Somewhere deep down inside we all know that our lawns are not eco-friendly. When I installed sod at my house two years ago, my wallet and I were shocked to discover how much water it took to get the roots to establish. Amy Poehler recently got fined for using 170,000 gallons of water in just two months — that’s 12,000 gallons per day or over 60 times as much as the average Angeleno. I doubt it was because she was busy refilling her swimming pool over and over and over. More likely her home uses water-guzzling landscaping that, in the arid desert of Los Angeles almost entirely depends on municipal water to feed.
Irrigation is just the beginning of issues surrounding the environmental impact of lawns. Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are used in abundance in the U.S. and seep into soil and water sources. Generous application of them affects not only wildlife, but exposes us, our pets and our children to harmful toxins in the very grass we walk and lounge on. Fertilizers leak nitrous oxide (a potent greenhouse gas) into the air. Poorly regulated, gas-fueled lawnmowers and weed whackers use petroleum for power and pollute the air with more greenhouse gas emissions. And monoculture lawns provide an inhospitable habitat for native species and shallow root systems that do not provide the natural carbon leaching of native plants that helps keep our water clean.
This last point is possibly the least obvious and least understood. According to the enlightening article, “Why Prairies Matter and Lawns Don’t,” greener alternatives to planting non-native, resource-intensive, short-rooted turf grass include maintaining native species, woodlands and forests (as in, leaving it wild) or at the very least planting productive gardens or less intensive xeriscape. So let’s take a minute to explore these and other alternatives to traditional land.
Xeriscaping – Creative landscaping that reduces water consumption by 50-70%. Xeriscaping also reduces maintenance, eliminates use of pesticides and fertilizers and eliminates the need for gas-powered mowers and whackers. Xeriscaping can incorporate use of native plants, shrubs and trees (especially drought-resistant plants) in conjunction with mulch to maintain moisture in the soil and provide a native habitat for local wildlife. Xeriscaping requires little, if any irrigation. For all kinds of tips on xeriscaping, visit EarthEasy.com.
Ground Cover – Many other plants can create a ground cover instead of grass and require no fertilizers, pesticides or mowing as they are naturally low-growing and weed-chocking. They also require very little water. Some ground covering plants, like strawberries and low-growing herbs, are also edible. Others are flowering. Clover is great for growing deep roots that keep the soil rich in nitrogen, stays green even in the driest parts of summer and costs very little to plant. EarthEasy.com also has more information on ground cover.
Native Grass Lawn – Instead of putting down sod, consider planting native grasses that support native species. Though native grasses are more work to establish, they require no pesticides or fertilizers and less water. Plus, you can decide between mowing to the same short grass turf length of a traditional lawn or letting the plants grow to their natural height and intermix them with native wildflowers. For more on native grass, check out LessLawn.com.
Leave it Wild – Let woodlands, prairies and forests be. Clear out fallen trees and debris for a cleaner look. Seed with local wildflowers. Add rock accents. A natural back yard can look amazing while being planet friendly.
Artificial Turf – Fake grass uses no pesticides, fertilizers, lawn mowers or water (except when they need a cleaning due, for example due to pet usage). This increasingly popular choice for “eco-friendly” lawns and fields comes with some drawbacks. Made from nylon or polyethylene, artificial turf has produces pollution from manufacturing, cannot be recycled and does decompose upon disposal. Because turf is not naturally self cleaning like grass, some brands are designed to release antimicrobial silver ions to protect human users from the spread of germs. Though these silver ions are safe for humans, they are harmful to aquatic environments where they have the potential to bioaccumulate. Preliminary life cycle analyses of turf fields show that artificial turf may have a lower impact than grass fields, but more research needs to be done to fully understand the impacts of artificial turf.
Making your grass lawn greener
If you still opt for maintaining a grass lawn, you may want to consider these tips to help you make your lawn just a little bit greener (thanks to the Huffington Post for help with this list):
- Consider shaping your lawn using flower beds to reduce the overall square footage used for grass turf and to create a continuous path for mowing in order to save on mowing resources.
- Fertilize with organic compost or use a slow release, phosphorous-free, organic fertilizer instead of a water-soluble type and make sure to apply it only when there is no rain on the forecast (or it will run off your property and be useless to the grass and harmful to water sources).
- Do not use pesticides, as they kill insect diversity.
- Instead of attacking every “weed” in your yard with weed killer, consider permitting a mixture of turf grass and other plants in your grass and mow it all as usual.
- In high traffic areas and wherever you have to continually replace the sod, consider replacing turf grass with hardier, native vegetation, such as ground cover.
- Where foot traffic is low, consider replacing grass with native plants.
- Use a WaterSense labeled irrigation controller to save an average of 8,000 gallons of water per year. Calibrate your system to minimize water applied to your yard. Water a maximum of 2-3 times per week. Always water at night or in the early morning (before 7am) to avoid wasting water through evaporation due to higher daytime temperatures. Use drip irrigation wherever possible.
- Fix leaks in your sprinkler system immediately.
- Compost yard waste.
- Replace your gas-fueled lawn mower with a reel mower or electric mower. Use a battery-powered weed whacker.
- If you use a lawn maintenance service, ask questions and request a greener alternative or switch to a company that uses alternative, greener lawn maintenance products and tools.
What can you do today?
Think of ways you are willing to change your daily habits to make your landscaping less harmful on the environment and make a plan to put these changes into action. Consider organizing your neighbors to let your borders go wild and create the larger patches of natural habitat required for many wildlife species to survive, particularly in residential and commercial developments where native habitat often gets shut out by non-native turf lawns.
Featured article of the day: For those of you who own pools, check out this article in The Guardian for ideas on how to make your pool more eco-friendly or see some stunning examples of sustainable, natural pools in Good Housekeeping.
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