Alternatives to standard grass lawns

Many people are surprised to learn that current lawn practices wreak havoc on the environment. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, watering, and lawn equipment such as lawn mowers produce myriads of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Fortunately, there are numerous alternatives that both enhance the health and biodiversity of the environment and help to mitigate climate change. For example, both prairies and gardens store more carbon than lawns.

Standard lawns contribute to environmental damage and climate change in many ways. Large amounts of fossil fuels are used to produce chemical fertilizers which damage the environment and cause harm to the health of humans and pets. Safe and ecological ways to fertilize lawns are available. Removing grass clippings can result in a loss of 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. It is better to retain them on lawns as they provide important nutrients.

Doing so will also eliminate many plastic bags made from petroleum along with the associated energy used to manufacture these bags and transport them to landfills. Instead of pesticides, attract predators of pests. Rather than applying dangerous herbicides use natural methods, such as temporarily covering ground so that the old weeds die off.

Mowing lawns also consumes a lot of fossil fuels. It is better to use an old-fashioned push mower and allow the lawn to grow taller. This causes the roots to grow deeper, which protects lawns from low rainfall levels. Moreover, taller grass shades soil which means the roots won’t dry out as fast. Taller grass also retards weed growth.

Many native grass species have 70” to 140” long roots that can store 20 to 40 times more carbon than turf grass which has much shorter roots and thus stores much less carbon. Many species do not even require mowing.

Watering lawns is also detrimental to the environment and contributes to climate change. Eliminate it entirely or keep watering to a minimum. Landscaping has been estimated to consume 50% of US domestic water, and many homeowners apply twice as much water as lawns need. When grass turns brown, it is dormant, but not dead and will revive after rainfall.

Pumping water to mow lawns requires electricity. The city of Irvine, California estimated that watering one acre of lawn every year consumes as much energy as mowing that lawn, and fossil fuels are burned to produce that electricity. Therefore, cutting down or eliminating watering will reduce climate change. Switching to native plants adapted to local precipitation rates will enable you to do so.

Connect rain barrels to downspouts and save rainwater for watering lawns and plants. Or direct water from downspouts to rain gardens, which are shallow depressions planted with water-tolerant native plants. There are numerous methods of landscaping for innovative yards. Redesigning back yards isn’t controversial. However, unusual front lawn landscaping might raise objections from neighbourhood organizations and local governments.

Fortunately, increasing awareness of climate change and limitations on water and energy use is gradually improving tolerance for innovations. Transition to alternative front lawns by gradually creating beautiful landscaping.

Adding such features as birdbaths and other garden ornaments can prevent the yard from appearing abandoned or neglected. A low curving path is quite attractive, as trimming or growing plants into interesting shapes. Create mazes or labyrinths, knot gardens, low hedges forming knots, or topiary, trees and shrubs shaped into interesting forms.
Creating a biodiverse mini-environment is the central principle of the new yard. Plant many different species. This will promote a healthy environment, attract wildlife, such as butterflies and birds, and attract predators of local pests.

Perennial grasses and other plants save time and money. They also will cut down on greenhouse gases because the soil will not have to be worked and resources and energy will not be used to raise new seedlings. Always choose plants that are right for soil pH and type of soil, such as clay or sand, soil moisture, sun or shade, and plant tolerance for cold and hot temperatures. Native plants are generally best, and it is important to avoid invasives. Purchase plants that have been grown no more than 100 miles from your household.

In addition to benefits for the environment, alternative lawns save money. The Owens Corning world headquarters found that the annual cost per acre for their prairie was $140 versus $6,675 for their lawn. A General Electric location spent $25 per acre for their prairie versus $1,500 for their lawn.

Once prairies are established, they don’t require fertilizer or pesticides, require minimal weeding and only annual mowing. Prairie plants have evolved to thrive in drought. Some of them have roots that are more than ten feet deep. Countless beautiful prairie grass and wildflower species thrive in all sorts of colors.

Moss makes an excellent groundcover. It can be walked on and does not need mowing. Moreover, it doesn’t require fertilizer or pesticides, and its density prevents weeds. Moss is found throughout the US from deserts to hot, humid areas, temperate climates, and the Arctic regions. It is tolerant of various types of soil conditions and pH ranges. Moss does not require watering, goes dormant during dry spells, and rapidly rejuvenates with rainfall. It is also excellent at sequestering carbon. Annie Martin in The Magical World of Moss Gardening references researcher Janice Glime, who states that Sphagnum moss may sequester more carbon than any other land plant.

Some species actually add nutrients to the landscape. For example, white clover is a legume that has bacteria on its root nodules which make nitrogen available to the plant. It requires little or watering or mowing as it only grows 3 to 4” tall, unless you want to eliminate the flowers. Microclover is a dwarf white clover that has an attractive dark green color and does not produce as many flowers as white clover.

If grass is the only acceptable option, grow a grass species adapted to your particular environment. For example, Buffalo grass doesn’t require fertilizer or pesticides, is resistant to both extreme heat and cold, is tolerant of foot traffic, and is drought resistant. Stampede buffalo grass is a semi-dwarf variety that only grows 4”. Zoysia thrives in poor soil, is drought resistant, is resistant to insects and disease, crowds out weeds, and requires less mowing than most other grasses.

There are various blends of grasses designed for different regions of the US. No-Mow Lawn Mix contains six different fescues which don’t require fertilizers or herbicides as weed invasion is inhibited by its dense root system. It needs mowing only once or twice a year, is drought resistant and requires minimum watering, and tolerates moderate foot traffic. Eco-Lawn also contains a mixture of fescue grasses. It doesn’t require fertilizers, is highly drought resistant, and is slow growing, thus mowing.

