Looking out my window today, across our front perennial beds, I was again struck by the sheer volume of lawn in my subdivision. So I will be embarking on a brief series of posts about yards, their costs, and the beautiful solutions to the ‘traditional’ American lawn. First in the cross hairs will be the ubiquitous gas lawn mower.
In an article this spring the NYtimes posted these stats: “Gallon for gallon — or, given the size of lawnmower tanks, quart for quart — the 2006 lawn mower engines contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions than 2006 cars, according to the California Air Resources Board. In California, lawn mowers provided more than 2 percent of the smog-forming pollution from all engines.” Putting that in perspective the typical lawnmower uses a 1/2 to one gallon a month, it is contributing about as much as the homeowner’s car in the same period. Even with my bias that number staggered me a little. The kicker is that the solution is simple-add a catalytic converter. We aren’t talking the big $200 ones on your car-these are cute little buggers that will only cost about $30 to add on at the factory. If you asked the average American if paying an extra $30 for a measurable (2%) improvement in air quality the vast majority would agree. What gets my goat is that Briggs and Stratton is fighting this tooth and nail. Why? If the EPA mandates it all mowers will need the converters so the playing field will be as level as it is today. Lobbyists are killing our country.
Right now you can’t go buy a converter to add to your mower, so how do you keep you lawn snazzy and your air clean? When we lived in our last house we had a small .1 acre yard that I mowed with a reel mower (great info @ clean air gardening), and when we moved out to our larger .5 acre yard I vowed to keep that little mower. If you keep the lawn short, it mows very well with less effort than horsing around an 80lb gas mower. It’s safer-I typically mow while our two small children play very nearby. It’s quiet-I can mow at 6am on a Sunday, or watch finches at the feeder oblivious to my presence. In fact I find the soft whoosh-whoosh of the spinning blades very soothing-can’t say a Toro ever did that! It’s dang cheap-we paid under $100 for our Craftsman and the only maintenance is a sharpening (takes 20 minutes and if you can turn a crank clockwise you’re qualified) once every 2-3 years. Downside? Taller weeds don’t get cut, and the lawn needs to be kept under 2″ tall- much shorter than is healthy for an organic lawn. Reel mower not tripping your trigger? Try a rechargeable one from Black and Decker-if seen them at Menardies for $350, or get one with a cord for half that. Still whisper quiet and low maintenance-though they cost 2-4 times as much and have some safety concerns around the kiddies. Unless you are off grid they are using energy for lawn maintenance, but it is a fraction of a gas mower and you can grow the grass longer reducing your watering and weeding.
But if you are considering the electric route because the Reel Mower will take too long, the answer is beautifully simple, and simply beautiful-reduce the lawn area with other plantings or even (gasp!) the need to mow at all.
Running with abandon down the slight hill in our backyard with my 4 year old is easily worth the half hour of mowing it takes a week. But the amount of lawn it takes for that is about as much as I need for about the most space intensive outdoor activity I can think of-setting up a volleyball net for a summer party. And that is about as much lawn in the back as I would like to get to. If you too are finding that you would like to reduce your lawn while increasing the enjoyment from your yard, there are several options-most of them easy, some of them cheap, and all of them beautiful.
More Veggie Gardens
You had to know that was coming… Perhaps the worst offender environmentally is not in the resources that the lawn takes, but in those that it doesn’t produce. We Americans spend a ridiculous amount of energy in meeting our everyday needs-exponentially more than we did even a generation ago. Remember the Victory Garden? People used to actually grow a good portion of their own food on their own property. Check out Grow More Vegetables for a great way to get your backyard plot going. 2 beds 4′ by 20′ with a 3′ path down the middle can produce literally hundreds of pounds of produce once established. Even if you just use the planting diagrams, which help you rotate up to 3 different crops in each bed every year, you will be off to a great start. This is how I started-and after tasting the first year’s tomatoes, I put in 2 more beds. And I have 2 more planned for this fall. That will be about 600 sq feet of lawn that is now making food for my larder and if I can figure out food storage-could relieve our family from going to the produce section for months at a time. Another great resource is the Four Season Harvest which teaches skills to extend seasons thru crop selection and cold frames. Gardens are also great for secondary functions-they are a great place to put your compost from all your kitchen scraps, they reconnect you with the seasons and weather, and they are great teachers-not only for my children who love to watch the garden spiders, but for me as nature teaches me what it needs to produce its bounty. Now if the city would just let me have some chickens…
Plant an Orchard
No I am not off my rocker. Okay maybe a growing amount of people think so, but orchards are surprisingly easy. Intimidated by Apples and Peaches? Then try small fruit! Raspberries and blackberries are so easy to grow that some cultures treat them as weeds. They are crazy cheap and need very little care other than some pruning each year. And don’t let the pruning scare you! Raspberries pruning is child’s play-at the end of the season if the cane is brown and barky, its done fruiting so hack it off and compost it. Boom-you’re done pruning. Still too hard? Get an everbearing variety and cut all the canes down each fall. Simple as pie… really, really, good raspberry pie! And why are you afraid of Apples and Peaches? First read: The Backyard Orchardist to become an instant expert and then get going. Plant a dwarf variety and you don’t need a ladder to pick them, infact in an area about 20′ by 30′ you can grow at least 2 trees each of Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Paw Paw (look for a future post as I try just that!) here in zone 4/5. 600 sq ft of lawn gone and even more food for your family! My orchard will be two rows of trees with strawberries as a groundcover and a meandering clover path down the middle and sides for access, nitrogen fixing, and beneficial insect attraction. Last year I planted 125 strawberries. That sounds like a lot-and it is. In fact everyone thought I was loco, but eating a quart of fresh, incredibly sweet strawberries every day in June was perhaps as close to culinary heaven as I can get. Even though they are not very local or small farm-I use Nourse Farms for all my small fruit. They are crazy cheap, offer heirlooms, have good quality and, well, they’re crazy cheap. If you can find local fruit plants buy them!
