Ecologically Sound Lawn Care
While my goal is to have homeowners reduce or eliminate their lawn areas around their home, I do understand the need and/or attractiveness of having a lawn area. Last week saw record breaking highs into the 90s and high 80s and it became quite obvious, very quickly, that lawns are simply not a sustainable feature of our residential neighborhoods. While my garden was green as could be almost every lawn -including the ones being watered daily- were browning out. In fact, lawns are America's number 1 irrigated crop and occupy 2% of the country's landmass. Additionally, lawn maintenance consumes "600 million gallons of gas to mow and trim lawns each year," which in turn powers unregulated two-stroke engines, creating a local health hazard while adding to the carbon emissions-climate crisis (and we're not even talking about string-trimmers or leaf blowers yet). These details alone are cringe-worthy, as so many resources go into growing and maintaining lawns with a very limited return besides ornamentation.
Luckily, there are some steps you can take to limit the negative ecological impact of however much lawn you may still be growing so that your lawn's green isn't just skin deep. The first step is how you mow your lawn. Large, heavy machinery might seem "cutting edge" (no pun intended) but as stated above they come with a cost besides the price tag. The emissions from one using a "gasoline-powered lawnmower for one hour produces as much smog-forming hydrocarbons as driving an average car between 100 and 200 miles under average conditions." Added to the fact that these machines are also dangerous, with lawnmowers killing more people than bears, sharks, or alligators each year. In fact, each year 800 children in the US alone, are run over by riding mowers or small tractors and more than 600 of those incidents result in amputation; 75 people are killed, and 20,000 injured; one in five deaths involves a child. For children under age 10, major limb loss is most commonly caused by lawn mowers. Of course these statistics do not take into account the myriad of wildlife that is also injured or killed by mowers such as Box Turtles, Snakes, Baby Rabbits, and Amphibians.
Watering is also a big issue with lawns. On Long Island most lawns are irrigated with treated drinking water. This is groundwater that has been pumped from the aquifer, treated for human consumption and then dumped back onto the soil in our attempts to grow grass. The whole notion is just backwards and when automated irrigation systems are brought into the picture the convenience is lost on the amount of wasted drinking water. A large issue is lies in a misunderstanding of how a lawn needs to be watered, with many home owners setting their systems in line with their municipal water supply's our county guidelines, odd numbered homes water on odd days, even numbers on even days, no watering on the 31st, and no watering 10am-4pm (in Nassau County). The problem with that is it doesn't take into account the needs of the lawn itself and there is next to zero enforcement for those who ignore the ordinance. There are many days (almost every day) when I am out walking and a neighbor has their sprinkler system set for every morning (rain or shine) and at least one sprinkler head is broken, often pouring a torrent of water directly into the street and down the storm drain, again what a waste of drinking water!
Another issue is the chemical applications that have become synonymous with lawns. Every year around March the advertisements start up for "weed and feeds" "crab grass killer" and "grub killer." Within weeks almost every lawn in town is adorned with a yellow hazard sign warning passerby of the toxicity of lawns all around them. Total. Insanity. It is almost as we have forgotten that we literally DRINK THE GROUND WATER! Thirty-percent of Long Islands groundwater is now contaminated by pesticides (not to mention the various other carcinogens and pharmaceuticals). The number one pest of lawns happens to be the invasive Japanese Beetle, yet the products used to control them target almost every other arthropod needed for a healthy ecosystem. This not only robs food resources from our wildlife like Songbirds and Skunks and Box Turtles, but also directly poisons our more sensitive wildlife like Salamanders, Toads, Frogs, and Fish as it eventually runs off and enters our water ways.
A further issue arises when many "professionals" or homeowners don't bother to follow the directions on the label (read: the label is the law) and incorrectly apply these hazardous chemicals increasing the likelihood of causing ecological damage. In many countries the chemicals we use to maintain our weed-free lawns are banned due to the known human health risk associated with their use. New York State, for example, has banned these chemicals on school grounds to prevent childhood illness, only for children to go home and play on a toxic lawn anyway.
Obviously lawns are not all they are cut out to be (again no pun intended), but there are a few things you can do while you are planning on reducing your lawns and designing your new native gardens. Instead of a dangerous, polluting mower, try looking to the past. "Old-fashioned" Reel-Mowers are making a huge comeback and modern mechanics are making them easier to use than ever. Light-weight, fuel-free, and quiet, there are standard push models as well as tow-behind models for those with large areas to be mowed. Scott's offers a great solution with a model that extends to the proper height of 3" (more on that later). This drastically improves the maintenance experience for the homeowner as you will eliminate noise, smelly/toxic fuels and fumes, and decrease the likelihood of injury to the operator or bystanders. It is also healthier for the lawn creating a cleaner cut, with less surface area for pathogens to enter into the plant's tissues.
Irrigation should similarly be reworked. The goal, just like within our gardens, is to simulate natural rain fall. I recommend people leave their irrigation systems off until at least late May (this year heat and drought came quick) since the Northeast does receive ample rainfall. A rain gauge is also a great tool to have and many are decorative, allowing you to measure just how much rain your land has received in the past week. The best thing to do is to water your lawn only once a week for about an hour or more (if needed). This allows the water to permeate deeper into the soil, training your lawns roots to access the moisture it needs naturally. It also keeps the soil surface dry most of the time - which limits the germination of weed seeds.
How often and how high you mow is also of great importance. Mowing low in spring and fall helps eliminate broad-leaved weeds while strengthening the grass itself. Mowing high in summer (3 inches) shades the soil which conserves moisture and limits weeds that are light-germinating. Frequency of mowing also helps limit weeds as the more frequently you mow (at least once a week) simulates grazing which stimulates grass to grow while weakening broad leafed weeds. Always mulch your clippings into the lawn as this is vital nutrients that are needed for healthy soil and a healthy lawn. There is much irony in the tossing of grass clippings just to bring in petrochemical derived fertilizer later on. A bit of White Clover within the lawn also helps keep it green as clover is a nitrogen-fixing legume and with each mow releases nitrogen to feed your grass.
As far as pest control goes, the USDA has developed a biologic control agent for Japanese Beetles that lasts for upwards to a decade in the soil! It is a bacterium that feeds on beetle larvae, without any lingering chemical pesticides. Milky Spore is a true game changer for lawn care but most services don't offer it simply because it's a once and done application and so they will not be making money on insecticide applications multiple times a year.
A topdressing of compost is also something worth considering once or twice a year (spring/fall) to help increase your soils health and increase the amount of life and nutrient exchange between the soil and lawn. The beneficial arthropods living within the lawn and soil will carry out decomposition and aeration for you so there is less likelihood of compaction occurring and any detritus will quickly be broken down to feed your microbes and thus your lawn.
Although Long Island is the origin point for the American Lawn, our maintenance practices do not have to harm our island in the process. The above guidelines are simple steps home owners can take to remediate their lawns environmental impact. While I do not focus on lawns for reasons stated within the opening of this blog, many clients and group members often have questions and so this is my attempt at addressing them. The issue doesn't lie with lawns being inherently bad, just the same as any invasive species, but rather how we manage the land that is often the true source of our environmental problems.