Another blend is Habiturf, which is a native grass mix for hot summer, low rainfall areas. It requires minimum fertilizer, water and mowing. The new lawn is not limited to the grass family. Mat-forming plants cover the ground with a layer of foliage that ranges from flat to a height of 6” tall. The following species are suitable grass replacements. Pussytoes grow less than an inch high and tolerate some foot traffic. Veronica oltensis grows 1” tall and is tolerant of moderate foot traffic. Creeping mazus grows under two inches and can handle moderate traffic. Phedimus spurious “John Creech” grows up to 2 inches. There are various thymes that do not grow very tall. For example, red creeping thyme grows to a height of 2’ to 4” and is walkable. Creeping Sedum grows 4” to 6” tall and tolerates moderate foot traffic. There are some varieties of bearberry that grow less than 6 inches. Creeping phlox grows under six inches. Sweet woodruff grows six to eight inches tall, can be mowed, and recovers from light foot traffic.

There are many low-growing plants that can be grown, such as sweet alyssum and creeping rosemary. Iris moss is not a moss and grows just one to two inches tall. Corsican mint, also known as creeping mint, only grows ½ to 1” tall. Miniature sedges grow from 1” to 2”. Some rushes only grow 2” high. Yarrow is a low-growing perennial that forms a thick, carpetlike texture 2” to 4” tall and can be mowed to 2” to remove the flowers. It is drought-tolerant and stays green all summer.

Another alternative is to create an edible landscape. Less land thus needed for farming and could be used to preserve natural habitats and biodiversity. Choose perennials such as raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, asparagus, rhubarb, and Jerusalem artichokes, which taste similar to potatoes.

Edible landscapes are attractive as well as providing vegetables, fruit, and herbs. Both cottage gardens and potagers include vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Potagers are stylized gardens often laid out in geometric patterns. Cottage gardens are designed to look much less formal and are quite charming. Edible flowers increase the nutrient value of the garden.

Some edible plants are colourful and attractive. Examples include pink garlic, rainbow swiss chard, red or purple kohlrabi, purple basils, purple-red cabbages and kale, and red Aztec spinach and lettuces. Much food can be grown in gardens. During WWII the US alone had 20 million victory gardens which by 1944 were producing more than 40% of the country’s vegetables.

Over 80% of American households grew some of their own food. Fewer fossil fuels are used in gardens since there is less machinery usage, food waste, and transportation. Going organic eliminates even more fossil fuels used for fertilizers and pesticides. Organic matter added as compost sequesters the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). One estimate is that increasing the organic material in the top 1” of soil from 1% to 4% would sequester more than 50 billion pounds of CO2.

According to a study performed by UC Santa Barbara professor David Cleveland published in Landscape and Urban Planning, every kilogram of homegrown vegetables (around 2.2 pounds), reduces greenhouse gas emissions are by 2 kilograms (around 4.4 pounds) compared with store-bought vegetables.

Soil treatments and the actual physical arrangement of plants affect the environment and can even affect climate change. Since tilling oxidizes soil organic matter and releases CO2 into the environment it should be avoided. When plants are grown densely, they reduce weeds, lower the need for energy-intensive food from many miles away, and conserve water. Vertical gardening on fences, gates, walls, etc. also increases yields.

Planting trees is beneficial and saves money on heating and cooling. Deciduous shade trees planted on the south and west sides of buildings can cool them by as much as ten degrees, while allowing the sun to warm them in winter. Moreover, planting moss under the trees will result in less grass to mow and maintain. By serving as a windbreaker, evergreen trees on the north side of buildings can lower the need for winter heating. The cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to ten room-size air conditions operating 20 hours per day. According to “A Guide to Growing Environmentally Friendly Lawns and Gardens” three well-placed trees around a home can result in a 30% reduction in home energy bills.

Windbreaks serve multiple purposes. A 12’ tree sequesters half a ton of carbon each year. A dwarf fruit tree sequesters 200 pounds of carbon each year and can yield many pounds of fruit annually. Planting fruit trees such as apples, pears, or cherries will cut down on greenhouse gases because these trees store carbon dioxide, and processing and transportation of these fruits to stores will be eliminated. Windbreaks can also provide habitat for wildlife ranging from beneficial insects to birds.

Arrange them so they will direct snow where you want it to go. Forest gardening is also beneficial, and it doesn’t require fertilizing, pesticides, watering or mowing. Forest gardening provides higher yields than monocropping in rows. The following statistics from Forest Farming—Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation show that apple trees can yield seven tons per acre; walnuts from 10 to 15; pecans from 9 to 11; and hazelnuts from 9 to 12.

In comparison, cereal crops yield about 1½ tons per acre. Various herbs and mushrooms, especially shitakes, can also be grown. Increase yields by training grapes to grow up fruit trees. Thus, yards do not have to consume vast amounts of fossil fuels. Yards can sequester CO2 instead of increasing global climate change. There are many attractive alternatives to current lawn practices. Instead of monocropping, a biodiverse environment can be created. Also, these visually attractive havens can add necessary nutrition to the nation.

Lenore Hitchler

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    By: ONE Team

    ONE is a nonprofit magazine founded in 2014, dedicated to providing unbiased and independent commentary and reporting on energy and environment issues. ONE policy pursues the following principles: accuracy, integrity and transparency.
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