By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
You probably know by now that the typical U.S. lawn with thick, green grass and manicured hedges is horrible for the environment.
In addition to pollution from mowers, trimmers and leaf blowers, chemically treated lawns wipe out all vegetation, worms, and insects, to grow a single species of grass. Those fertilizers derived from fossil fuels create toxic runoff, and contribute to a range of environmental and health problems such as asthma and cancer in humans and pets.
“Unfortunately, it’s a pretty disastrous landscape,” said horticulturist Mark Richardson, director of the botanic garden at the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, Mass.
Richardson describes the constant “mow-and-blow” maintenance required to maintain a traditional lawn as “soul-sucking.”
“I really feel our lawns and gardens should contribute to our society, and the best way to do that is to kill your lawn,” he said.
There are ways to replace the modern lawn. The University of Rhode Island-trained turf and wildflower expert suggests transitioning from the golf course-inspired carpet to a unique landscape, one with a rich ecosystem of natural grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. It doesn’t hurt that these living landscapes are also great for storing carbon and a haven for beneficial insects and pollinators.
Each process requires some upfront labor, but once done there is considerably less maintenance and watering for a habitat accustomed to temperamental New England weather.
Experiment. The simplest approach is to stop mowing and see what grows. “Sometimes a meadow shows up,” Richardson said.
He recommends dispersing seed packets of native wildflowers and grasses and planting a few perennial shrubs. Spot-treatment with pesticides may be necessary.
Solarization. The most effective approach to a natural landscape is to start with a blank slate. Removing or destroying the current lawn, invasive weeds and other undesirable vegetation is key. Thick, clear plastic sheeting left for six weeks creates sufficient heat to kill plants but not the beneficial microbes. Landscape fabric or cardboard covered with leaf litter or mulch can achieve similar results.
Mechanical. Lawns can also be removed with a sod cutter, which can be rented from an equipment supplier or hardware store. Smaller areas of turf can be removed with a pitchfork and shovel. The work can be done in one day, but there is a risk of losing soil while leaving behind weed remnants that may regrow.
Chemical. Chemicals can be the fastest method to kill grass. Some are safer than others. And organic isn't always safer than inorganic. Acetic acid, an organic pesticide that is a popular alternative to synthetic pesticides, is similar to a concentrated vinegar but also has health risks.
Start small. There's no need to covert an entire lawn at once. Start with a section and experiment with these different techniques and plantings. Converting a small area still saves water, time and money on lawn care.
What to plant. There’s plenty to chose from, and much of it depends on how the space will be used. There are grasses, such as Pennsylvania sedge, and fruit, such as wild strawberries, that are durable and can planted in walkable areas.
Purple lovegrass tolerates salt and drought, and offers vivid color.
Others plants are suitable for a mix of shade and sun, as well as a tolerance for drought. Some can be grown between stones and bricks in a walking path, or durable enough for a parking area, such as little bluestem.
For native plantings and where to buy them search the URI Native Plant Guide.
Search here for a list of landscape professionals in your area who can assist with the conversion process.
Fast fact: New England uses about 30 percent of its potable water on lawn care.
Hear more from Richardson in this recent webinar.