Americans have come to value green lawns. Thick, homogeneous, bright green grass is a sign of prosperity. Have you ever asked yourself why? As any homeowner can tell you, lush green grass takes a lot of maintenance, added nutrients, chemicals and plenty of water. While it might be a sign of prosperity, it’s not natural.
Too Much Fertilizer Causes Water Pollution
Traditional gardeners will recommend that you put nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium on your lawn. Scotts even recommends that you “feed” your lawn four times a year. They also recommend that you put “weed control” on your lawn several times a year. “Weed control” is another way of saying “chemicals that kill some plants.” While these things can be made of natural ingredients, they are still chemicals. The Lowe’s website has a warning about fertilizer that says “As an added safety precaution, wear goggles, a dust mask, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and rubber boots when applying fertilizer. Be sure to keep people and pets off the grass for at least 24 hours after the application or until the lawn is dry. For maximum efficiency and safety, do not apply on windy days.”
With a warning like that, do you really want it on your lawn? Do you want people walking on your lawn and then tracking chemicals into your house?
Many people will point out that the fertilizer dissolves, soaks into the ground and washes off fairly quickly. However, the solubility of these chemicals creates a huge environmental problem. In 1997, the EPA identified nutrients from fertilizing lawns, gardens and crops as a major reason why more than 50% of the lakes in the US have water pollution and algae problems. Phosphorous in particular causes overgrowth of algae and is directly and indirectly related to reduced oxygen in water bodies and creating an inhospitable climate for fish and other aquatic life.
In 2011 the EPA estimated that switching to phosphorus-free fertilizers could save $103 million a year in clean up costs for one river basin, alone (the Charles River Basin in Massachusetts). As of 2011 nine states had instituted bans or limits on phosphorous in fertilizer.
You can have a nice lawn without the use of fertilizers, it may just be a more natural green color than the lawns of your neighbors that use high amounts of chemical fertilizers. Not buying & spreading fertilizers will also save you time and money. As a greener alternative, clover is very effective at fixing nitrogen in your soil and is a pretty green color. Spreading clover through your yard can enhance the quality of the grass, gives it a natural look and doesn’t need to be cut as often. Our daughter loves to look for 4-leaf clovers in our yard!
Mowing and Watering
In addition to the chemicals, most lawns require frequent mowing so they don’t become fields. You can use slow growing grass and grass varieties that don’t grow as long, but you still need to mow. A few folks use human powered reel mowers or even better, goats, but for most, they use a dirty gasoline powered lawn mower. Did you know that using a gasoline mower emits 11 times as much pollution as driving your car for the same amount of time? Gasoline lawn mowers account for 5% of all US air pollution.
To save time, money and green house gasses, don’t cut your grass on a strict schedule. Wait until it truly needs to be cut – I recommend before it goes to seed – and cut it a little less often than you have been.
Many people also feel that you need to water a lawn frequently. Your lawn can actually go quite long between watering. If it’s been hot in your area let your kids play water games – sprinklers, hoses or water balloons. That way they’ll have some fun and the grass will get a little extra water. It takes energy to get water to you, so even if water is plentiful in your area, conserving water reduces green house gases and probably saves you money.
Neat Yards Without Grass
I wish I had a magic bullet for having a nice-looking yard that doesn’t have grass. The first thing to do is to think about what you want from your yard. Is it for children to play on? Do you set up a picnic table and chairs? Is it mostly ornamental? Do you have pets that need a place to play? Consider things like a loose stone patio or permeable pavers for a table and chairs, or a flower garden if it’s mostly ornamental. If it is for children to play, should you build a sandbox area? Are you on the edge of woods? Could you let the woods overtake more of your lawn? Children love having lots of interesting smaller play spaces and are just as happy to run between trees as they are across open grass.
I will admit that keeping a nice looking yard without using grass isn’t necessarily simple. We have a small ornamental front yard that I’ve had an ironic problem with for years. We want to have bushes, flowers and mulch. However, most years I end up with so much grass and crab grass that sometimes I mow it. This year I got all the weeds & grass pulled out, but it was a major effort. While the idea of letting your yard go wild has a lot of appeal to the busy, all-natural person in me, it really isn’t practical. Unless you live in the woods, today’s society expects your yard to look nice and neat. I’ve seen a few lawns that have been allowed to go completely wild, and they just look abandoned, not natural.
Along our driveway we’ve started to use a ground cover that spreads quickly and is sturdy enough to walk on. This helps the dirt next to the driveway clean and filter the runoff, and gives me a better place to stand when getting kids in and out of the car. We’ve also started to reduce the total square footage of lawn in our backyard by planting ground cover under the hedges and allowing it to creep out and take over the edge of the lawn. When we first moved into our house we expanded the flower beds into a vegetable garden along one side of our lawn by adding a short retaining wall. We also converted a corner of our backyard into a raised mulch planting area where we keep our children’s sandbox, a bench and two of our compost bins.
Recently we were at a friend’s house who had a large green lawn. When we looked closely (down on our hands & knees) we saw that while her grass was pretty sparse, it had moss growing through it which made it both soft to walk on and a pretty green color from the street.
There are lots of ways to have a good looking yard without using fertilizers, mowing it frequently or watering just for the sake of watering. This another way you can be good to the environment and while saving yourself time and money.
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