Thursday, May 24, 2007

Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

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Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

For many of us, the arrival of summer means the beginning of the lawn care season, especially when the weather cooperates. It’s probably not news to you that conventional lawncare has a significant negative impact on the environment. But that is not to say people can’t enjoy the benefits of a yard without compromising their own health, or the health of the planet.

Before I get into what’s wrong with conventional lawn care, I should emphasize that I like turf in my yard. My children play waffle-ball and run around there. I play waffle-ball and run around there. We have picnics, we wash the car, we catch up with the neighbors, we hang out laundry now and then. I even like the way grass looks.

But to maintain grass for these purposes does not require that we participate in the ongoing environmental degradation caused by conventional lawn care.

According to the US EPA, Americans spend $25 billion a year on lawn care. Residential lawns and gardens are doused with 80 million pounds of chemical pesticides and 70 million tons of fertilizers annually, with far reaching environmental impacts.

A portion of that fertilizer runs off into local streams, degrading those waters immediately, and eventually causing harm as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. The insecticides used to fight pests in the yard typically kill all bugs, not just the ones we mean to target, and they pose health risks to those who apply them as well as children and pets who come into contact with them.

An additional negative impact stems from the impulse to keep lawns perfectly green throughout the summer by watering them. Excessive lawn watering represents a misuse of fresh water, already a scarce resource in some parts of the U.S., and one that we’re just beginning to value properly in the Midwest.

I mean to outline here some of the changes individuals can make toward creating a more sustainable home landscape, but for particulars let me also encourage you to explore the resources linked below.

For high impact change, nothing beats cutting down on the amount of your yard kept as turf. Most of us maintain more grass area than we need, or even want, out of inertia. Our yards are covered in grass when we get them, and we’re not highly motivated to change that. But if we make the initial investment of time and energy to replace part of a lawn with native perennials, we liberate ourselves from some part of lawn care forever, and benefit the environment at the same time.

We can also cut down on the environmental impact associated with our yards by some basic changes in our practices: watering grass less frequently but more deeply, mowing to a height of three inches rather than pursuing that fairway look, and using organic alternatives to the ubiquitous commercial products--dry compost for fertilizer, or corn gluten as a weed preventer, for example.

A lawn managed according to sustainable principles may not meet the aesthetic standard set by pictures advertising conventional lawn care products. But it can serve our needs and contribute to the long-term health of our environment.

Ecology Action Center (Bloomington IL) Yard Smart pages:

National Audubon Society "Healthy Yard" pages:

National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Pages