Today, driven in part by the loss of environmental quality and diminishing resources, there is a shift toward sustainable practices and a natural (organic) approach to gardening and lawn care in the United States, with implications for the commercial-landscape sector.
This transformation is taking place through a government and public that is increasingly focused on carbon emissions and global climate-change concerns. As a result, sustainable practices in the American lawn-dominated landscape are increasingly becoming more mainstream.
Working to find alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers, landscape professionals and gardeners are going pesticide-free altogether.
They are examining the benefits of composting, growing vegetables, and adopting practices that protect the environment, such as water conservation and the use of native plants.
They are also looking to collect rain, and produce healthy soils for more robust plants without impacting the environment.
The emphasis is on increasing landscape diversity using native species. Together, all of these practices improve the health of the land and the people who live on it.
When designing a backyard space, one should think of how to improve the relationship of the homeowner with the environment. In other words, start on the ground—or even in the ground—and work your way up.
Mow Down The Yard
The lawn is a good place to start in moving toward a more environmentally friendly stance. Garden writer Joan Lee Faust writes that American homeowners use 10 times more chemical fertilizers per acre than farmers or golf courses.
Bestselling author Michael Pollan asserts that lawns are a symptom of—and a metaphor for—our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will.
For those who are concerned about the human impact on the climate, reducing the amount of lawn mowed each week is one of the best things to do to reduce carbon emissions.
After adding in the environmental costs of mowing lawns—50-million acres in the United States—the benefits of rethinking the lawn mentality become evident.
According to Professor Douglas Tallamy, mowing the lawn for 1 hour produces as much pollution as driving 650 miles. Further, he says, homeowners currently burn 800-million gallons of gas each year in lawnmower engines to keep the grass at bay.
Converting lawns to trees or gardens not only would save money, but would create additional food and habitat for wildlife; additionally, converting would produce less and absorb more carbon dioxide.
To combat this dilemma, there are some simple steps to adopt a more “green” approach to lawn care. A simple solution is to reduce the lawn area. This automatically cuts the time needed for mowing, raking, fertilizing, and watering.
Grass should be cut as high as possible to reduce maintenance. Clippings can be left on the lawn to return nutrition to the soil.
Ground covers, such as native grasses, can be used instead of turf on steep slopes and shady sites to minimize maintenance.
On the borders of the property, these areas can be buffers and screens, where the best care is the least care. Here, grassy areas can be mowed infrequently. A natural buffer between your property and the neighbors’ yards also provides a good place to rake or blow leaves.
Forgoing the bagging of leaves not only saves time and money, but provides natural mulch to reduce chemical maintenance, and is also a means to conserve water.
If one’s sense of aesthetics dictates a lawn is necessary, grasses that require less care can be selected. In the Northeast, these are the fescues, and include the fine-leaf fescues, which are Creeping Red Fescue, Chewing’s Fescue, and Hard Fescue.
Other durable species are the improved turf-type tall fescues adapted to athletic fields and high-traffic areas. Once established, they require less water and fertilizer.
Advocates of “Freedom Lawn” also are gaining ground. This philosophy foregoes pesticides and fertilizers, and instead encourages existing vegetation, grasses, and weeds to flourish with infrequent mowing.
Another growing movement of lawn aficionados is moving toward native species of grass, sedges, or moss to form a mantle of green, replacing conventional lawns.
To lessen the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and maintenance, native plants can be used. Native species are members of a community that includes other plants, animals, and microorganisms.
In this manner, native plants provide a natural balance that keeps each species in check, allowing them to thrive in suitable conditions, but preventing them from running amok.
Native species rarely become invasive unless something major disrupts the natural balance of the community. Native plants provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other desirable wildlife.
Since many of these native plants are xeriphytic, they require little water on a dry landscape as well as on other landscape sites. These species are low-maintenance lawn grasses, trees, shrubs, and perennials that will help to create a more ecologically sound landscape.
Since water has become a limiting factor in many communities—especially during hot dry spells—landscaping that minimizes water is encouraged, but requires careful planning to ensure drought-resistant plant varieties are used.
Planting a wide spectrum of species, from local wildflowers to native plants to non-invasive plants, will attract local pollinators, beneficial insects, and hummingbirds to visit gardens again and again.
Recycling Yard Waste Into Wealth
Transforming yard waste into yard wealth involves nothing more than recycling all organic matter, including leaves, grass clippings, and yard trimmings that can be reduced, or even recycled.
Recycling as much as possible in a yard eliminates the need for the outside input of fertilizers, whose excessive use in the suburban landscape can be a source of runoff or non-point source pollution.
Recycling kitchen vegetable and fruit waste in a compost pile, mixed with leaves and grass clippings, produces rich humus for gardens and lawns.
According to Bruce Butterfield of the National Gardening Association, since 2008 there has been a renewed interest in household participation in food gardening. Thirty-one percent of all United States households, an estimated 36 million, have participated in food gardening, including growing vegetables, fruit, berries, and herbs.
What’s better than allowing a place for homeowners to grow their own vegetables in compost that they created?
Tallamy, Douglas W. 2006. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Portland: Timber Press.
Pollan, Michael. 1991. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. New York: Dell Publishing.
Faust, Joan Lee. “Greensward Care without Pesticides.” New York Times May 15, 1988:58.
Bruce, Butterfield. Personal communication. National Gardening Association. South Burlington, Vermont, 2008 (May)
Dr. Carl A. Salsedo specializes in sustainable landscapes for the University of Connecticut’s Department of Extension in West Hartford, Conn. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.