Thursday, May 26, 2005

Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

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For many of us, the return of bright green to the landscape in spring triggers an urge to get out and grow something, and often that something is turf grass, the lawn. It’s probably not news to you that conventional lawn care has a significant negative impact on the environment. But the issue seems worth revisiting at this time of year, which seems so favorable to renewal and change.

Before I talk about what’s wrong with the conventional lawn, I should emphasize that I like turf in my yard. My children play wiffleball and run around there. I play wiffleball 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 have some grass does not require any of us to participate in the ongoing environmental degradation associated with conventional lawn care. According to the US EPA Americans spend twenty-five billion dollars a year on lawn care. Residential lawns and gardens are doused with eighty million pounds of chemical pesticides and seventy million tons of fertilizers each year, with far reaching environmental impacts. Some portion of our fertilizer runs off into local streams degrading those waters by promoting algae growth, and eventually contributing to water quality problems as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. In the yard itself, the insecticides used to fight pests 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. Excessive lawn watering also 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 to this piece on the Environmental Almanac website.

For high impact change, nothing beats cutting down on the amount of your yard kept as turf. Most of us tend 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. 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 less frequently but more deeply, mowing to a height of three inches rather than scalping the lawn, 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.