Before Americans fell in love with Augusta-like expanses of perfection, lawns didn’t cause too many problems. We mowed them with hand mowers and otherwise pretty much left them alone. But things have changed since then, and not for the better. The problems include:
Guzzling of Water, a Resource in Short Supply. Half or more of all potable water is used on lawns during the summer, and with climate change bringing longer droughts and water restrictions becoming common, this is unsustainable. Choose climate-appropriate plants that need less or no supplemental water to succeed in your landscape. Other waterwise strategies include reducing the size of the lawn, shading lawn from hot midsummer sun, directing runoff to the lawn area, watering deeply and less frequently, letting your lawn stay taller, adding organic matter, and aerating compacted soil.
Polluted Waterways. Pesticides, herbicides and excess fertilizers are regularly washed from lawns into local watersheds, creating dead zones and harming marine life. Solutions include choosing phosphorus-free lawn fertilizers, creating more absorbent garden beds to send excess water back into the soil before it becomes runoff, and working to transition your lawn off chemicals.
Pesticide-Treated Lawns that are Toxic to Humans and Pets. Solutions include using organic, slow-release fertilizers, applying only pre-emergent weedkiller, leaving clippings on the lawn, and mowing at a higher setting. Or you could eliminate the need for added fertilizer by simply going back to the traditional practice of adding clover to lawns.
Single-Species Monocultures that Provide Nothing for Wildlife. While almost any alternative to lawn is better for wildlife than conventionally treated single-species turfgrasses, native plants are especially good at providing for critters.
Frequent Mowing, with Air Pollution. Most lawns are mowed regularly with gas-powered mowers that pollute the air and use fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a traditional gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars each being driven 12,000 miles. Choose manual or electric tools, and shrink or eliminate lawn area, to reduce landscape-related air pollution.
Overtreated and Overwatered Lawns that Waste $$ and Keep Asking for More. Pesticides, weedkillers, excess fertilizer and excessive watering don’t just waste money, though – they damage soil health, kill beneficial insects, and reduce the drought-tolerance of turfgrasses. It’s an addictive cycle.
Acres of Lawn Serving No Purpose. Where they aren’t needed for recreation, lawns can be replaced with any mixture of trees, shrubs, and perennials, even edibles, and all of those can increase the appeal of a landscape to humans (and other species too) while decreasing its demands.