Lawn, Who Needs It?

Most Americans say they love grass. We assert that it’s lovely to walk barefoot across a lush carpet of lawn. It’s a place where the children can frolic, the grown-ups can enjoy a festive garden party, and teenagers can play a game of touch football. Everyone in the neighborhood envies a large, manicured, weed-free front lawn, a sure sign of prosperity, high standards, and diligence—so we say.

However, there are good reasons to dislike grass. A beautiful lawn is hard work. The average homeowner spends 40 hours a year mowing. Originating in England, turf grass is not adapted to our climate, so we must also expend additional time and money to supplying water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Plus, consider the effects on the environment. Between 30% to 60% of the municipal water is used for lawns; but, unfortunately, because grass is shallow-rooted and cropped short, most of this water, up to 80%, is never absorbed into the ground at all. It runs off into the local watershed or culvert carrying the pollutants with it. A gas-powered lawnmower in use for an hour emits as much pollution as a car driven 350 miles. Anyway, a lawn is a sterile monoculture providing virtually no food, water, cover, or places to raise young for the wildlife we profess to love. Aren’t we crazy to keep up our love affair with grass? And, besides, how many of us really do skip barefoot across the grass or play lawn games.

Yes, there are attractive, less time-consuming, and ecologically friendly alternatives to grass. In the long run these options are less expensive, too. Native plants, whether they are trees, shrubs, ferns, grasses, or perennials, are adapted to our local climate and soil conditions, so they require virtually no water, fertilizer, pesticides, or other additives. To begin reducing your lawn, you can simply add plants in front of foundation shrubs or expand an existing flowerbed with native perennials and grasses. At the back and sides of your property, you can create a wooded area by planting trees and shrubs. Any isolated trees in your yard can be linked together with understory trees, shrubs, and shade-loving perennials to make woodland groves. In a sunny area, plant a garden of perennials and vines for hummingbirds and butterflies. If you have an expanse of lawn that gets full sun, you may want to consider installing a meadow with wildflowers and native warm season grasses. Even traditional flowerbeds and vegetable gardens are friendlier to wildlife than a sterile lawn.

Before beginning any of these projects, make a landscape design sketch to show how you want your yard to look in five to ten years. A landscape architect really isn’t necessary. On a piece of graph paper first draw in your house, patio, driveway, and any other existing structures. Fill in whatever landscape features like trees and flowerbeds that are already present. Then start thinking long term and sketch in any new elements such as a deck, house addition, shed, or water feature you plan to install. Now consider how much lawn you want to keep for yard games, picnicking, dog play, or just open area in front of your house. Then, for the rest of the yard, sketch in the locations and shapes of the habitat gardens you wish to add. Be sure to include pathways that will allow you to meander through the various habitats or efficiently access a shed or compost pile.

Unless you can hire a landscaper with a crew of gardeners, you will probably want to transform your lawn to a wildlife habitat gradually, one project at a time. After selecting your first project, use a garden hose to mark the edges of the area you wish to plant. Instead of straight lines, keep adjusting the placement of the hose to create natural, sweeping curves that appeal to you. There is no need to disturb the soil by tilling the bed, but in most cases you will need to get rid of the grass. One way is to cut strips through the sod with a straight-edged shovel and then undercut about one to two inches. With a rented stripper you can do this job more quickly and easily. Another method is to smother the grass by covering it with black plastic or a thick layer of newspapers, either of which should be weighted down by about four inches of wood chips or other mulch. It will take up to six months to completely kill the grass this way. Or you can smother it with a six to eight inch layer of chopped leaves that will decompose and be incorporated into the soil over the course of six to nine months.

Once you have prepared the bed, you are ready to plant. Remember that no fertilizers or other soil amendments should be necessary when you are using native plants. Next month’s column will discuss locating, selecting, and using native plants.

Perhaps, we can learn to hate the large, weed-free lawn that is so emblematic of suburbia. I myself have been known to remark to a nature-loving friend, “Ugh, isn’t it ugly!” I’ve come to love small weedy lawns where the homeowners have evidently thrown away their sprinklers and pesticide sprayers. Maybe all they’re using to cut the patches of grass is a push mower.

I hope you can join me in admiring the attractive, yet carefree, wildlife-friendly yard.