Travel across America today, and you’re likely to see more of a single plant species than any other. It’s not corn- Kentucky Bluegrass wins the award of being the country’s most cultivated crop. Grassy lawns take up more than three times the space of any other irrigated crop, covering a swath over 31 times as large as Delaware.
Endless expanses of well-manicured grass might be visually appealing, but they come with significant environmental costs. If you care about keeping synthetic chemicals out of the ecosystem, it’s time look at the ecological impacts of your backyard.
4 Environmental Costs Of Maintaining a Lawn
We might categorize lawns as “green space,” but they aren’t as beneficial for the environment as they first appear. Research is continuing to reveal the ways that the impacts of maintaining millions of grassy backyards spell disaster for the planet.
1. Waste Of Irrigation From Excessive Water Use
It takes almost 8 billion gallons of water each day to keep America’s lawns green, which equates to close to 200 gallons per person. All that freshwater use is taking a toll on the available supplies, which has led to historically low groundwater levels. The overall water table is down hundreds of feet throughout much of the west, and many rivers are so severely depleted that some now only run seasonally.
2. Triggers High Levels of Pollution
Non-native grass species need some coaxing to survive in the landscape of suburban lawns, meaning that it’s standard practice to use copious amounts of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to keep them looking green. However, applying too much of these amendments or adding them too close to a rainstorm can cause them to soak into storm drains and leach into the overall water supply. This chemical contamination can wreak havoc on the fragile skin of fish and amphibians, and excessive levels of nitrogen regularly trigger algae blooms that harm water life by depleting oxygen levels and blocking critical sunlight.
Especially alarming is the formation of a hypoxic (dead) zone within the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, where low-oxygen levels kill off millions of fish each year after landscaping chemicals drain into the Mississippi River. While farmers get most of the social blame because of their heavy use of fertilizer, the truth is that the average homeowner uses more than ten times the amount of chemical amendments per acre on their lawn, often because they don’t read the application instructions carefully enough.
3. Creates Biological “Deserts”
Grassy lawns might look similar to natural landscapes to the untrained eye, but for the majority of species, they are as welcoming as pavement. The majority of grass varieties planted in lawns today aren’t native to where they’re grown, which often makes it difficult for local insect populations to survive in them. Likewise, the lack of diversity leaves few options for seeking out food sources, and keeping grasses trimmed short prevents them from providing critical habitat space. This poses problems throughout the food chain, and too much lawn space often leads to a decline in species diversity.
4. Increases Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Plants grown naturally tend to act as a carbon sink for the soil, but standard practices for maintaining lawns often negates this benefit. In fact, your lawnmower might be a more significant greenhouse gas producer than your car.
Roughly five percent of air pollution in America comes from lawn care practices, mainly through mowing and weed whacking. A lawncare study in Tennessee found that the energy required to maintain a hectare of lawn produced over 2,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide each year, which is the equivalent of flying halfway across the world. Over 500 million gallons of gas are burned through mowers each year, which adds up to the equivalent of an extra 3.5 million cars.
The EPA only recently started regulating emission levels on riding mowers, which means that using an average riding mower for an hour can create the same amount of pollution as 34 cars!
13 Strategies For Making Lawns More Sustainable
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the problems with the modern lawn, but here’s the good news- change is possible, and it’s more practical than you think. You can opt out of the cultural requirement to maintain a chemically-laden lawn by following these tips to make the space more sustainable.
By incorporating these strategies into your backyard space, you’ll be amazed at how much of a difference they make for its overall environmental impact.
1. Reduce Your Use of Fertilizer
Flooding your lawn with fertilizer might leave it looking green, but the results are anything but for the environment. To incorporate natural fertilizer into your yard instead, consider leaving the grass clippings in place after you mow so that they can decompose directly into the soil. This might sound like a small step, but it will make a significant difference for your lawn health. Research shows that leaving lawn clippings on every lawn in the United States would allow the ground to store 37 billion pounds of carbon each year- boosting soil fertility and reducing greenhouse gasses emissions in the process.
If you still can’t resist the appeal of applying fertilizer, strive to use it sparingly: only on newly planted grass, and never when rain is in the forecast. This will reduce the risk of the fertilizer making it into the water system.
2. Let Your Grass Grow Tall Before You Mow
Your lawnmower might look small, but it’s a significant cause of environmental pollution. Running a standard mower for an hour produces the same amount of emissions as driving dozens of cars, meaning that weekly mowing takes a toll on our shared air quality.