We have 3 island beds and our house is literally surrounded by 4′ to 6′ of perennial beds. Of all the de-lawning we have done this has had the biggest impact in sq footage: over 2000 sq ft so far. By choosing hardy, drought tolerant plants (Mediterranean varieties do well both wet and dry as do natives) will cut your watering bill immensely. A trip to the library will help immensely with planting ideas to stretch the bloom across the summer, or get the Prairie Nursery’s Catalog for some great garden ideas. Putting in perennial beds can be expensive- there is no doubt. We went in big the first year, and are adding about 500 sq feet each year with splits and a few extras from the nursery that catch our eye. Local garden clubs often have plant swaps, or even better ring the bell of that beautiful house on the corner whose flowers you have always admired. For the price of some conversation you will almost certainly leave with more splits than you can carry, and will have made a human connection in your neighborhood. Gardeners love to talk shop! As perennial beds are often plant once deals, do the soil prep and weed prevention right-incorporate lots of organic matter and compost, and lay some weed barrier (newspaper works great) and then mulch the dickens out of it: at least 4″, 6 would be better. Your village Public Works or utility will almost certainly have a pile of free wood chips if you give them a call. If you want/need something more decorative put the free chips down 4″ deep and top dress with the ‘pretty’ stuff. Personally the free stuff looks fine to me. The added benefit of surrounding your lawn with gardens is that you can sculpt the perimeter to round off all sharp corners-drastically reducing mowing time.
Perennial beds also don’t have to be all flowers-edilbe landscaping works. We have several fruit bearing shrubs in our gardens, and sunchokes are beautiful sunflowers in late summer, and a tasty potato substitute after first frost.
Eating beats mowing!
You don’t have to mow a deck! To be eco-riffic find some sustainably harvested cedar or redwood for the deck, or if you are going for a patio use a permeable stone patio instead of a concrete slab. Not only does this drastically reduce water runoff, but you can also get very creative with the seams-plant some thyme in the sand between the stones to add some fragrance to your evenings. Also, you can go 3-D and raise an arbor over your patio-not only does this keep the sun off, but it also happens to be a great place to grow clematis, grapes or kiwi to not only keep you cool and shaded, but from getting hungry as well! Figure at least another 250 sq ft gone.
There are numerous other ways to reduce your amount of lawn. We have planted a raingarden under every downspout (about 400 sq ft each), installed 100′ of wood chip paths along walkways that wouldn’t grow much grass anyhow, and we have even converted the back 10′ of our yard to a prairie plantation that is home to several monarch caterpillars.
Adding beauty and flavor, and utility to your yard is a fantastic way to reduce the drab, resource and time intensive American lawn, but having a right sized place to play with the family or dog is important too.
So with the goal of minimizing the amount of lawn to a sustainable level, we have already seen the great amount of choices for simultaneously increasing beauty and utility, while reducing maintenance inputs of both labor and resources (water and fertilizer). The dual benefit of receiving more enjoyment and use from your yard, while also spending less time mowing is a powerful draw. But I also feel strongly that in many cases some lawn is useful-especially with my young children and 3 dogs.
When we first moved we knew that we didn’t have the time or funds to dispense with the lawn immediately. But we laid out the initial plot with the end in mind, and then planted the ‘lawn’ with Olds Seeds’ Care Free seed mix. Blue grass went i nthe front yard for appearance’s sake, but it is a pain, easily needing twice the mowing, water and TLC-doing it again I would have put the Care Free everywhere and just mowed the front. It, like most ‘no mow’ mixes, is a variety of low growing, drought resistant fescues that will grow about 4″ tall and then fall over to give a luxuriant flowing sea of green that is a living mulch to surpress weeds and reduce the need for additional water. The pictures looked great, the ideas made sense, and the seed was no more expensive than the typical grass seed I was looking for. We have now annualized our first season and I have some learnings to share:
Things to Know about No Mow:
1) You will still need to mow. A lot less, but when the seed stalks come up, and also for any weeds. Don’t give the mower away for a few years
2) Weeds ruin the effect. The fescues do indeed fall over at 4″, but continue growing to 8″ or so. If there is a plantain, non fescue grass, or dandelion in the lawn they will prop the No Mow up to its full 8-12″. That looks like crud and gets me nasty letters from our city. Mowing 8″ grass with a reel mower stinks. So until I get the weeds and quack grass out I will be mowing the back.
