Written for and with the assistance of EarthHero.org, our partner who is building an incredible carbon-tracking climate action app for individuals who want to save Earth. Variations exist between this copy and Earth Hero’s.
Prepare for some beautiful pictures. But not this first one.
Although a great green color, a one-species grass lawn is not a natural environment and actually hurts life on this planet, making for a relatively barren landscape inedible for humans, incapable of supporting life such as bees, and hardly supporting other diverse lifeforms, especially if herbicides are applied. Remember, we need bees and other pollinators for our food – and to support so many other species.
“My neighborhood is all large manicured lawns and shrubs that are weekly trimmed which removes seed heads from the grasses and flower blooms from the shrubs. It plainly frustrates me as I listen to the sound of mowers and blowers above the sound of birds chipping and children playing.” Alice, Climate Steps FB group member.
Further, lawns often require fertilizer after several years, which is made from petroleum products and emits greenhouse gases. They also require mowing (usually with a gas mower – which produces CO2), and they eat up your time – which is needed now for helping us save the planet. And this is why we’re talking about lawns and their alternatives on a climate action website.
People also keep watering lawns to keep them green, even though grass is usually drought-tolerant. When watering restrictions come into play, and they will more and more with climate change-caused drought, it is nigh impossible to keep grass green.
Last note before we get into solutions – our actions at our homes scale up. Home Advisor estimates the typical lawn size is around 10,000 sq feet in the United States (with lots of variation). When the area is combined, lawns in the U.S. cover “nearly fifty thousand square miles—an area roughly the size of New York State,” and consume a third of homeowner’s use of water on average, says Elizabeth Kolbert based on NASA and EPA data in an excellent article about the history and impact of lawns. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/07/21/turf-war-elizabeth-kolbert. Lawns apparently beat out other eight irrigated U.S. agricultural crops in land cover – combined (https://scienceline.org/2011/07/lawns-vs-crops-in-the-continental-u-s/).
“The total estimation of greenhouse gas emission from lawn care, which includes fertilizer and pesticide production, watering, mowing, leaf blowing and other lawn management practices, was found by a University of California-Irvine study to be four times greater than the amount of carbon stored by grass. In other words, our lawns produce more CO2 than they absorb.” For more horrifying information, see: https://www.onlynaturalenergy.com/grass-lawns-are-an-ecological-catastrophe/.
So replace the lawn with a more natural landscape and save water, have a resilient, bio-diverse landscape, and – especially key – feed the bees. There are many better alternatives, among them: a freedom lawn, a native species-landscaped front yard, a moss garden, woods, edible gardens, and more. Any plant that does not require mowing and synthetic fertilizer is a great option to save you time, money, and carbon. After the alternatives given below, see also our Handy Hints, our Resources, and our References for more information.
The Alternatives – from easy to more ambitious
A Freedom Lawn is a lawn that is still mowed (hopefully with an electric mower), but consists of any species that comes up, such as clover, dandelions, and other types of grasses. The diverse species that survive mowing are usually low, spreading types of species, and usually feel like a lawn to walk on, depending on location, of course. The selling point for a freedom lawn is that it stays green over a longer period over the year than a regular grass lawn. However, it’s often not the best choice unless you have kids needing a tick-free lawn for tumbling, and it may still need some fertilizer in the form of compost, which has more organic material and nutrients than pure nitrogen or phosphorous. It is a good way to start converting your lawn over to a natural landscape, however.
Bee Lawns are similar to Freedom lawns, but are planted with low plants with small flowers (such as dandelions, clover) that are great at providing food for native bees especially (REF). By definition, they don’t have to include native species, but there’s no reason why they can’t. And they should. Introduced exotic plant species do not support native ecology. Use some of the resources listed below to determine what native bees – and matching plants can be promoted in your area.
Clover Lawns used to be considered a fine lawn before the 1940s (Kolbert, 2008), when herbicides were introduced to the masses. Clover does support bees, but be careful about choosing native clover versus introduced clover. For instance, in the U.S. which already has 60 species of native clover, for some bizarre reason red clover was introduced. Again, though, in these cases avoid a one-species lawn even if using a native species – mix up the species! A great starting resource for planting a clover lawn is https://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/how-plant-clover-lawn.html.
