Cut Your Lawn in Half
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
- Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson, writing in the late 1800s, had it right—a prairie is more than just a treeless plain. Unfortunately, we are down to only remnants of our once vast native prairie, and in our modern American grassland—the suburban lawn—even clover and bees are often no longer welcome. Unlike our native grasslands, which are home to a diversity of animal life, turf grass lawns have little or no habitat value for wildlife.
The history of the lawn in America has its roots, so to speak, in the English country estate, where lawns provided sweeping vistas enjoyed by the aristocracy and were mowed and fertilized by flocks of sheep. Beginning in the 19th century, however, suburban Americans took to lawns like fish to water—and both fish and water have been adversely impacted ever since.
Approximately 50-70 percent of our residential water is used for landscaping, most of it to water lawns, which total approximately 20-30 million acres in the United States. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nearly 70 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients are applied to suburban lawns each year, helping to make polluted runoff the single largest source of water pollution nationwide, affecting ground water, lakes and streams, wildlife, and human health. A 1995 EPA compilation of state data collected in 1994 showed that urban runoff contributed to damage in more than 26,000 river and stream miles. And the use of gas-powered lawn mowers contributes five percent of the nation's air pollution. A gas-powered lawnmower emits 11 times the air pollution of a new car.
The average American homeowner spends 40 hours a year mowing the lawn. Maintaining the "perfect" lawn—close-cropped, green, weedless, insect-free - requires our own time and energy (consider those blue-sky summer weekends spent mowing, edging, and moving hoses!), vast amounts of natural resources such as water and oil, and the use of a wide array of poisonous chemicals to kill everything from moss to clover. As a matter of fact, clover hasn't always been a "weed." It was traditionally included in grass seed mixtures because it is green all year, fixes nitrogen and improves the soil, coexists well with grasses in both native meadows and lawns and takes mowing. Not to mention that it's a larval host to some butterflies, provides nectar to others and seeds for some game and songbirds - and is attractive to bees!
Jerry and Claudia Delezenski of Wilton, California, (certified Habitat number 26,496) own five acres in one of the last rural refuges in Sacramento County. When they purchased their property ten years ago, they reserved three acres as a grassland and created meandering paths for people to enjoy the wildlife it attracts. Over the last ten years they have been "watching the land transform into a refuge for all kinds of wildlife."
By allowing succession to take place in the once mowed area, they have seen non-native invasive plants like yellow star thistle crowded out by native grasses and wildflowers like California poppies and vetch. "Every spring, at the end of the rainy season, for four to six weeks, we witness a profusion of color as different species bloom. Each week brings out a different color in a timed display of nature at its showiest. We wonder what the former owners would think if they saw the alternative to the typical annual mowing." So many creatures are attracted to the Delezenski's property that they do not have to even put out supplemental feeders. Among the wildlife provided for are jackrabbits, garter and gopher snakes, voles, quail, burrowing owls, hawks, and hummingbirds.
Here are some resources for learning more about the history of lawns, their impact on our environment, and lawn alternatives, including planting and preserving meadow and prairie habitat. Noah's Garden and Planting Noah's Garden, by Sara Stein; Second Nature, by Michael Pollan; The Landscaping Revolution by Andy and Sally Masowski, and Redesigning the American Lawn, by Herbert Bormann, et al. Also check out The Wild Ones website at www.for-wild.org. It offers information on creating and sustaining prairie landscapes and has links to related sites.