If you change your perspective about what a lawn should look like, you’ll soon realize that kids can play just as happily in shin-high grass, and allowing plants to go through their full lifecycle will fill your lawn with beautiful blooms. To maintain a natural look, try mowing most of your yard just twice a year, and instead merely mow paths through the middle for easy walking.
3. Maintain Big Flower Beds & Small Lawn Space
What’s the easiest way to minimize the amount of mowing needed for your lawn? Plant more flower beds! An entire yard filled with uniform grass is boring compared to the riotous colors of a lush landscape, so seek out ways to incorporate more perennials into your backyard plan. If filling empty spaces with plants feels like too much effort, you can fill in the gaps with wood mulch. Not only will this pull the design together aesthetically, but you’ll also get water retention benefits besides.
4. Swap Ornamental Trees For Fruit Producers
Copious amounts of chemical pesticides are used to maintain useless trees and bushes across the country, so why not put the same effort towards growing fruit trees that give you a seasonal bounty? Berry bushes and dwarf trees will add visual interest to your yard, and careful planning ensures that you can cultivate trees that will feed you throughout the summer. As an added benefit, many fruit trees like pawpaws and mulberries are hardier than standard ornamentals, meaning that they take less effort to maintain.
5. Rely On Native Plants
There’s a reason why wild plants do well in their native environments- they have evolved over millions of years to be optimally suited for those exact conditions. By basing your backyard design around your region’s native plants, you can ensure it’s filled with species that will thrive without much help from you.
6. Build Raised Beds For Vegetable Gardening
If you want your lawn to contain less wasted space, turn a portion of it into food production instead! You’ll be amazed how much food can come from a raised bed garden, and this cultivation strategy makes it simple to amend your soil, easily reach weeds, and see exactly what you need to harvest each week.
7. Use Groundcover Strategically
Turfgrass might be popular, but it’s far from the only option for covering bare ground. Consider investing in low-maintenance groundcovers like ferns, mosses, native grasses,s or sedge, and you’ll save yourself from mowing. Even better, these plants all have low water and fertilizer needs, meaning that they will thrive with little effort on your part.
8. Trade Out Your Riding Mower For A Push Mower
Relaxing on a riding mower might be convenient, but it can spell disaster for the planet. Consider shrinking the size of your lawn so that you can maintain it with a push mower instead, and you’ll manage to keep your yard while getting exercise in the process. Even relying on a push-mower for small spaces within your yard will make a difference for the environment. For the best results, regularly sharpen the mower blades and only mow when the grass is thoroughly dry.
9. Start A Compost Pile
Forget synthetic fertilizers- you can improve your property’s natural fertility through homemade compost. Setting up an outdoor compost bin for your kitchen and garden scraps couldn’t be more convenient, and you can also utilize the power of worms to set up an efficient vermiculture system.
10. Don’t Grow Thirsty Species
Landscape irrigation is an inexcusable waste of water. If you find yourself running the sprinklers for hours each week, you clearly aren’t growing the right species for your environment. Learn to live with a dryer-looking lawn or plant drought-tolerant grass seeds that require less water. If you live in an especially arid climate, go one step further by cultivating desert plants or incorporating rocks into the landscape instead of grasses.
11. Use Organic Pest Control
You don’t need to turn to poisons to keep your lawn from getting decimated by pests. There are plenty of non-toxic solutions for keeping insect populations in check without inadvertently poisoning your whole yard. For instance, many garden pests can be controlled with a simple soap spray or an organic pesticide.
12. Maintain Wildlife Corridors On Your Property
Diminishing habitat space for wild animals is an increasingly concerning problem in the world today, and the impacts are compounded because suburban lawns and road systems make it difficult for species to travel from one space to another safely. By keeping part of your yard wild, you can create corridors for wildlife to move through, significantly extending their range.
13. Plant Trees To Shade Grass
One way to reduce your yard’s water needs is to keep it shaded so that water doesn’t evaporate as quickly. Consider planting shade trees throughout the property to keep things covered, and you’ll significantly reduce your lawn’s irrigation requirements.
You don’t need to give up on a grassy lawn for good to make your yard more environmentally sustainable. By following these tips, you’ll be turning your lawn into a space that’s better for the planet and your health. It’s a winning decision on all accounts.