Your lawn: green oasis or something you feel vaguely guilty about? Many people these days think that lawns should be a thing of the past. The trouble is, they actually are. We humans evolved on the African savannah; it’s quite natural for us to enjoy grassy vistas dotted with trees. Vast greenswards also signal status. They were a luxury affordable only for the landed aristocracy. What says ‘I’m very rich’ more clearly than several acres dedicated to clipped grass that’s not feeding anything, animal or human? Back then, lawns required the labor of a large number of servants or peasant farmers to maintain. These days, the environment bears the price, as gas-powered lawn equipment belches pollution and chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides poison the air, water, and soil.
Still, the rich of an earlier day were certainly on to something. A lawn can create a very peaceful feeling. It provides a space for play and picnics. Clipped grass makes it more difficult for ticks to transfer from stem to human leg. Culturally, it simply feels right, and some homeowner’s associations actually require lawns. So, what’s an environmentally-conscious lawn-lover to do?
First, decide what’s a minimum amount of lawn that will make you happy. Unless you are a parent to a whole soccer team, likely you don’t need several acres of lawn. Look at the games and activities you do enjoy on your own ground, and center your lawn on an area that accommodates that.
Choose grasses that need little mowing, such as low-growing fescues or buffalo grass. If the grass doesn’t grow tall, you may never need to mow it. Maintain that reduced lawn area with electric equipment. Electric lawn mowers and trimmers are quiet, emission-free, and increasingly affordable. The Spruce gives high marks to two mowers under $170, and three more under $500. Some states even offer rebates to get you to switch from gas-powered machines. Robot lawnmowers are another good option for some people.
Say no to lawn chemicals, including fertilizer. A lawn is an area of low biodiversity already, so it’s important not to reduce it further by killing soil microorganisms and insects. Remember, the fewer bugs, the fewer birds. If there’s a plant or pest you feel you simply must control, find an organic way to do it. An excellent reference for all things lawn is Paul Tukey’s book, The Organic Lawncare Manual.
Having narrowed your lawn, fill in the edges around it with native plantings of trees, shrubs, and flowering perennials. Native is best, because plants, insects, and birds evolve together. It’s one of the astonishing beauties of biodiversity that flowers and mouth-parts can match so perfectly. In fact, they need to match, or a flower’s nectar is simply unavailable to the creatures who evolved to feed on it. Create layered native edges to your lawn, with varying heights of plants from trees all the way down to ground-cover. Biodiversity loves edges, and yours can be as beautiful as a laden buffet table to local wildlife. Remember, biodiversity isn’t some frill; it’s the whole deal, on which life on Earth depends.
What about paths, furniture, and other garden elements? Apply some of the same rules you would to home furnishing. Avoid using conventional concrete; the manufacturing of cement emits large amounts of greenhouse gases. Use alternative cements instead, such as hempcrete, or carbon-sequestering concrete. Cut-stone pavers, while natural, embody a high level of greenhouse gases due to cutting and transportation emissions. Boardwalk or recycled-content unit pavers are a better choice. In general, permeable paths and surfaces are best for the watershed, so consider gravel, or aggregates recycled from your site, perhaps embedded in a grid system. The grid keeps the gravel in place, while allowing water to be absorbed. Avoid tropical hardwood lawn furnishings unless they have a certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. Choose local woods, recycled plastic, or bamboo.
With a little thought, you can create a lawn that makes you feel peaceful, not guilty, and one that’s a pleasure to care for.
Jessie Haas has written more than forty books. She lives in an off-grid cabin in Westminster, VT, for 36 years.