lawns
Daily Earth Science Environment Repost Urban Environmentalist

Lawns, Gardens, and Environmental Protection

Does my lawn matter? — YES

Miami is rife with problems, but one of these problems starts on its residents’ front lawns. The traditional American front lawn is about as environmentally unfriendly as a landscape can get. So, in 2016, the city of South Miami switched its municipal landscaping to purely organic operations. This change focused on stemming the flow of herbicides and fertilizers into the local environment. This example begs the question of how can homeowners manage their lawns in a more environmentally friendly way?

A bit of history

Closely shorn grass lawns originated in England during the 17th century and were limited to wealthy landowners’ estates. The word “launde” originally referenced an open area in woodlands, like a glade or meadow. The name later became associated with the grassy village commons where locals grazed their sheep or cattle. Eventually, around wealthy estates, animal grazing was not enough to keep the grass shorn, and manual labor was needed to crop the grass regularly. Thus, appeared the lawn as we know it.

Lawns historically appeared as a display of status and wealth. They still served that purpose today, to one degree or another. We work to make our lawns beautiful and lush, like jewels of green decorating the areas around our home.

But there is an environmental downside to this decorative hobby. If irrigation is required, then the lawn becomes a water waster. Also, keeping weeds and disease out of the lawn requires using toxic herbicides and pesticides. But these chemicals leak into the ground and contaminate groundwater supplies.

We want our lawns green, so to keep the grass healthy we apply fertilizers. Some of these nutrient-rich mixtures inevitably run off our property and into the storm drains. Eventually, they make their way to local ponds, canals, or rivers to help create toxic algae blooms. Lastly, keeping the lawn trimmed with a power mower burns fossil fuels.

Water

Typical lawns will need between 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week. So, a medium-sized lawn at 20 feet by 30 feet will need about 500 gallons of water per week. Now, this may not be a problem in areas of the country receiving a steady supply of rain throughout the year. But put the same lawn in a more arid environment, and the water use is significant, reaching approximately 8,000–10,000 gallons per summer season.

There are already local municipalities imposing controls on the amount of water used in maintaining lawns. As water becomes a scarcer commodity, lawns will come under further scrutiny.

Fertilizers

Even in water-rich areas, keeping your lawn green comes at another price. The application of fertilizers to encourage growth and keep the grass healthy and green is difficult for most individuals to manage properly. The ideal process applies an amount of fertilizer precisely matching the nutrient needs of the grass. Since this is a complicated calculation, the average homeowner (myself included) tends to over-fertilize. Heavy summer rain or irrigation runoff absorbs this excess fertilizer as raw nutrients and washes it down the storm sewer. From there, the nutrients make their way to local bodies of surface water. Ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers receive these nutrients. Then algae at the base of the food chain make good use of these compounds. The extra nutrients pave the way for unwelcome algae blooms.

These algae blooms have two main detrimental effects. The first is toxic excrements that poison other life in the local ecosystem. The second is, a massive algae bloom depletes the water of oxygen and kills off fish and other aquatic animals.

The total effect

The USA uses approximately one-third of its public water supply for landscape irrigation. This usage amounts to about 9 billion gallons of water per day. Water makes the grass grow, and then we use some 600 million gallons of gas each year, cutting this grass.

When we add the water and fuel usage to the negative environmental effects of over-fertilization and contamination from herbicides and pesticides, then the impact becomes clear. The road to environmental protection starts at home on our front lawns.

What are the alternatives?

My observations above beg the question, “What are my lawn alternatives?” Water conservation and reducing fossil fuel emissions rank high on the environmental problems that lawn alternatives should solve. A high-level approach to these issues recognizes that both water usage and gasoline usage directly relate to the lawn’s size. Step one is evaluating how much lawn you really need. Reduce your lawn’s size by 50 percent, and you know things are moving in the right direction because your water and mowing needs reduce by 50 percent also.

Expanding planted beds to occupy more space reduces the size of the lawn maintenance needs. Of course, planted beds still require some watering maintenance, but they don’t need constant mowing. Planted beds also lend themselves to more efficient irrigation methods like drip systems. Well-planned drip systems are great at providing water to individual plants, and they lose less water to evaporation than sprinklers. Water savings of up to 70% are achievable using drip systems.

Ground covers

Grass is not the only ground cover available for open areas. We maintain some open slopes around our house with vinca. It doesn’t accommodate much foot traffic, but it provides a year-round green cover with purple flowers in the spring. Its water needs are moderate, and the roots stabilize soil on the slope. It does have the downside of quickly spreading and therefore requires some containment.

Another alternative is Creeping Thyme. It grows several inches high and accommodates foot traffic. This plant grows in full sun or partial shade, uses small amounts of water, and requires very limited care. However, growth/spread rates are not high, so a close spacing in the initial planting will create your ground cover more quickly.

There are lots of other alternatives, but the critical point is, replacing large portions of your lawn with alternative ground covers limits watering and mowing, thus helping the environment. These alternatives make water conservation and zero fossil fuel emissions achievable in a single stroke.

Xeriscaping

The road to true water conservation in your home gardens is through xeriscape landscaping (xeriscaping). This form of landscaping seeks to eliminate the need for supplemental water from irrigation. Xeriscaping uses water-efficient native plants, applies soil amendments and mulches to provide nutrients and retain moisture, and utilizes garden designs matching the plants’ sunlight requirements. Thus, the overall effect is to create a low-maintenance landscape around your home, which uses only the water naturally available.

Maintaining and protecting the environment is a massive task. But this doesn’t mean you, as an individual, have no part to play. Think about your property as a mini environmental project. Less lawn and more water-efficient planted beds are a good start.

Sources:

Best Sprinkler Controller to Irrigate Your Yard (Source: Happy DIY Home) 

Efficient Irrigation (By Water Use it Wisely) 

Eco-Friendly Alternatives to a Grassy Lawn (By Gilmour) 

This Florida mayor takes his city organic with greener weedkiller and fertilizer (By Jenny Staletovich; Miami Herald) 

Lawn History (Planet natural Research Center) 

Another Downside to Your Classic Green Lawn (By Sarah Zielinski; Smithsonian Magazine) 

Outdoor Water Use (EPA) 

Fuel-Efficient Lawns And Landscapes (University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science) 

Feature Image: Garden Walk (Modified by ArcheanWeb) - Original Credit: Photo by Kosuke Noma on Unsplash – https://unsplash.com/@kkk7799

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.

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