Alternatives to the green lawn

If bright yellow dandelions and purple clover sprout on lawns that usually look like carpets, or it’s eerily quiet in your street on a Saturday afternoon when you’d otherwise hear the hum of lawnmowers, there’s a chance your neighbors are staying. participating in the May campaign without scythes.

The idea behind it is this: in May, when native pollinators like bees and butterflies wake up after winter, they need an important calorie intake to start the season ahead. Faced with manicured lawns with no flowering plants in sight, our pollinator friends are hungry for a meal. By not mowing for a month, you create a habitat and place to forage bees and other early season pollinators.

Not mowing for a month in spring is a step forward in protecting our food chain and biodiversity, but pollinators need more than one meal in May, they need food even during the summer and fall. Lawns are also the largest irrigated crop grown in the United States and require exorbitant amounts of water to maintain, so perhaps what we really need to do is rethink our lawns for the entire year.

This is where Doug Tallamy comes in. Tallamy is a professor of agriculture in the University of Delaware’s Department of Wildlife Entomology and Ecology, is the author of books on the importance of becoming native in your garden, and is the founder of Homegrown National Park (HPN), the largest cooperative conservation project never undertaken in the United States HNP is a call to action from below to restore biodiversity and ecosystems by planting natives, with the goal of creating 20 million acres of native plantations in the United States, the equivalent of half of the area occupied by the mowed domestic lawns.

That’s why Tallamy believes we need to rethink our lawns and what the alternatives are.

The disadvantages of a well-kept lawn

A picture-perfect lawn might be visually pleasing, but it offers no wildlife benefit. Tallamy puts it bluntly: “The lawns, with all the chemicals going into them, have the worst environmental record. Even a lawn, especially without clover, does not support any pollinators. From an ecological and biodiversity point of view, a meadow is a total wasteland ”.

Lawns rich in chemicals can also be harmful to humans. Children and pets who roll and play in the grass can be directly exposed to the insecticides and pesticides that have been applied to the grass. Mowing also creates noise and air pollution – all gas-powered lawn mowers together make up 5% of the total air pollution in the United States, according to the EPA.

In 2021, Nevada became the first U.S. state to ban certain types of decorative grasses that hog water, leading to the removal of lawns and their replacement with native succulents, mulch, and crushed stone. And states like California and Florida, which are no strangers to drought, are limiting how often you can water your lawn.

Reduce the size of your lawn

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any lawns. Instead, think about how much lawn area you really need and for what purpose. If 40 percent of your garden offers space to relax and play, you’re left with 60 percent that you can replace with a natural habitat. This approach can be applied regardless of how big or small your garden is.

While a lawn may look clean, it looks the same all season long. When you replace it with other plants, you create a kaleidoscope of seasonal interest, ranging from ephemeral spring flowers to sturdy, vibrant asters in fall.

Create more shade or an edible landscape

A large lawn left to bake in the merciless sun begins to look dreary fairly quickly during dry spells. Instead, get rid of part of your lawn and plant a tree to create more shade in your yard, then fill the area below with ground cover, but be sure to select native ones. Similar to our obsession with lawns, there is also a widespread belief that “imported species are what make a landscape attractive and valuable,” Tallamy says. “Our ecosystems, however, are built on foundations of native plants.”

You don’t even have to plant native ornamental plants, such as red oaks. Native edibles like blueberry, blackberry, papaya, and American persimmon trees make great additions to the landscape. Native plant societies in each state are a great resource for finding out which plants are native to your area.

Replace your lawn with a mini lawn

If you prefer something lower than trees and shrubs, or a more uniform appearance, the closest to a lawn is a prairie-style lawn with native grasses and sedges, or a mix of perennial wildflowers and native grasses. Each region has its own native herbs that are perfectly adapted to the local climate and less affected by drought and other environmental conditions. Look for seed companies that specialize in native herbs. Again, size doesn’t really matter – you can have a mini lawn even in a small yard.

As with a traditional lawn, it takes time for a lawn to establish itself, but the grass doesn’t need to be mowed as regularly as a lawn. In fact, a lawn only needs to be mowed once a year, if at all: in the spring it will grow back on its own. Many herbs have eye-catching seed heads, and some are even fragrant, like prairie seed, which smells like coriander. And in the fall, many of them have a striking color palette, like hairy grass turning golden at the end of the season.

Even the people of the city can act

What about city folks who don’t have a courtyard but can’t wait to contribute? Does it make sense to grow natives in containers in an urban setting or is it more of a symbolic contribution to the movement? “Sure,” he says, “if you put Joe-Pye weed in a planter, butterflies will come. And potted milkweed or autumn asters will attract native bees. So you can change things in your own little ecosystem: an individual. candies make the difference.”

What about invasive weeds?

The question that inevitably arises when replacing a lawn is: what can be done about non-native and invasive weeds? It seems impossible to create a lasting natural habitat like a lawn in your backyard without constantly battling invasive plants like the tree of paradise, oriental bittersweet, autumn olive, kudzu, and garlic mustard, to name a few. Is it possible to eradicate them without using a broad spectrum herbicide? “He is the lesser of two evils,” Tallamy says. “The damaging effect of herbicides is not comparable to the damage caused by invasive plants. However, instead of spraying, I use the cut and paint method, where the herbicide is applied to the cut stem of a woody or perennial plant. It’s a more targeted use. “

Plant the species, not the bred cultivar

When you have decided to replace your lawn and fill it with native plants and lawns, does it matter which type you plant: the straight species or a cultivar? Tallamy’s answer is unequivocal. “Unfortunately, the cultivars that have been bred as novelties have absolutely zero food value for pollinators; they are only ornamental. Thus, there is no point in planting cultivars whose genetic makeup has been modified in such a way that they are unpleasant to native insects, and ornamental plants with no value to insects are like a house built with wallpaper instead of walls. “


Have you cut back on mowing or have you reconsidered your lawn? What did you plant instead?


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