3) Reduced watering is different than no watering. We let the back yard go this summer and did not water in July and the grass went dormant like normal. Now in August the grass lower on the hill (slightly wetter) is coming back, but the brown spots on the top third are dead. Oops.
4) It can be mowed, and looks fine when done so. Even with mowing it every other week to keep the quack grass down we are still ahead of the game due to no fertilizer and drastically less water needed.
I believe the No Mow is a viable solution with good soil-our is very dense clay with very little organic matter which encourages plantain and dandelion. For now I will continue to overseed no mow as I spot weed, and will mow it a few times a month. My belief is that we will be at a sustainable no-mow in 2-3 years as it gets established, chokes out the weeds, and I get the soil to come back from the dead. How? Read on!
I love clover. Why?
1) It fixes nitrogen!! A lawn with clover in the mix will need 33% less nitrogen annually. Interplant it witha low nitrogen requiring fescue and that jumps to 66% less.
2) It makes mad roots which gives two advantages: it stays green virtually all year, and it break up hardpan. Big Fan.
3) Pretty white flowers all over your yard! Guess what? Your ‘useless’ lawn has just become a 2000 sq ft beneficial insect attractant! Clover flower chains also make wicked cute headbands for the little ones and young at heart.
4) Clover mows well-incredibly easy with a reel mower as the stalks have less cellulose. Plus every time you mow-you fertilize with nitrogen rich clippings!
If you are not going pure no mow, I strongly recommend mixing in at least 5-10% white dutch clover in your seed mix. Remember those dead spots I have-I just spread white dutch clover seed into them. These spots are my yard telling me that these areas are really bad-even fescue can’t make it. I am betting clover can, and in the mean time will repair the soil. I could fix the soil myself, but I would need to aerate, fertilize and water like mad-but then I am fighting nature not learning from it.
Most Americans will not want to give up the sculpted look of the grass lawn, but pure clover lawns are feasible and beautiful. The Solar Living Institute has a pure clover lawn that has withstood the trials of 10 years of Sol Fest which sees thousands of guests and vendors. Pre WWII and the rise of the suburban lawn, clover lawns were common for their beauty and ease of maintenace. Remember that whether you are overseeding clover or going 100% clover lawn you will want to inoculate the clover seed to ensure that you get all the nitrogen benefits you can. Innoculant is available at any farm supply store, and should be available where you buy your seeds. Application is as wasy as putting cream in your morning coffee.
To recap, the single most ecological thing you can do with your lawn is to reduce its size as much as possible. An established bluegrass lawn has about the same percolation as concrete-greatly increasing runoff. Perennial beds have much higher perc factors letting rain replenish aquifers instead of contributing to flash floods and the other nasties of non point source pollution. But water infiltration is just the tip of the iceberg. I have counted at least 9 monarch caterpillars in our prairie gardens, we have golfinches feeding almost constantly on either our cupplant, coneflowers or sunflowers, and doves drinking for days from our rain gardens. By planting vegetable and fruit gardens you can make a real difference by cutting down the amount of petroleum in your food. Tonight in my former lawn, I gathered 4 of the ingredients for our dinner tonight, and I had enough basil and tomatoes that we were able to run some over to the neighbor’s. Trips like these have helped convince them to put gardens in next year. Got one! Building an outdoor room where you once had lawn will better connect you with the wonders of nature-goldfinches are now my preferred dinner music.
Finally I would be remiss if I did not mention the great selection of organic lawn fertilizers out there-we buy a pelletized fertilizer for under $10 a bag and have no problem keeping up with neighbors on the Scott’s “Pay Us to Poison Your Children” Program. Don’t be scared off by the low N-P-K numbers-the Scotts stuff is only around until the first good rain, and then it is off causing algae blooms in your local creek, where the organic fertilizer is a slow release fertilizer that is feeding the soil to allow it to better feed the plants. More nitrogren just gluts your plants, increasing the likelihood of pests, and burns off the carbon in the soil locking you into a viscous cycle of chemical inputs. When you do water your lawn do so in the cool of the morning on a still day-most of the water applied in the hot afternoon sun evaporates.
I have chosen to ensure that my lawn uses as few resources as possible-no gas, little water, and no petro chemical fertilizer. I am also well on the way to turning my lawn into a small scale market garden. When I list off the varieties and quantities of vegetables, fruits, and yes even grains, that I have growing in my yard people can’t believe I am doing it on a 1/2 acre suburban lot. This can be done, I am even doing it all within the guidelines of an homeowners association and there are thousands more like me out there. In fact whenever someone finds out where we live-they always comment on the gardens-function can be beautiful!
We can do this!
Be the Change.