Because of the ridiculousness of our current turf culture, where vast seas of monocultural lawns are touted as beautiful by industries that want to sell us the chemicals to keep them that way, there’s been a backlash in many circles against the all-American lawn.
And I agree with those detractors. The standard American sea of turf is like a dead zone for wildlife, uses tons of resources, and can release dangerous chemicals into our groundwater that we all drink. It’s usually used in a thoughtless and non-creative way, and the vast majority of it isn’t even used for sports, play, or entertainment for families. It’s just there.
But even though that’s true, let’s be perfectly honest: many of us have dogs, kids, or simply enjoy a game of badminton every so often. Turf can serve an important purpose for the humans that use a landscape, and I believe that for many families, lawn can provide a gathering place for people to come together and have fun.
Turf alternatives can work great, but replacing your turf can be an expensive and labor-intensive process that not everybody’s up for.
So how does one reconcile a love for wildlife and care for the environment, with a desire to have a soft, open area of lawn to play on?
Keep it small
In contrast to those people who install or inherit a lawn and never think about it again, begin noticing how much of your lawn you actually use and enjoy.
Lawns that are useful and help you enjoy your garden can be of overall benefit to the environment, because if you’re paying attention to your garden and what it can do to feed wildlife, feed yourself, and help people love nature, then you’ll naturally take some great steps towards contributing to your local ecosystem.
Once you have an idea of how much of your turf is actually used regularly, you can begin chipping away at the unused portions of it to plant food for you or food for wildlife.
Don’t use chemical weedkiller
If your lawn is of a reasonable size, then using organic techniques to kill weeds isn’t so hard. If you need to remove dandelions to create a more even surface, then use a Fiskars UpRoot Weeder or Grandpa’s Weeder to get them out.
For creeping weeds, rake them out vigorously with the Garden Shark rake. You won’t get the roots, but repeated rakings will make weeds into a minor issue rather than something that’s taken over your lawn.
You can also just enjoy the natural variety in what pops up. Clover, for example, attracts happy humming bees that can be a pleasure to watch, so long as little ones aren’t running barefoot on the lawn. English daisy, Bellis perennis, can create a magical feeling and give you an excuse to make daisy chains. We need more of that in our lives, I think.
Take care of your lawn naturally
Mow on the highest mower setting possible (many new mowers have settings that mow up to 4″ tall). This allows the blades of grass to shade their own roots and stay cool and moist longer, and reduces pest problems in lawns.
Apply at least 1/4 to 1/2 inch of compost to your lawn every year. This helps to preserve the moisture in the soil as long as possible, and keeps lawns gently fed and resistant to pests and diseases.
Mow often, and leave the clippings. Many people are put off by leaving the grass clippings on the lawn, because they’re thick and clumpy. However, if you mow twice as often, the little grass clippings are half the size and don’t clump up. Leaving tiny clippings in this way creates a natural fertilizer cycle where you preserve the water and nutrients you’ve already given your lawn.
Use a techno-forward push mower like the Fiskars Momentum Reel Mower. The old push mowers were hard to use, jammed up in taller grass or weeds, and were heavy and clunky. This newer incarnation of push mower is lightweight, easy to adjust, and (dare I say it?) fun to use.
Don’t water it, or don’t water it much
In my small town, anyone with a lawn over 100 square feet generally lets it go brown in summer. Here, it rains until June and starts again in October, so letting the lawn go brown for a few months isn’t much of a hardship. In hotter climes, contact your local agricultural extension or water agency to ask them how much water they suggest using on your lawn.
For most of the Pacific Northwest, 1 inch of water per week on your lawn is all it needs to stay green. You can test by sinking little rain gauges or cups into your lawn and see how much water you’re actually applying each time. You may even need less water if you’re applying compost, mowing high, and leaving the clippings. (Read more here.)
The disadvantage to letting your lawn go brown is that the weeds can come up in the summer since the lawn isn’t out-competing it. But even so, it can be a good solution, and hey, at least you don’t have to mow while it’s brown!
What do you think?
Does a small patch of ecologically-managed lawn have a place in a wildlife garden, or should we work to get rid of all of it? If you have lawn, what do you do to lessen the impact on the environment?
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