The (un)importance of Lawn

Photo © Mike

While lawns perform some important ecosystem functions, like storing carbon and carrying out photosynthesis, they are biodiversity barrens. They tend to consist of only one or two species of grass, dramatically limiting the potential wildlife they can support. Diversity begets diversity! Some birds, like robins, occasionally visit lawns; however, these heavily-mowed, often chemically-treated, water guzzling, low-diversity areas simply do not provide the elements of habitat needed for supporting diverse wildlife. Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW Madison was quoted in the New York Times on August 12, 2013 as saying “The era of the lawn in West is over.” The good news is that you don’t need to banish your lawn entirely. There are many ways to live in peaceful coexistence.

The era of the lawn in the West is over

Paul Robbins, 2013


Lush Colorado Yard

Photo © W. Michel Kiteley

  • Reduce the area devoted to lawn. Around 60% of the average yard in America is lawn. 1 Often when you move to a new property, lawn is the landscape you inherit. Be mindful. Do you really use all that lawn to its fullest capacity? Or are there parts you use as lawn, for instance, for playing games, having outdoor dinners, or for walking paths, and parts you could let go wild? Take stock. Use the YardMap to imagine the parts of your yard you use as lawn, and envision replacing the parts you don’t with native vegetation, shrubs, a pond, or wildflowers.
    Reduce your lawn size

    Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

  • Mow high: 3-4″ and use sharp blades for healthier grass.
  • Use a push mower if you can. Each hour of lawn mowing generates as much pollution as driving a car nearly 100 miles! 2 It would take 4,110 years for one person to mow the nation’s lawn. That’s a lot of pollution.
  • Push Mower

    Photo © SarahFranco
  • Reduce your use of chemical aids on your lawn. Most of us are over-fertilizing, over-watering, and over-spraying our yards. Less is more; apply only what your plants can use.
  • If you have a shady area unsuitable for growing grass, try an alternative ground cover like mosses, ferns, or rock gardens.
Top U.S. crops by land area

Photo © ScienceLine

Everything in Moderation

“That’s great,” you say, “but I enjoy having some lawn.” If you really use your lawn a lot and soil testing has revealed that you should fertilize it, be aware that more is not always better. Unneeded fertilizer simply runs off into the local water body where it harms fish populations, drains to the ocean where it contributes to so-called “dead zones”, promotes toxic algal blooms, or diminishes recreational value. While it’s true that agriculture is a more significant source of excess nitrogen (a problematic component of fertilizers) than private lawns, that’s not to say you can’t do your part and cut back on fertilizing. What can you do instead?

  1. Leave grass clippings or mulched leaves to decompose on the lawn over time- their nutrients stay put even if you happen to get significant rain.
  2. Use compost or compost tea, “slow-release” organic rock fertilizers, or limestone to fertilize lawns.
  3. Consider replacing your lawn with native grass mixes, which need less interventions than exotic grasses, and make darn fine lawns, too!
  4. It’s best to use natural fertilizers (like compost) over fossil-fuel derived synthetic fertilizers, but if you use synthetics, you should always follow product instructions for proper application, as over-applying fertilizer could burn your lawn. Where possible, opt for a slow-release alternative over quick-release products.

How to smother unwanted lawn

This technique works really well for when you want to replace a lawn with a planting bed for flowers, or shrubs. You are creating a biodegradable barrier that most grasses and perennial weeds will not be able to penetrate. This mulch + newspaper technique turns your lawn into a rich, plantable substrate in a few months without any digging or removing of organic material. You are, instead, turning your old lawn into fertilizer for your new plants!

Many people choose to smother their lawns at the end of one planting season, and wait until the beginning of the new planting season before introducing new plants. You could also replace the mulch with gravel, if you were xeriscaping your property.

Smothering a lawn

Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

  1. Decide what goes, and what stays, and mark out the edges
  2. Gather a lot of old newspapers
  3. Cover the lawn with newspaper 10-12 pages thick (overlapping the newspaper pages by 5 or 6 inches at the edges).
  4. Cover the papers with six to ten inches of wood chip mulch. If you are doing a large space it helps to do it in stages, so the first paper you lay down isn’t blown away by the wind by the time you return to put mulch on it. You can also wet it lightly to help keep the newspaper in its place

It will be several months before the lawn is smothered and you may safely dig planting holes without reawakening grass and weeds. A handful of hardy taprooted weeds (dandelions, for instance) may still come up, but you should be able to easily dig them out. If your mulch is unsterilized (as is most free mulch), it may contain seeds.

Aside from easier bed creation, smothering’s major benefit is in using, not hauling away, the organic materials in the lawn. Your smothered lawn, the newspapers, and the wood chips will all eventually meld together (thanks to worms and other decomposers) into a nutrient-rich topsoil much deeper than the one you’d have started with after digging up the sod.

Lawn is a Crop

We 'produce' a LOT of lawn in the United States. Estimates place the amount of lawn we cultivate between 3 and 4 times the amount of any other crop. This has a dramatic impact on our landscapes and wildlife. Our perspective? Lawns aren't evil, but they are kind of boring. Think of all the other amazing things we could put that space to use for--saving time, money, and water along the way.

Photo © Peter Kaminski

The eye of the beholder

Photo © Mike Martin

Weedy land saves bees

Bees have been in the news lately as research continues to show their populations are in trouble. In Europe certain pesticides shown to negatively impact bees were even outlawed for the next couple of years to help populations recover. You can help-out by letting small corners of your yard go fallow. The resulting wildflowers are important forage for bees, native and the like. It is an easy, and important step many people can take, that might just have a big impact on these wild pollinators.

Photo © Jonathan Campos

Brown is Normal

Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Accidental Spillage

Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Lawn Mower Comparison

Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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