Friday, October 24, 2008

Lawn is a dirty word

Native plants provide food and shelter for wildlife, such as this orange-sulfur butterfly on a black-eyed Susan
(photo by Alan Kneidel)

I noticed several of my neighbors seeding their lawns yesterday; autumn is the prime time to do that. Autumn seeding gives the new grass a head start before summer's heat rolls around. But my family won't be reseeding, even though our yard looks pathetic and embarrasses my husband. Our front yard was, at one time, a true lawn. Now it is an assortment of weeds that we still mow, dotted with numerous chipmunk holes, cicada holes, and the holes of huge solitary wasps called "cicada killers." Most of the weeds are introduced species that have no business being in North Carolina. In fact, the front yard looks more like a vacant urban lot than a lawn. But yet, we don't want a "better" lawn of uniform fescue or bermuda grass. We would rather create a native meadow in our front yard, or cover up the "lawn" with dead leaves. How would our neighbors like that? I'm not sure. But the birds, raccoons, butterflies, and the stream critters behind our lot would probably prefer it.

We have a lot of lawns in the United States. I was surprised to learn, while researching our book Going Green, that lawns are the 5th biggest "crop" in the U.S.! After corn, wheat, soybean, and hay, we devote more land area to lawn than to any other cultivated plant!

That is not good news for wildlife. The per-acre application of pesticides to lawns is typically 20 times greater than pesticide application to farm crops. This seems absurd when you consider that lawns don't serve much purpose other than to match our arbitrary idea of what looks good in front of a house. Lawns are an American obsession that the rest of the world doesn't share. Brits refer to the yard as a "garden" - because it usually
is a garden. In Latin America, yards (if they exist) are typically covered with native trees and shrubs and bare soil that's raked every day.

Yet lawns are serious business in the United States. We spend more than $30 billion per year on lawn installation, lawn-care products, equipment, and the lawn-service industry in our pursuit of the ideal lawn – composed of grass species only, free of weeds, always green, and regularly moved to a low and even height.
Gasoline powered mowers, blowers, trimmers, and so on, account for 5% of urban air pollution. And in spite of efforts to recycle, grass clippings and trimmings from ornamental shrubs comprise a fifth of all municipal waste.

Our green urban and suburban spaces - lawns, roadsides, and parks - add up to a staggering amount of space that we are not taking advantage of. With a little attention, the 30 million acres of lawn in this country could become 30 million acres of native plants, creating habitat for threatened and endangered animal species. Habitat destruction is the number one threat to wildlife species worldwide, including here in the U.S. Converting lawn to native habitat could provide not only resources for wildlife, but a natural filter and a temperature regulator against air pollution and heat-trapping emissions from cities. In addition, this conversion would reduce or eliminate the chemicals, power machinery, and
intensive watering required to maintain lawns and other nonnative landscaping. Lawns absorb only 10% of the water that a woodland would. The rest runs off into streams, where it contributes significantly to suburban flooding and stream degradation.

So what to do? In our yard, we have actually made some progress. We started by getting rid of the English ivy, a problematic "invasive" plant, that was covering half of the front yard and crawling up our maple trees. We succeeded in killing it without herbicides. Following the advice of native-habitat-restoration expert Beth Henry, we mowed the ivy as low as we could, then covered it with flattened cardboard boxes and newspaper, and put a thick layer of dead leaves on top of the cardboard / newspaper. It's been about 9 or 10 months since we did that, and the ivy seems to be truly dead now. The same method can be used to get rid of turf, without herbicides, although Beth recommends a thick layer of heavy mulch rather than leaves for killing lawns. That's how she killed two acres of lawn on her own property, before converting the space to a native meadow. We're not sure of the best approach to the "lawn" portion of our front yard, so for now it remains an unappealing assortment of chickweed, plantain, wild violets, clover, oxalis, and scraggly grasses.

Our backyard is heavily shaded and grass has never grown there. Instead, the ground is covered with leaves. In the past month, my husband has bought a number of native plants that thrive in woodlands, including hearts-a-bustin (Euonymus americanus), beauty berry (Callicarpa americanus), Christmas fern, and more. His plan is to create a native woodland understory, again following the advice of Beth Henry.

The lovely "hearts-a-bustin," a woodland understory plant
(photo courtesy of

If you want native plants for your own yard, most states have a "native plant society" that you can locate by googling. If that doesn't work, ask around at local nurseries. An increasing number of plant nurseries carry native plants, or can tell you where to buy them. Even Home Depot carries native plants, although the manager at my local Home Depot told me that their plants are grouped by watering needs, so they don't have a section devoted to native plants. Just ask the nursery manager to point out the plants that are native to your area.

If you want to plant specifically to attract wildlife, check out the National Wildlife Federation's backyard habitat program at They recommend plants that offer nectar, berries, and foliage to feed wildlife, as well as landscape structure (rocks, logs, ponds, birdhouses, etc.) to provide wildlife shelter.

A native meadow

With our ivy gone now, and a plan for our shaded back yard, we're contemplating how to transform the bleak expanse in front of our house into something that nurtures wildlife without entirely alienating our neighbors, all of whom sport tidy green lawns. A low-growing native ground cover might be appropriate for us. Maybe moss phlox, lyre-leafed sage, or mouse-eared coreopsis. Or ideally some heterogeneous combination of ground covers, aesthetically arranged. I need to get Beth over here to confer with us. Meanwhile, the chipmunks, cicadas, and cicada killers will have free reign over the eclectic collection of patchy weeds between our home and the street.

Beth Henry checks a monarch chrysalis in the native meadow at her home (photo by Sally Kneidel)

A green-lynx spider has captured a hawk moth for dinner in an unmanicured section of our yard (photo by Alan Kneidel)

Text by Sally Kneidel, PhD


Sally Kneidel, PhD, and Sadie Kneidel. 2008. Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. Fulcrum Publishing.

Environmental Protection Agency, Green Communities, Beneficial Landscaping, "Environmentally Friendly Landscaping,"

US Geological Survey. Science in your watershed.

Watershed Partnership for New Jersey, "Feeling Smart? Take Our Watershed Quiz!!"

Invasive and Exotic Species.

Martin F. Quigley. "The American Lawn: An Unrequited Love", Ohio State University, Extension Research Bulletin

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The Statesman!

Keywords:: native meadow native landscaping beneficial landscaping wildlife habitat butterfly gardening lawns Going Green Sally Kneidel Sadie Kneidel birding birds watershed education invasive plants Alan Kneidel

1 comment:

Dibyendu De said...

This is a beautiful blog. It is rich with a potent idea of conservation and sustainablity.

We only have to critically examine our own day to day activities and fixed traditional ideas to create new ideas for a better world.

Thank you very much for the idea.