The perfect lawn is the imperfect lawn. The perfect lawn is rugged and natural in appearance and to the untrained eye might be condemned as the eyesore of the neighborhood. It is a lawn that defies cultural norms but can be aesthetically pleasing. It has wild edges where shrubs and wildflowers seduce pollinators with sweet smells and bright colors. Unkempt corners, seemingly barren areas, make an ideal habitat for aggregations of ground nesting bees. A dead snag riddled with woodpecker holes become repurposed homes for cavity nesting birds and beetle holes are reclaimed by cavity nesting bees. The lawn is more than grass but a diverse palette of plants that are attractive to passing pollinators on their morning rounds.
To the casual observer the lawn is a collection of “weeds” but a closer look reveals something altogether different. These so-called weeds are nutritious edible plants but also powerful medicinals. The dandelion was one of many escapees of colonial medicinal gardens prized as a diuretic and blood cleanser. It also is highly nutritious and contains high concentrations of vitamin C, a great remedy for scurvy. All parts of the plant are edible: the early spring leaves make a nice addition to salads and the roots making an earthy tasting tea. The yellow flowers symbolize the beginning of the pollination season and herald the endless succession of flowers that are attractive to a diversity of pollinators.
Wild violets are commonly found on lawns and are a small reminder of a once great violet industry that thrived in the Hudson Valley. Rhinebeck, NY, was once the “violet capital of the world”. Once all the rage, by the 1960s violets fell out of favor and gone were the violet filled wagons on their way to the steamboat landings. Violets contain medicinal properties and can be used in poultices for bruises or made into a tea for internal inflammations and coughs and the flowers are a gentle expectorant. The flowers themselves can dress up a salad to give it a decadent touch. Native pollinators visit violets including the blue orchard bee that dives head first into the yellow, purple or white flowers.
White clover is a favorite summertime flower that frequents lawns and is especially loved by honey bees. Other bees also take advantage of its sweet nectar. Other lawn “weeds” would include devil’s paintbrush (orange hawkweed), creeping charlie (ground ivy), wild chives and others.
The perceived “perfect” lawn is a high maintenance monoculture more synonymous with a toxic waste dump than a haven for wildlife. Competition among neighbors to create the envy of the neighborhood comes at a great expense of time, money and the environment. The lawn status symbol requires a great amount of energy to maintain — for example, one hour of running a lawn mower produces as much pollution as a four-hour car trip. American homeowners use up to 10 times more pesticide per acre of lawn than farmers use on an acre of crops. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 80 million U.S. households dump nearly 90 million gallons of pesticides and herbicides on lawns in a year. A 1,000 square foot of lawn watered with 1/2 inch of water needs 330 gallons of water. 30-60 percent of urban water use is used to maintain lawns, less in the east and more in the west.
It is time to rethink the lawn and remember the imperfect lawn is the perfect lawn!
Steps for a more natural lawn:
- Stop spraying herbicides and pesticides. In the very least, read the labels and apply accordingly.
- Water your lawn more wisely, not at all, or in regions where grass does not grow naturally, xeriscape your yard.
- Don’t apply, or reduce the amount of, fertilizers on your lawn. Over fertilizing a lawn can lead to run-off that harms local ponds and streams.
- Mow your lawn less frequently. Allow the dandelions to bloom. If you have a large lawn, allow parts of it to grow into a meadow and/or plant native wildflowers Some wildflowers to consider are goldenrods, asters, bee balm, lupine, black-eyed susans, beard tongue, coneflowers…and milkweed to encourage Monarch butterflies and happens to be a favorite of bees too!
- Mow only in the fall to avoid shrubs and trees from growing.
Resources for Healthy Lawns:
http://perfectearthproject.org is a great resource to learn about the benefits of creating a chemical free lawn.