative environmental impact may be minimal. But that still won't stop some of the chemical from seeping into ground water and ending up in our waterways, killing or harming countless fish, insect, and plant species, and eventually making its way back to us in the form of our drinking water. To me, considering the potential negative effects of treating my yard with chemicals, a perfectly uniform green lawn is no longer worth the environmental and personal risk.
Killing organisms through the application of lawn chemicals and leaving nothing but grass throws off the delicate balance in an ecosystem. Plants, insects and animals in any given area all keep each other in check. For example: Opossums, though generally disliked by people, do us the favor of consuming thousands of Lyme-disease-carrying ticks. Butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, walking sticks, and beetles eat plants, including 'weeds', keeping the plant species' numbers in check naturally. When we kill certain species intentionally with chemicals and other species unintentionally via drift and runoff, we upset that balance. This leads to the proliferation of certain plants and insects by killing off those that consume them. I think a good alternative to using chemicals to manage your lawn is putting in a little effort to hand-pull excessive weeds and embrace an imperfect, natural yard.
It's time to change our idea of what a beautiful lawn and garden is. Perfectly manicured outdoor spaces require damaging practices and harmful chemicals to maintain them; instead, we should embrace the beauty of a more natural-looking yard. Here are some ways we can start creating an eco-friendly lawn and garden right now:
- Avoid the use of chemicals in your yard. 'Weeds' like dandelions, clover, and chickweed that we diligently work to destroy with lawn chemicals are actually quite beneficial to pollinator insects such as bees and butterflies. These flowering ground cover plants bloom under the shade of grass blades, providing an early-in-the-season source of food for many vital insect species. They are killed by the broad leaf herbicides we use, eliminating that key insect food source. We should learn to live with these plants rather than kill them.
- Let your grass grow a little longer before mowing. It's tempting to mow weekly to keep up with the Joneses, but that practice lends little environmental benefit. For one, mowing frequently requires more gasoline or electricity, depending on the kind of mower you have, leading to a greater demand for fossil fuels and releasing more emissions into our air. Additionally, if you let your grass grow for two weeks (or more) rather than cropping it back each week, you'll give flowering ground cover plants a chance to flourish, adding to the diversity in your lawn and permitting a much-needed source of food for pollinators to thrive. If you plan to add ground cover plants to your yard, do your research to make sure you aren't introducing any invasive, non-native species to the area.
- Keep a 'messy' garden. We've heard the phrase 'organized mess' when referring to someone's desk or office. A messy garden follows a similar logic: what may appear a little disorderly at first glance actually has a real purpose behind it. We are programmed to want to clear out dead leaves, branches, and grass clippings from our landscaping as soon as possible. But many insects and beneficial garden critters actually rely on this 'garden waste' for protection from the elements in the cold months and as a place to house their larvae in the early spring. Plus, all of that dead organic matter serves as a wonderful natural fertilizer and insulator for your perennials! So if you can stand it, leave those dead stalks and leaves alone until temperatures are consistently above 50°.
- Transform areas of lawn to more beneficial vegetation. Lawn isn't great for animal and insect populations because of its lack of diversity, shelter, and food. It's basically just there for human pleasure (I guess we think stretches of plain old lawn is really pretty?). If you want to transform your yard into a space that is more beneficial to life, consider getting rid of areas of plain grass and replacing it with something else: a vegetable garden, native plants, shrubs, and/or trees, or even native grass to help restore part of the 95% of our lost tallgrass prairie. Restoring areas of prairie yard by yard is a growing movement in the Midwest. "Even small patches (of prairie) count as pocket refuges for native wildlife that may have few alternatives."₂ When you make changes to your yard with nature in mind, you will be rewarded with animal and insect visitors that likely had no reason to visit you before. This year we stopped mowing about half of our 5 acres; the number of bird species I see on our property now is such a happy sight. Juncos, Meadowlarks, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals, Cerulean Warblers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Harris's Sparrow, and more.
- Plant natives. In February and March this year, I volunteered with Friends of the Kaw to help clear out invasive winter creeper from the wooded banks of the Kansas River in North Lawrence. Winter creeper is a common landscaping plant used in areas where it's hard to keep grass alive such as under mature trees. It is not native to Kansas and spreads readily from your landscaping into wooded and open areas, which is problematic because it displaces native species that are beneficial to our ecosystem here. Native plants are a food source for other native species, are generally better at preventing erosion and flooding because of their deep root systems, and are kept in check in their natural environment. Invasives like winter creeper can proliferate and wreak havoc because they are typically not a food source for any insect or animal, and they tend to take up ground space and wrap themselves around trees, choking out the native plant species. If you are landscaping your yard or adding to existing landscaping, take the very simply extra step of asking which plants are native. Typically, the proprietor or employee at your local garden center will be able to tell you which are native to the area. Buy those and avoid non-natives so you can make sure that you're not unintentionally damaging our remaining wild spaces.
Making better lawn care and gardening choices is part of our responsibility as stewards of our little blue planet. Global issues like the climate crisis, our reliance on fossil fuels, and the innumerable species we are endangering and causing to go extinct are absolutely cause for action. We need to shift our thinking and put 'consideration for the natural world' at the top of our priority list, and that includes changing the way we think about the nature in our own backyard.
In case you missed it, the UK declared a Climate Emergency this month. You are correct if you are thinking: It's up to governments and corporations to deal with this problem. It absolutely is, but it is also up to each of us. A climate emergency likely would not have been declared if it weren't for the voices of individuals and communities sounding the alarm. We cannot sit idly by and pass off this problem onto 'them'. There is no 'them', there is only 'us', so the responsibility to live with the environment in mind falls in all of our laps. Any step that we can take, big or small, is worth taking if we have the ability to do so. Making small changes in your yard might not seem like it matters, but any opportunity to tip the scales in favor of life rather than against it is one we should take advantage of!
As always, I am more than happy to talk with you about your environmental impact and ways you can improve. This is a movement, not a trend, and it is for everyone, not just a select few. Please send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org, fill out my Let's Talk form, or message me on Instagram if you have questions or want to brainstorm. I am grateful to anyone who takes the time to consider how to be more eco-friendly! For the love of nature, this is about all of us.