A Native Landscape is just a landscape made of native species. A great understanding of the benefits of going wild are presented in this article: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/meet-ecologist-who-wants-unleash-wild-backyard-180974372/, featuring N. America. You can let it go wild, removing non-native species as it grows, or you can create a wildflower meadow or a layered, multi-colored garden that blooms/turns green with different species throughout the year. It almost never needs a lawnmower or fertilizer, and is usually well suited to your region with respect to water requirements. Further, think not only of the flowers, but double your visual feast by having butterfly gardens that attracts those colorful pollinators (and interesting caterpillars for kids.) Native landscapes support the fascinating diversity that already inhabits the earth.
Here is a wonderful video just shared with me about a homeowner’s transformation of their lawn to a native garden. With beautiful, diverse, living results!
Think about using native moss to create a Moss Garden. If you have too many trees around to even think about solar panels, then probably a moss garden is for you! They do not require fertilizing, although some species do require watering during dry spells. Also, tree leaves can’t cover the moss – rake to a garden bed instead. Thanks to Climate Steps Moderator Diane, who has a moss garden, a good how-to source is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VZOZeSlTRw&f=; as well as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwWFPaYjJII
Xeriscaping is landscaping with an emphasis on selection of plants for water conservation, not necessarily selecting native plants. Search online for local options if you live in water-scarce area and would like to explore this route.
A Woodland Garden/Woods are for larger lots and consist of a layered landscape including trees, shrubs, small bushes, and ground cover. It takes time to grow though – but you are sequestering carbon in the process. Sticks from the trees will need to be composted in a pile if you plan to keep a managed, layered look. Just please don’t use gas-powered leaf blowers! Leaves should be left where they are to provide homes for the decomposers, and nutrients for the soil.
Edible Gardens! Plant an edible garden in your backyard and even in your front yard if your municipality allows (many are beginning to). An edible garden can range from a more natural, edible landscape to a full-blown vegetable garden, and include fruit trees. We won’t try to give you handy hints here – there are many resources online for your specific location. An example of how neighbors are supporting an actual market with their lawns can be found at https://www.growwiththeflowllc.com/.
And this is a short video of a lovely English scene – a landscape with 500 edible plants.
Finally, a Wildlife Pond is an great option if you have room for it. Search online for ideas for your area.
Best yet, for those with larger lawns (my parents have over an acre of lawn alone – sigh), create a combination of the above. Diversify!
These things can not only be done at home – but at schools, places of worship, or even at your office – if your office has a lawn, that is.
- Replacing your lawn does not have to be all done at once. You can instead build your native flowers, edible gardens, shrubs, trees, and ground cover out farther and farther each year into the lawn space.
- Dig up, divide, and spread out plants you have now to let them grow bigger and take up space that you had to mow before.
- If beginning with a Freedom lawn in the U.S., remember that dandelions are food for bees (though of low-ish quality; native bees need other flower nectar/pollen as well), and humans can eat the leaves. Dandelion leaves are best in mixed green salads.
- If you want to change over to a native plant garden more quickly, you can cover the one-species grass lawn of death with cardboard, loads of compost, and then mulch. Then plant new native plants in through the cardboard. As the cardboard and compost works into the soil slowly, each plant will put its roots down deeper. (Thanks Susan!)
- If you tear up the lawn all at once, you might be able to de-sod the landscape and sell the sod to someone else. It is not ideal to keep perpetuating grass lawns, but better than letting it go to waste. If you do, though, warn the buyers about the consequences of lawns on climate change)
- You can also compost sod.
- Some organizations, including volunteer ones, will help you “unlawn” your lawn. https://plantingjustice.org/transform-your-yard. (San Francisco area.) And there’s always Youtube for learning how to Do-It-Yourself.
- Sometimes municipalities and even larger jurisdictions will help you out. The entire state of Minnesota just put some money down to help homeowners replace their lawns with native species. Check it out at: https://returntonow.net/2020/01/29/minnesota-will-pay-homeowners-to-replace-lawns-with-bee-friendly-wildflowers-clover-and-native-grasses/.
