Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Why Lawn

Lawn maintenance consumes an incredible amount of time and money.  But what is the purpose of a lawn, and could those resources be put to better use?

Let’s first start with the question:  Why have a lawn?  There are some practical reasons.  Recreation - lawns are often used as open and safe places for children, and some adults, to play.  Protection - having open sightlines around your dwelling, with few hiding spaces can make one feel safer.   Buffer space - keeping nature at a ‘safe’ distance.  This could be to control insects or wildlife, or, in fire prone areas, an open, healthy, lawn can protect a dwelling from fire. Status - a perfect lawn is often equated with ones class.  Going back a century or so, if you had the resources to expend on maintaining a perfect lawn then one must be pretty well off.  

A pretty common sight: large lawns on multiacre lots.  

In his 1841 treatise on landscape gardening, A. J. Downing advocated for the need of having a proper lawn to have a tasteful and civilized property.  He translated the Romantic style of late 18th-century English landscape architects into a form more suited to the United States, particularly in the Hudson Valley and Mid-Atlantic.   Downing was extremely influential in setting the course for American landscape design into the 20th century.  Another key event in making the lawn a standard feature was around 1870 when the reel lawnmower, which had been invented in England, came to the US.  This made keeping a mown lawn more practical. 

Achieving the ‘perfect’ weed-free lawn was made much easier with the development and marketing of the herbicide 2,4 D (1944) for residential use.  A lawn treated with this was made free of nearly all non-grass (dicot) plants.  This meant that most flowering plants which could support pollinators (e.g. clover, fleabanes and heal-all) could be eliminated from lawns.  The result was a nearly flawless (one could say featureless) green carpet of only grass-like (monocot) plants.     

Considering the history of landscape design from earliest times, there seems to be a need for humans to exert control over nature, despite the costs.  People, in general, feel much more comfortable in a landscape that is readable or understandable.  These are places where they can see the ins and outs and how to move through the space.  Think of the composition of a photograph or painting.  There are elements that draw the eye through the piece to a focal point.  Crisp or well defined edges are also important in creating readability.  I’ll admit that I do feel a sense of satisfaction when I look back on an evenly mown and edged green carpet. 

Let’s look at some data about lawns in the United States:

Acreage of lawns   Looking on the internet I found figures of between 40 and 50 million acres of residential turf grass in the US.  Compare that to the total amount of land used to grow corn which averaged at about 90 million acres between 2018-2022 (USDA data).  These figures are based on satellite imagery.  Most corn is grown without irrigation.  If you compare the irrigated acreage for corn of about 12 million acres to that for turf, then you come up with 3-4 times as much lawn as irrigated corn. 

Amount of gas used   Based on EPA figures from 2005, 800 million gallons of gasoline were used to power lawn care equipment each year.  Using this weeks’ national average of $3.72/gal you are talking about $3 billion dollars annually.  On top of that, lawn mowers and other small-engine powered lawn equipment, which have no pollution control devices, are significant contributors to air pollution.  Estimates are that combined landscape care equipment contributes about 5% of the total air pollution, CO, hydrocarbons and NOx .

Amount of water used on residential landscapes   EPA estimates of water use for landscape purposes is 9 billion gals/day (WaterSense 2013).  Most of that is treated potable water that could be used for domestic consumption rather than poured onto the ground.  With the increasing severity of droughts, particularly in areas of the Southwest where population is shifting towards, there are very real problems with providing all the water that is needed. 

So considering that lawns and lawn care have increasing costs and negative effects it is time to ask why and how much lawn can we afford and what are the alternatives.

Trends away from lawns:

No mow May.  Started in England as a push to provide early season pollinators with flowers that are common in English lawns.  Blindly adhering to a no-mow-May program in a country with so many diverse climates and types of lawns as the US is often inappropriate.  To be useful, the lawn or property in question needs to have a population of plants with early blooming flowers that the pollinator population likes.   Depending on the climate the appropriate time for suspending mowing could be as early as February or into the later part of May.  If you have a monoculture of Kentucky blue grass there is little benefit to pollinators in skipping a month of mowing, there is just nothing of benefit there for them.  If you have a diverse ‘lawn’ containing native weeds like violets, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), fleabanes (Erigeron sp.), spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) and the like, then allowing those to come into bloom would have a positive effect.  If you really need to mow, take the effort to mow around the blooming plants until they are done.  Lawns can also be interplanted with spring bulbs.  While not native, very early bulbs like Crocus, Chionodoxa and Scilla can add interest to an early spring lawn.  These bulbs have usually completed their growth and blooming cycle by the time the need for mowing kicks in.

I have been allowing this patch of Philadelphia fleabane
to develop without mowing.  It reaches peak bloom
in mid-May.  I usually mow it down in early June
after it sets some seed. When not in bloom plants survive
as low-growing rosettes.  

While there is the oft repeated advice to never cut more than one third of the length of the grass blade at a time, I rarely let that force me to cut the lawn before I’m ready.  I can’t say that I have ever noticed a problem by occasionally letting the lawn get too long between cuts.  In those cases when I do the biggest problem is the long clippings left on top.  A mulching mower can help deal with that.  All these problems are magnified on the ‘perfect’ lawn, where any imperfection becomes blaringly obvious.  In a diverse, multispecies lawn imperfections blend into the mosaic of plant colors and textures.

Lose the Lawn  This is a phase that is used by many people when voicing their concern about the amount of resources being pouring into and onto lawns.  You can get excellent advise on this subject for university extension services.  Doing an internet search on ‘lose the lawn’ and your state of region can give you information on lawn alternatives suitable for your area.  For example try this link to the UMD extension for the Mid-Atlantic region.

