This drought and heat wave are just the impetus you need to finally get rid of your lawn. While most trees and shrubs are still fairly green, lawns everywhere are brown and unsightly. We are at a turning point in the reputation of an American icon.
Lawns are destructive to the environment. Recent research indicates that fertilizers seriously pollute Long Island Sound. The herbicides used on our lawns have been associated with cancer in dogs. Insecticides and fungicides not only harm beneficial organisms in the soil, but also create toxic environments in their manufacture. And, lawn mowers are many times more polluting than automobiles.
Maybe you've heard the lawn industry's response which talks about how much oxygen grass creates and how it absorbs air pollutants. And, this is true. It is certainly better to have a lawn than say, asphalt or gravel.
Compared to nature's environments: the forest, meadow, wetland, pond, thicket, or even an organic garden, lawns (especially chemically-maintained ones) are deserts - inhospitable at best or toxic at worst to most living things except grass and geese. A sprawling lawn invites Japanese beetles to take up residence where they thrive and reproduce bountifully.
Most natural environments are complex, multi-leveled polycultures. From the tops of mature trees to the tips of their roots deep in the soil, we find intricate webs of relationships between plants and animals. Oaks and maples provide habitat for lichens, insects, mammals and birds, and shade for lower growing trees like dogwoods, which in turn may shelter blackcap raspberries or blueberries, ferns and fungi. Food and homes are provided for millions of living things. Reproduction, growth, death and decay all occur constantly and simultaneously. In most environments, these relationships have evolved over millions of years. They are fairly stable, yet paradoxically, they are flexible and always changing.
So how do we start to restore diversity? First, except for paths and seating areas, stop mowing your lawn. Second, this fall plant some trees and shrubs. Choose native species with shapes, mature heights and root systems which are appropriate for your site. You'll want to create summer shade around your house and outdoor living areas, without blocking winter sun from the house, or summer sun from your vegetable garden.
Although we may not think of vegetable gardens as natural, they have been an important feature of our region for thousands of years. Humans must eat. There is no more ecologically-sensible way to feed ourselves than to grow food near where we live. An organic vegetable garden is very friendly to diversity and to the environment.
The large lawn is an artificial creation, encouraged by those who want to sell us lawn mowers, chemicals and irrigation systems. It is also part of the "dumbing down" of human beings. In earlier times, in order to survive, everyone had to know hundreds of different plants: ones that were good for food, flavoring, medicine, fence posts, or even roof rafters. Now, with enough lawn, all you need to know is how to mow and how to apply an ecologically-disastrous, four-step lawn-care program.
Forget your lawn and focus on your vegetable garden, flowers, native shrubs and cooling trees. With a reduced area to mow, hand tools will be sufficient. Soon your lawn will fade away, and you will find yourself surrounded by the ever-changing beauty and complexity, the sheltering and nourishing bounty of our lawn-free, native environment.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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