Stop the Madness! Making Lawns an Eco-friendly Part of Our Landscapes

native grass lawns are a sensible alternative to chemically dependent, high maintenance lawn grasses

Native grass lawns are a sensible alternative to chemically dependent, high maintenance lawn grasses.

Lawns are a mainstay of American landscapes. But traditional lawn care and maintenance methods are an ecological nightmare. American gardeners and landscape professionals need to make a concerted effort to make our lawns more eco-sensible.

We can do this by:

  • reducing the amount of area covered by turf and use more groundcovers where appropriate
  • select regionally appropriate native and “low mow” lawn grass varieties
  • use only organic/natural fertilizers and soil amendments to restore the soil’s health and slow the rampant growth that results from the use of high nitrogen chemical fertilizers.

The following excerpt from the most recent issue of will be quite startling to most folks.

ScienceDaily (Jan. 22, 2010)Dispelling the notion that urban "green" spaces help counteract greenhouse gas emissions, new research has found -- in Southern California at least -- that total emissions would be lower if lawns did not exist.

Turfgrass lawns help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store it as organic carbon in soil, making them important "carbon sinks." However, greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer production, mowing, leaf blowing and other lawn management practices are four times greater than the amount of carbon stored by ornamental grass in parks, a UC Irvine study shows. These emissions include nitrous oxide released from soil after fertilization. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that's 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, the Earth's most problematic climate warmer.

"Lawns look great -- they're nice and green and healthy, and they're photosynthesizing a lot of organic carbon. But the carbon-storing benefits of lawns are counteracted by fuel consumption," said Amy Townsend-Small, Earth system science postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study, forthcoming in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The research results are important to greenhouse gas legislation being negotiated. "We need this kind of carbon accounting to help reduce global warming," Townsend-Small said. "The current trend is to count the carbon sinks and forget about the greenhouse gas emissions, but it clearly isn't enough."

Turfgrass is increasingly widespread in urban areas and covers 1.9 percent of land in the continental U.S., making it the most common irrigated crop.

This research emphasizes yet another big reason why it is imperative that we:

  1. Stop the use of chemical fertilizers and toxic herbicides, fungicides and other lawn chemicals and
  2. Plant native and improved dwarf  “low mow” turf grass varieties that don’t require intensive mowing and maintenance.

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8 thoughts on “Stop the Madness! Making Lawns an Eco-friendly Part of Our Landscapes”

  • Patrice Campbell

    This does make sense. But, what about the cooling effect turf has on the surrounding areas? While naturescapes are low maintenance, you can't have the entire yard a tangle of wildflowers. I'm not arguing, just looking for answers.

    • David Salman

      You make an important point about one of the benefits of lawns especially in helping combat the "urban heat island" effect in our cities and suburbs.

      But we need to take care of these lawns in an organic fashion to make them carbon-neutral. This also creates living, healthy soils through the use of organic methods of soil fertility.

      Among many benefits, healthy, living soils underneight the grass reduce water use, better absorb rain and keep the the trees planted into and around the lawns healthy for a robust urban forest.

  • Melissa Kellogg

    Such an important issue, David, both here in Southern California and beyond.

    While lawn reduction is the buzz term these days, replacing traditional turf grass and making a shift in maintenance practices is a reasonable and beneficial action.

    With the variety of climate-appropriate lawn choices available (Carex praegracilis and Pansa tumulicola work well in So. Cal) the shift from a greedy monster lawn to a handsome patch of grass that truly connects with the surrounding ecosystem is an easier one to make.

    The hardest part for homeowners? Choosing a new hobby to replace all that mowing, watering and weed spraying...

    Melissa Kellogg
    Sanctuary Gardens

    • David Salman

      It's imperative that Americans switch from from traditional lawn grass varieties and chemical fertilization to low care grasses and organic soil care will make a huge difference in the health of our environment. Thank you for your So. CA prospective on lawns. I've been learning about using sedges as super-low care lawns in John Greenlee's The American Meadow Garden.

  • Judy Millsap

    Here in western Colorado, we have planted Buffalo grass to have a 'lawn' area that we mow only about 3 times in the summer. We do not use fertilizer on it. The salts in chemical fertilizers are a big concern going back into our rivers. We use Yum Yum for all the perennials, trees, shrubs, even our lavender farm. Most of our yard is in perennial beds, which we love.
    David, thanks for this blog to connect with other sensible gardeners. We have a lot of High Country Greenhouse plants in our yard.

    • David Salman

      Your on the right track with your buffalo grass and concern for chemical lawn fertilizer formulations; these fertilizers are very prone to run-off into our water supplies. Yeah for Yum Yum Mix. It is my all time favorite fertilizer and I use it on everything. Your gardens and lavender fields must be incredible and I'm happy to hear that HCG plants have found a great home.

  • Lazy Gardens

    We replaced Bermuda with Buffalograss last year, and it's doing quite well.

    First year water usage is here.

    This year I expect it to use significantly less because it's established. And I will mow it less, as soon as I get the taller popups in the sprinkler system.

    Fertilizer: I don't plan on any this year, and last year it was 1/4 or less of the amount recommended for Bermuda lawns.

  • Natasha Rubenstein
    Natasha Rubenstein 05/18/10 at 10:38 am

    My family is looking for a native grass to plant that would be low care and durable for children and cats to enjoy being on with barefeet. The area is about 20 by 10 feet, sunny, and right across a walking path from our native rain and prairie garden. We live in Minnesota, and we'd like to plant it before May is over. Do you have any suggestions??

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