The American Lawn – Be the Envy of the Neighborhood

Once a symbol of affluence, the turfgrass lawn has become ubiquitous, commonplace. Let’s make our yards the envy of the neighborhood and be green.

Front Yard Turf Grass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season) - Photo: Author's Sister-in-Law Katja
Front Yard Turfgrass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season)

If you’ve been following The American Lawn post series, you learned about the origins of our obsession with turfgrass lawns and how our year-round quest to keep them green, weedless, and pest free, in any climate, negatively impacts people and the planet.

This post will explore ideas for converting our turfgrass lawns into yards appropriate for the 21st century—beautiful and environmentally friendly.

Native and Adaptive Plants

Have you ever noticed how some yards stick out in their neighborhoods, but not in a good way? Like a turfgrass lawn surrounded by water-loving tropical plants and flowers sweltering in 100° heat.

I propose the American yard of the 21st century have a sense of place, of belonging; fitting the flora, fauna, and climate of the home’s region.

Yard with Drought Tolerant Grasses and Plants in Phoenix, AZ - Photo: Thomas J. Story, SunsetNative and adaptive grasses, plants, shrubs, flowers, and trees are essential. First, they are local and help us achieve a sense of place in our yard. Second, native and adaptive plants have already invested a lot of time and energy evolving to flourish in our particular area’s soil and climate, rainfall or lack thereof, and have built-in pest resistance, thus they do not require undo amounts of water or a lot of human and chemical intervention.

Turfgrass Alternatives

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to turfgrass lawns. One is sure to meet just about everyone’s climate conditions, individual taste, yard care abilities, and wallet. There is no point in removing a turfgrass lawn only to install a another water hungry landscape that requires just as many chemicals, so choose native and adaptive plants that meet your aesthetic and design criteria.

Let’s look at some options and imagine how we can transform our ordinary turfgrass lawn into an environmentally friendly yard we will enjoy and our neighbors will envy.

Greensward of Creeping Red Fescue - Photo: Stephanie CurtisFor lawn lovers, a greensward of grasses, sedges, or grass like plants that can withstand some foot traffic provides an attractive and environmentally friendly option to turfgrass. Some greensward plants can be mowed to provide a turfgrass like appearance and others are tufted or more informal looking.

Rock Garden with Succulent Plants - Photo: John Evarts, Cachuma Press

rock garden is a good choice for those wanting to make a visual statement and be water wise. Intricate or seemingly random designs can be achieved with various sizes of boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand, interspersed with interesting plants. Succulents with their bold symmetrical shapes are popular rock garden plants.

Tapestry Garden in Seattle, WA - Photo: Jim McCausland, Sunset

tapestry garden mixes sweeps of low growing ground covers with annuals and perennials in an interpretation of the English cottage garden that many Americans seem to admire. A carpet garden is a variation of a tapestry garden and contains broad areas of one or a few types of plants that provide a uniform look.

Meadow in Santa Fe, NM - Photo: Norm Plate, Sunset

When we think of a meadow, we often picture grasses swaying in the breeze dotted with colorful wildflowers. Meadows are grasslands and prairies and can include a wide range of grasses, sedges, shrubs, wildflowers, and bulbs. Meadows are intended to have an effortless informal look that varies throughout the year as different plants bloom and wane.

Grow Your Own Greens - Photo: Rob D. Brodman, Sunset

Do you love to cook? Are you a fan of locally grown organic ingredients? If so, converting a boring turfgrass lawn into your very own farmer’s market garden may be just the thing. Imagine being able to harvest salad makings, pick bell peppers, or snip fresh herbs just steps from your own doorstep. Plant a fruit tree or two and enjoy pears, peaches, lemons, or avocados picked from your own yard. You just might start a new trend in your neighborhood

Transforming Your Yard

Removing a turfgrass lawn and replacing it with an environmentally friendly yard full of native and adaptive plants is not an easy undertaking, but well worth the effort (check the resource section for help and ideas). Visualize your beautiful transformed yard that requires minimal or no water, fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides. Enjoy sleeping in and not waking up your neighbors with noisy polluting gas-powered lawn equipment (make a few bucks and sell it on Craigslist). This is the green part of making your yard the envy of the neighborhood.

If you are not ready to part with your turfgrass lawn completely, consider reducing the size of your lawn and trying out an alternative on a small scale. That way you can keep your lawn and reduce its environmental impact. You never know, you may find your test rock garden or meadow growing and your turfgrass lawn shrinking.

Photo Credits (top to bottom, click on the photo to open link):

  • Front Yard Turf Grass to Vegetable Garden Conversion in Idaho (start of growing season) – Photo: Katja Casson
  • Yard with Drought Tolerant Grasses and Plants in Phoenix, AZ – Photo: Thomas J. Story, Sunset
  • Greensward of Creeping Red Fescue – Photo: Stephanie Curtis, Joan S. Bolton Santa Barbara Garden Design
  • Rock Garden with Succulent Plants – Photo: John Evarts, Cachuma Press
  • Tapestry Garden in Seattle, WA – Photo: Jim McCausland, Sunset
  • Meadow in Santa Fe, NM – Photo: Norm Plate, Sunset
  • Grow You Own Greens – Photo: Rob D. Brodman, Sunset

Related Posts

Resources

The American Lawn – Environmental Impact of Turf Grass

Tract Home Neighborhood with Turf Grass Lawns and White Picket FencesA green, well-manicured turfgrass lawn shows we are good neighbors and symbolizes our affluence. The environmental impact of keeping our lawns green, weedless, and pest free is significant.

