Tired of Pursuing the Perfect Lawn? Consider These Alternatives

Some options for people who are tired of mowing, watering, weeding, seeding and feeding

06-01-1998 // Olwen Woodier

A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house,” landscape designer Frank J. Scott wrote in 1870. “Let your lawn be your home's velvet robe, and your flowers not too promiscuous decorations.”

This uncompromising view of lawns has held sway for more than a century in this country, helping to create a $25-billion-a-year industry in products and services for America's 25 million acres of lawns. However, experts assert, there are viable alternatives to the endless pursuit of the perfect patch of green. “Low-input yards can be just as beautiful and more satisfying in the long run as high-cost manicured lawns, and you don't have to replant your entire existing lawn to make it sustainable,” says Vera Krischik, an entomologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

America's love affair with lawns has its roots in the early English landscape-garden movement, according to Robert Grese, associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. But England's green carpets are sustained by its wet climate; they do not require extra watering or chemical applications. “We have developed an aesthetic taste with no biological basis,” Grese says.

In the United States, lawns often demand heavy watering and regular doses of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. U.S. homeowners used 32 million pounds of pesticides on their lawns in 1994, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “People should be aware of the hazards of using chemicals,” says Jay Feldman, head of the nonprofit National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides in Washington, D.C. “Children, the elderly, pets and wildlife are all at risk.”

The perfect lawn also requires frequent mowing, which not only takes time and energy, but also has environmental costs. Gasoline-powered lawn equipment, notes Grese, causes nearly 5 percent of the country's total air pollution during summer.

What are the options for people who are tired of mowing, watering, weeding, seeding and feeding? One alternative is to convert your greensward into a wild lawn. Set your mower blades as high as four inches to encourage species of low-growing wild ground covers--such as violets, cinquefoil, blue-and-white-flowered speedwell, heal-all and white clover--to take hold and bloom. While you can introduce some of these to your lawn by transplanting, many seeds are already in your lawn and others will arrive naturally as seeds floating on the air. They will colonize your lawn quickly and their blooms and leaves will feed beneficial insects.

A natural meadow, a taller option, requires no feeding or watering after the seeds and young plants are established. It needs mowing only once a year (in late winter, to avoid destroying eggs and larvae of butterflies and beneficial insects). To maximize success with a meadow, seed or plant an area in full sun with a variety of annual and perennial flowers native to your region. The following wildflowers grow in most areas of the country and attract a variety of creatures: goldenrod, milkweed, butterfly weed, asters, coneflowers, sunflowers, yarrow, buttercups, bee balm, phlox, tickseed and blazing stars. (Ask your local native-plant society or extension agent which plants are native to your area and which will thrive for you.)

Another option is to replace your carpet of fescue, Kentucky bluegrass or Bermuda grass with a ground cover. Such covers--especially dense, evergreen varieties--provide a beautiful and carefree alternative to a conventional lawn. Besides providing food and shelter for wildlife, they define, separate or unify areas in the landscape as effectively as a green velvet lawn. When choosing a ground cover appropriate to your region, ask how quickly it grows, whether it is best suited to sun or shade and how well it can withstand foot traffic. When planting ground covers sensitive to foot traffic, create walkways with mulch or stepping stones.

There are several native ground covers that remain evergreen in many areas of the country. These include partridgeberry, lowbush blueberry, wintergreen, bearberry, wild ginger, wild strawberry and moss phlox. Easy-to-grow, nonnative evergreen ground covers include creeping thyme, bugleweed, Roman chamomile and St. John's wort. (Check with your local nursery to find out which species grow best in your region.) For fastest results with ground covers, reduce the recommended space between plants by half.

What if a meadow or a ground cover is not feasible? One possible compromise is to keep some grass for recreational use or aesthetic value and convert the rest of your lawn into areas of easy-care plant-ings that provide food and shelter for wildlife. For example, create a small woodland by planting a wide border between lawn and property lines with native evergreens and fruit and nut trees such as holly, hemlock, persimmon, black cherry, oak, hickory, dogwood and hawthorn. You can also create an island of trees and shrubbery-or native grasses and wildflowers--in a sea of lawn.

If you would prefer not to do additional planting, you can also replace part of your lawn with rock gardens strewn with heat-absorbing boulders and rock piles, or create small streams and ponds with recirculating water.

What if you can't bear to part with your lawn? There are simple steps you can take to reduce its environmental impact. Plant grass varieties that are suited to your climate and growing conditions. Mow with sharp blades set at the recommended height and allow the grass clippings to fall back on the lawn as natural mulch and fertilizer. “This way you create vigorous roots and it's hard for weeds to grow in a healthy lawn,” says Tanya Drlik, an integrated pest-management specialist with the Bio-Integral Resource Center in California. And if you need to use pesticides or herbicides, choose those that are organic or biological.

“You have to ask yourself how many weeds you can tolerate, because it's unrealistic to think you can maintain a perfect monoculture. Nature just doesn't work that way,” says Drlik. “If it's a constant struggle then perhaps it's just not worth it.”

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