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 anualized 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 Scotts 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 or evening 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.