Climate appropriate landscaping   This is another phrase used when talking about more sustainable landscape practices.  Simply put, it is using plants that grow well with the resources that are naturally available.  Native species appropriate to the local climate require much less water and other inputs than turf or other non-adapted species.  When there are no plants suitable, look to using other materials to achieve the design goals.  It also means avoiding the use of plants and materials that require an extraordinary amount of inputs to maintain them.  

As droughts are becoming more frequent and severe, many municipalities are instituting water restrictions and/or offering enticements for installing water efficient landscaping.

What can one do?

>If you have a lawn, mow and water when lawn needs it, rather than on a preset schedule.  This can be difficult with lawn services since making a flexible schedule with multiple clients can be very difficult.  I did see on the web some services that offer options for having a less frequent mowing schedule.  That may be a move in the right direction.  In general lawns maintained at 3-4" have deeper roots making them less dependent on frequent watering.  Also the taller turf shades the soil which reduces weed seed germination and evaporation or soil moisture.

>Replace high maintenance lawn grasses with climate appropriate turf.  The US is divided into 3 zones for turf grass, cool season, warm season and the transitional zone between them.  A nice overview of turf grass types for the various regions of the United States can be found in this blog post from Landscape America.  While most turf grasses are not native to North America a few are.  Buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) is a native species found in the plains from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico.  It has been developed as a drought tolerant turf grass.  A native of the Gulf States, St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) has been cultivated and planted along the east and west coastal areas of the US.  Fine fescues are well adapted to the Pacific Northwest and Northeastern states.  A few subspecies of red fescue (Festuca rubra) are native to North America; however, the blends suited for turf usage contain a variety of fine fescues most of which are not native.  There are at least three blends of these fine fescues that have been selected for use in cool season growing zones that are drought tolerant, need little fertilization.  Look for Eco-Lawn, Eco-grass or No Mow fine fescue blends. 

This patch of lawn is mostly fine fescues that is mown about every two weeks. 
It looks like regular 'grass'.  If I did not mow it it would would develop a
 fine silky, mounded texture that fine fescues are noted for.  

>Develop a tolerance for having mowable green, rather than a perfect cloned lawn.  My lawn, in the Mid-Atlantic region, is a mixture of tall and fine fescues, nimblewill (Muhlenbergia schreberi, a local native species), probably some purple top (Tridens flavus, also native), violets, fleabanes, clover and some less desirable (but tolerable) weedy stuff.  A diverse lawn requires fewer inputs to maintain.

>Consider alternative ground covers.  Regionally native species are preferred because, in addition to requiring little to no mowing, they also support local wildlife.  Some lower growing North American natives that can replace, or be incorporated into a lawn include frog fruit (Phyla sp.); pussy toes (Antennaria sp., for sunny dry conditions), and golden ragwort (Packera aurea, partly sunny, moist conditions).  Moss is perfect for a shady spots. Again, doing a search on ‘lose the lawn’ coupled with your region yields results that offer a list of alternative ground covers.  I recommend focusing on web sites managed by university extension services as providing the most unbiased results.

This patch of golden ragwort bursts into bloom in April. 
It is semi-evergreen and grows to about 6" tall.  It is slowly expanding,
but can be kept under control with mowing.

>Reduce or eliminate fertilization.  In many situations it is a vicious cycle.  Fertilizer is needed to replace the nutrients removed when grass clippings are removed while mowing.  Then, the more fertilizer you add, the more the lawn grows, then the more there is to mow.  By leaving grass clippings in the first place and mowing in the leaves in the fall, you are recycling the nutrients in place and feeding the microbes living in the soil.  Using a mulching mower will reduce the amount of clippings visible on the lawn.

>Reduce area committed to lawn and replace with bedding, meadow-type plantings, successional plantings, or cropping (hay fields).  When reshaping the lawn, go for simple shapes that can be mown efficiently, avoid tight turns and acute angles.  I have one triangular area that requires a lot of backtracking to mow.  A rectangle or oval could be done with less backtracking. 
A successional planting builds on the natural process of succession.  Succession is the natural process where the mix of plants on a site changes over time, and it begins when one stops mowing.  East of the Mississippi River, the sequence is usually bare land becomes grasslands, which in turn becomes shrublands which eventually turns into forests.  This process usually takes many years.  The land owner could  speed up the process by planting desirable shrubs and trees to create an idealized version of the natural landscape.  Intervention by the landowner can also pause succession at various stages such as as a meadow or shrubland.

Here is a possibility of allowing some succession of  local native species
(redbuds, dogwoods, asters, etc.).  Clean edges and sightlines to and
from the dwelling confer intention to the landscape.  This more
diverse landscape offers much more to the local ecology. 

>When creating a new space, clean edges, whether straight or curved, convey a sense of intention in the landscape.  A wilder space surrounded by a clean edge is visually more comforting than a totally wild area.

>Where climate is not suitable for growing plants, use hardscape or inorganic mulches. Hardscape does not have to be impermeable concrete.  Dry laid stones and pavers allow for water infiltration which reduces runoff problems.

>Be creative with the space, put in artwork to fill the space and send a message.  On a recent trip to Sebastapol, CA we visited Florence Ave where many of the residents have sculptures in the front yards by local artist Patrick Amiot. 

This owl sculpture is complemented by a variety of
perennials in this lawn-free front yard.

The minimal landscaping around this catfishing dog works quite well. 
The colors of the spiky New Zealand flax play well with the colors in the statue.

Reducing the area committed to lawn does not have be be done all at once.  It can be done one area at a time, or by expanding planted beds or wilder areas a little bit each year.  I would love to hear about your experiences with reducing resources committed to maintain a lawn.

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