- For gardens, you may be able to get help from your city or nonprofits within your jurisdiction as well. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/05/21/408293431/urban-food-forests-make-fruit-free-for-the-picking.
- Leave leaf litter in place as much as possible to support beneficial insects and compost for the plants. https://news.wttw.com/2019/10/02/fearing-insect-apocalypse-renowned-entomologist-says-get-rid-your-lawn.
- Make sure to provide vertical layers to your garden as well, to support more species!
- Don’t utilize peat in your garden. Tearing up fragile ecosystems and shipping the carbon just produces more and more carbon.
- Once a native landscape goes in, follow any needed steps (provide water for wildlife for instance) and get it Certified as a wildlife habitat, such as through National Wildlife Federation (https://www.nwf.org/garden-for-wildlife/certify). Once you do, your new landscape might be eligible in your jurisdiction for a property tax exemption! https://www.iowadnr.gov/Conservation/Wildlife-Landowner-Assistance/Property-Tax-Exemption.
- Fall is a great time to get new plants on sale from your local garden center. There are usually great sales and otherwise the plants are often left to die.
- Avoid using plastic pots though, and plastic string trim. Plastic produces greenhouse gases, but also inhibits phytoplankton in the ocean from photosynthesizing carbon dioxide. (See Plastic=Climate Change here in Climate Steps.)
- Dealing with Home Owner’s Associations is a whole ‘nother post. But do try to show off your plants – and animals – to your neighbor, and make clear that you have a reason behind your plant choices. Give some plants to them. Most will see how fascinating it is.
- There are lots of other exciting ideas and tips online in articles, videos, and communities to learn what works best for your area.
“Three years ago I embarked upon removing the existing lawns and installing environmental supporting planting. I am not the most favored person in my neighborhood due to such. But, I have had people stop and inquire. I am beginning to see sections of neighborhood lawns disappearing and replaced with flower gardens hosting an array of blooms and birds circling feeders. ☺️” FB group member.
A lot of tips there, so thanks for reading!
Native Species and Landscaping Resources
- Master Gardeners or Master Naturalists
- Local or regional Native Plants Societies, such as: the Virginia Native Plant Society and its local chapters, https://vnps.org/
- Native Plants Nurseries in your area or region
- Conservation Botanical Gardens (not all support native.)
- Your local agricultural extension agent (esp for edible fruits and vegetables)
- Facebook Gardening groups, such as Gardening with Maryland Native Plants.
- National Park Service and State rangers know local plant and animal species.
- Some local landscape designers/artists.
- Often faculty at local universities in the biology/botany departments.
- Reference librarians at public libraries and large botanical gardens. (Thanks Diane for that gem!)
- Databases for your state or country. For example, Calscape is a California website that helps people pick out which plants are native to their area: https://calscape.org/.
- In the U.S., the USDA plant website, which lists both native and nonnative species, but marks which are native species in areas (and which are invasive.) https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/java/.
- Search by zip code in https://www.audubon.org/native-plants.
- Also, the Xerces Society has a strong emphasis on pollinators; see: https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/yards-and-gardens.
- Via Donna, a FB Climate Steps member: Doug Tallamy’s newest book “Nature’s Best Hope” encourages property owners to cut their lawns in half and replace with native species that support pollinators. https://beautifulnativeplants.blogspot.com/2020/02/natures-best-hope-by-doug-tallamy-book.html.
- members of the Facebook Group Climate Steps;
Finally, an interesting, relatively short article about the importance of green urban space: https://news.yahoo.com/back-wild-ungardening-took-root-america-012337033.html.
- Moss lawn photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash
- Moss photo by Chris Gonzalez from Pexels
- Freedom lawn by Pixabay.
- Flower meadow by Mina-Marie Michell from Pexels
- Xeriscaping Photo by James Day on Unsplash
- Lawn photos by FWStudio from Pexels, and Pixabay.
- Red squirrel (Near Threatened in Great Britain) photo via Adobe Stock.
- This is just wrong photo – watering a green lawn in the desert. Photo by Binyamin Mellish from Pexels