There are an estimated 40 to 50 million acres of lawn in the continental United States — that’s nearly as much as all of the country’s national parks combined. In 2020, Americans spent $105 billion keeping their lawns verdant and neat.
But our love of grass comes at an environmental cost. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, maintaining those lawns consumes nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year as well as 59 million pounds of pesticides which can seep into the soil and waterways.
We encourage people to reduce those lawns by planting native trees, shrubs, and perennials. So where to start?
If you already have trees, a good place to start is to enlarge that mulched ring around your tree and plant some shade loving native perennials such as creeping jacob’s ladder, canadian ginger, false solomon’s seal, fringed bleeding heart, and christmas fern to name a few. This creates a cozy protected cool season home for pollinators that winter over in leaf litter. You have just created a soft landing garden.
For a sunny spot where you need to remove or smother the grass, the easiest way is to mow the grass as low as you can, layer cardboard or several layers of newspaper on top and then add a thick layer of organic matter such as shredded leaves or organic compost. Wait a few weeks for these layers to kill the grass before planting. Some tried and true sun loving native perennials include spring blooming golden alexanders, and beardtongue, summer blooming bee balm and coneflower, and fall blooming asters and goldenrod. Check out the Master Gardeners of Monroe County plant lists for lots more native perennials here. To learn more about keystone species for our Eastern Temperate Forest Ecoregion read more here.
If you are concerned about your local town’s zoning laws, make your new plantings look intentional. Keep a neatly mowed strip around the area so that it reads as a garden and put a sign to educate neighbors.
The Department of Transportation data shows that in 2018, Americans used nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline running lawn and garden equipment. That’s the equivalent of 6 million passenger cars running for a year.
As these issues are becoming more prominent in climate change discussion, there are steps you can take to more sustainably manage the impact of your remaining lawn, including choosing organic fertilizers, avoiding pesticides, and using electric lawn maintenance equipment.
But how we care for our lawns is secondary to the amount of lawn we have in the first place, experts say. Having less grass and a greater diversity of native plants is among the most important factors in keeping a yard eco-friendly.
Our typical American lawn is ecological ‘dead space.’ It is a monoculture of non-native grasses that does not support our declining insect populations. New scientific evidence indicates that native plants are far superior to non-native in supporting our native insects as they have co-evolved.
Why are we concerned about our native insects? As humans, we might think that a world without insects would be a better place. But in reality, less than one percent of the million described species are considered to be serious pests. The vast majority of species are totally harmless to humans, and most are beneficial. Insects are responsible for one out of three bites of food on our dinner plate. They pollinate many trees we use for lumber and those plants that provide cotton, linen, and flax for clothing. They decompose organic matter in the soil to release nutrients that are needed for growing plants. And of course they are a major component of food webs, so the majority of other species depend on insects one way or another. We humans depend on the ecosystem services insects supply so let’s support them by making changes in our own yards.
If we all start small and reduce part of our lawn and replace them with native plants, think of the impact we could make collectively here in Monroe County to enhance biodiversity in our own yards.