Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Be Wasteful: Grow a Grass Lawn

It was a few weeks ago, over the holiday long weekend at the start of the month, when I started thinking about writing a post on the topic of grass lawns. My mother told me she had heard that we have President Roosevelt to thank for introducing British style lawns to the US. He was apparently very impressed with how neat and tidy English golf lawns looked. However...

... this is what lawns look like in my neck of the woods these days (and I've seen much worse). After an unseasonably rainy spring, we've had an unseasonably dry summer. Not only have we received very little precipitation, but I haven't seen a cloud in so long that I forget what they look like. Grass suffers in these conditions while it thrives in the damp of the British countryside. If only President Roosevelt had been surrounded by advisers with expertise in botany and climatology. Perhaps he could have been swayed to rethink the landscaping around the White House and grow lawns with grass alternatives and other types of ground cover more suitable for hot, dry conditions - homeowners would be mimicking a more sustainable landscaping strategy. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Briefly, let's think about what makes grass lawns a bad idea. A lot of this will sound familiar to you if you read my post on golf courses last year. As I mentioned above, hot and dry weather stunts grass growth while promoting the proliferation of unwanted plants that think sunshine and dry soil are lovely. The common reaction is to kill weeds with pesticides and boost grass growth with fertilizer. Both are toxic, both are dependent on fossil fuels: that's a 1-2 punch to the environment's gut and our health. It gets worse when you factor in gas-powered mowers, some of which emit more pollution than cars. Weed whackers and leaf blowers are similarly hazardous. But my favourite lawn-related environmental no-no is the intensive use of water. When grass turns brown it's not dead, it's reducing its need for water! In the end, watering a brown lawn only makes matters worse by signalling the grass that it can return to its green, water-thirsty growth mode! My ultimate pet peeve is...

... lawns being watered at midday, when the sun is at its peak and evaporating mist and droplets before they even fall on the grass. I took this photo yesterday, on the hottest day of the summer. We actually broke a record for July with 37.5 C (100 F), which felt like the upper 40s (115-120 F) with humidity factored in. Note the wet stones and pavement, and how the grass is only receiving half of the water coming out of the sprinkler. I suspect the photo looks dark because my camera couldn't handle the brightness. I took this shot at 1 pm when the sun was directly overhead - everything but the porch was in full sun, at a UV level of 11, no less.

What are our options? With more hot and dry weather on the way for the foreseeable future (global climate change, anyone?), we are forced to focus on adapting. While some non-toxic pesticides and fertilizers do exist, including products you can put together at home, you'll still have to mow and water like everybody else. Switch to an electric mower and set its blade height to leave the grass longer. Be efficient with your sprinkler! Make sure the spray only reaches as far as the edge of your lawn (not the pavement beyond), water only in the early morning when the sun is low on the horizon and the air is somewhat cool, and keep the sprinkler going only as long as necessary.

For those of you who can make a bigger commitment, consider planting hardier varieties of grass that are suited to your region's climate. Add more trees to your property that keep your lawn in the shade. Experiment with drought-tolerant grass alternatives and extend your flower beds farther into your lawn to reduce the overall amount of grass on your property. Your local garden centre staff can tell you about ground cover alternatives, and if you can afford it, why not hire a landscaping company to do a complete makeover of your front yard and turn that lawn into a native plant habitat garden? Here's what that looks like in my neighbourhood:

My favourite solution is...

... putting that soil to good use and growing veggies, like in this front yard a few blocks from where I live. If the image looks fuzzy it's because my camera caught the high evening humidity from a few nights ago. Remember, every little bit counts. Choose the options that work for you and your living situation and run with them. We don't need award-winning botanical gardens in every yard!

Do you have any tips for sustainable landscaping?


  1. I love both of the last concepts... a front yard garden would be awesome, and I've always liked the concept of native flora instead of grass. Grass should be relegated to a single location in Canada: soccer fields!

    (Yes, that would mean no more golf courses... but I'm okay with that).

  2. We traded in our gas mower for the manual variety. No noise and no spit up of the grass (I'm very allergic to fresh cut grass)

  3. Marc - soccer fields are a good place for grass, indeed. Though I don't know how intensive the upkeep is for those surfaces. I'd like to think that all that running around keeps the grass short enough that it doesn't need mowing, but that's probably wishful thinking. :)

  4. Jenn - Nicely done! Most people hate manual mowers. I guess it depends on the size of your yard. Sorry to hear you're allergic to cut grass. See, that's another reason to switch away from grass lawns! And something else I forgot to mention: monoculture. Not only is a native plant garden prettier to look at it, it also creates the appropriate habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Grass lawns on the other hand... not so much.

  5. I'm curious what your opinion on fake grass is. I used to write ad copy for a company that installed it -- pretty nice looking stuff, not too obviously fake from a distance. It's plastic, but it doesn't take any water or pesticides, and is permeable.

    Of course, there are definitely better things to do with outside space if you have it (I wish I did). I'd love to grow herbs and vegetables, and I'm also intrigued by native plant gardens. The ones in CA tend to be pretty darn drought resistant!

  6. I am also annoyed at grass. Golf courses too - especially in areas where water is scarce. It makes no sense. I have some grass between the garden beds, but even some of that will be sacrificed next year for more vegetables. I did not water at all this year, and enjoyed the nice big drop in my water bill in May as a result. We have had an opposite season - dry spring, cool wet summer. Needless to say, our grass is now green, naturally!

    I like the naturalized yards the best - veggies, plants or otherwise. Heap in the plants - the birds and bees will love you! :)

  7. Right on! Lawns and everything associated with them are my ultimate pet peeve. Lawnmowers, the waste of resources (water and soil), chemical fertilizers, and all of the time, energy, and money people put into maintaining something that doesn't give them anything good in return. I guess people are so boring that they'd rather invest their money and time into their lawn over growing food or flowers.

    Vegetables, perennial herbs and flowers, trees, and other edible landscapes just make way more sense. But how do we convince the lawn-lovers?

  8. Jennifer - fake grass is a tricky issue. On the one hand, saving water and avoiding pesticides are great bonuses. On the other hand, it's fake grass. I just don't get why people love the look of grass so much. It's sterile. It's hyper-controlled nature. It doesn't actually look good, just neat and tidy!

  9. Sherry - I'm excited to hear you will be tearing up more grass to make room for more veggie beds next year! However it sounds like keeping a lawn green is easier in your neck of the woods, at least this year. Is there a pesticide ban in Edmonton, or province-wide? I love seeing clover take over front yards. :)

  10. Emily - I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets worked up about this. It's a little hard to understand why people want to invest their weekend time and money into maintaining a lawn when flowers look much better and veggie beds produce food.

    As for how to convince then, one of my friends said something about how you need to hook people on an emotional level first, then present the facts (save money, water, save energy, etc.). I'm just not sure what the initial hook would be.