A previous post explored how Americans became obsessed with turf grass lawns. In this post, we’ll look at the impact of turfgrass lawns on the environment, people, and other denizens of Earth.

Water Usage

The news is filled with stories of droughts, low water tables, and record high temperatures. Many water utilities, especially in the southeast and southwest, are concerned about being able to provide enough water to meet customer demand.

There are a few areas in the U.S. where turfgrass lawns grow adequately with only rainfall, but most lawns require supplemental watering, especially during the summer.

All the water supplied to our homes is potable (safe for drinking). It takes a lot of energy, resources, and money to provide potable water. Our lawns do not require drinking quality water but they use a lot of it.

Sprinklers Watering a Lawn, Stairs, and the AirThe average American household uses 320 gallons of water a day, of which about 30% is used for watering lawns and gardens (35,040 gallons annually). Of that 30%, as much as 50% is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff (17,520 gallons annually) 1. Picture lawn sprinklers watering the street or running in 100° weather. In a dry climate, water usage increases and outdoor irrigation can reach 50-70% of total household water use 2.

During the summer, water usage can go up over 100% which strains water supplies. This is called peak demand and is similar to the pressure put on power plants when everyone cranks up their air conditioners at the same time.

Like most plants, turfgrass has both growing and dormant periods. We do not like to see dry brown grass on our lawns, even though they might be dormant and still healthy, so we apply extra water in an effort to keep our grass green year round.

Pollution

Human interaction with turfgrass lawns contributes to air, water, soil, and noise pollution.

The fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides we apply to our lawns contribute to pollution even before they arrive at our homes. This is not unique to lawn care products but worth mentioning. Manufacturing products and packaging uses resources and energy and generates air pollution and toxic effluents. The fossil fuel-powered trucks and cars we use to transport products from the factory to the store to our homes add to air pollution.

Fertilizers

Two-Wheeled Lawn Fertilizer Dispenser with Fertilizer on Brown LawnFertilizers contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which are intended to improve the health and greenness of our lawns. There is such a thing as too much of good thing. During watering or rain, fertilizer residue is washed off lawns into street gutters, down storm drains, and ends up in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Too much nitrogen or phosphorus in water causes excess algae growth and decreases oxygen which can create a dead zone where fish and other aquatic life can’t breathe 3.

Pesticides

Each year, Americans put over 70 million pounds of pesticides (insecticides and herbicides) on our lawns to kill bugs and weeds 4. As with fertilizer, residue runs off lawns and contaminates water sources. We contribute extra pollution by rinsing out containers in our driveways and pouring excess or unused pesticides down the drain or street.

I am leery of any product designed to kill something. Chances are it will have unintended consequences. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, many are probable or possible carcinogens and are linked to a myriad of health problems such as birth defects, neurotoxicity, liver and kidney damage, and endocrine system disruption 5.

Lawn Mowers, Edgers, and Blowers

Man Mowing the LawnThe EPA estimates gas-powered lawn and garden equipment is responsible for a whopping 5% of our air pollution. One hour of mowing the lawn with a gas-powered lawn mower emits 11 times more pollution than driving a car for the same hour. 4

That is to say nothing of the noise pollution caused by tens of millions of Americans revving up their lawn mowers, edgers, and blowers every weekend. Who wants to be woken up on Saturday morning by their neighbor’s roaring lawnmower?

Waste

Leaving grass clippings on the lawn is good for lawn health, minimizes the need for fertilizer, and acts as a carbon sink, but clippings look messy and spoil the manicured lawn look Americans seem to value. So, we collect our grass clippings in plastic bags and put them in the trash. In 2011, we sent 14.4 million tons (42.7%) of our yard trimmings to landfills around the country 6. Besides wasting valuable nutrients, transporting grass clippings to landfills generates air pollution, and huge amounts of grass decomposing anaerobically generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Empty lawn care product boxes, bags, and bottles and obsolete, broken, or unwanted equipment thrown in the trash add to the lawn waste stream.

Now we have learned about some of the consequences of our obsession with turfgrass lawns. It is not pretty.

In the next post, we will expand our horizons beyond turfgrass and look at the possibilities for a new American lawn appropriate for the 21st century.

Related Posts

References

  1. EPA WaterSense – Outdoor Water Use in the United States
  2. EPA WaterSense – Research Report on Turfgrass Allowance
  3. EPA – Nutrient Pollution – The Problem
  4. EPA – Beneficial Landscaping
  5. Beyond Pesticides – Lawn Pesticide Facts and Figures
  6. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2011

Resources