Nearly everyone, it seems, wants a lush, green lawn. Most of our standard ways of taking care of them don’t produce an eco-friendly lawn, though. An eco-friendly lawn is a biodiverse lawn.
The ideal suburban lawn has long been a monoculture: an expanse of turf grass, unsullied by any other species of plant. To that end, we apply endless amounts of fertilizers and weed killers. We also try to get rid of as many insects as possible, using still more chemicals.
The turf grasses are not native to most of the country. They need lots more water than ordinary rain supplies. I spent one summer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Some people grew cactuses. Some people covered their front yards with stones. As for the people who wanted grass lawns, they had to run sprinklers constantly. They didn’t even turn them off while it rained.
Trying to keep turf alive in a desert may be extreme, but the standard ideal non-biodiverse lawn is not healthy for the environment. Plus, the time, work, and money it takes to maintain it outweighs any benefits it might have.
We need to redefine a beautiful lawn. It should be something that not only looks attractive but fosters a healthy biodiversity. And is easier to take care of!
It amazes me when I see a house with grass all the way to its foundation. You can’t get a mower close enough to cut grass that close to the house. So after you use one machine to mow, you need another machine—and more time—to trim the leftovers.
Diversity of plants
So for a low-maintenance biodiverse lawn, plant shrubbery or ornamental grasses near the house—on all sides. Plant flowers in front of them. The back yard makes a great place for a vegetable garden. And there, too, avoid monoculture. More about that later.
When deciding on what to plant, prefer plants native to your area, and be mindful of the amount of sun and shade each part of your yard gets. Some plants need full sun. Some need a lot of shade.
You can also plant shrubs or ornamental grasses in the corners of your lawn. Without corners, you can mow in a spiral from outside to inside without having to back up the mower or turn it around. It doesn’t take away much lawn surface, but it can save a tremendous amount of time and energy mowing.
Clover is not a weed. Dandelions have pretty flowers. Crab grass is grass. Those statements may seem like heresy, but if you come to accept them, you can save a lot of money and effort on weed killers.
And actually, you don’t need grass at all for a biodiverse lawn—at least not all over your property. You can choose from plenty of other groundcovers that require less maintenance than grass. Plants that grow low enough to the ground that they don’t get tall enough to mow.
I recently attended a lawn party at a house without a blade of grass in the back yard. It had enough trees that it would be difficult to get grass to grow in such deep shade. Instead of grass, it had clumps of hostas, ferns, and other shade-loving plants. A rich carpet of coarse mulch made a nice walking surface and kept weeds from coming up.
Good natural mulches
All those areas with something else growing besides grass need mulch. It keeps weeds at bay and retains moisture in the soil. Less obviously, it attracts beetles and other insects that eat weed seeds.
Whatever you do, don’t buy rubber mulch, dyed mulch, or anything artificial. Even if you buy mulch from a garden center, you’ll have plenty of biodegradable choices.
Grass clippings make excellent mulch. It doesn’t matter if they’re green or dry. Just don’t pile them too thick. They’ll mat together and keep air from flowing to the soil. You can mix them with other kinds of mulch to prevent this problem.
Do you enjoy woodworking? Sawdust makes a good mulch, subject to the same cautions as grass clippings. [ I think I saw somewhere that you can also get sawdust from cabinetry shops, where it is a waste problem.]
Bark is a common mulch. It can be too acidic for flower beds, but it works well around trees and shrubs. You can add some lime to it to reduce acidity.
In the fall when trees shed their leaves, you can save them up for mulch. Maple and alder leaves make good mulch without needing any kind of processing. Many larger leaves mat together. In that case, it’s best to shred and dry them. Shredding leaves is easy. Just run a lawn mower over them and collect them in a bag. Wind can blow leaf mulch away, so it helps to sprinkle some soil or compost over the top to keep it in place.
Depending on what’s locally available, you can use pine needles, seaweed, or cocoa shells. Your garden center may have other similar local products. Wheat straw also works well and is easily available. It’s most often used to cover newly planted grass seed or around vegetable gardens. It’s not as attractive as other mulches.
As for fertilizer, chemical fertilizers do not adequately feed plants. You can use an organic fertilizer such as Milorganite. You can also buy compost, but why bother? It’s so easy to make your own compost.
Diversity of insects
I have read about efforts to restore wetlands. Some people objected that it would just attract mosquitos and other pests. But, in fact, they attract so many birds and frogs that they keep the mosquitoes in check. You probably don’t need to put a wetland in your yard, but you want some of the same benefits.
A biodiverse lawn means more than plants. You want some insects, too, just not all the kinds that might want to visit your garden. You don’t want the ones that eat your roses or vegetables, for example. But instead of getting rid of them with pesticides, attract the kinds of birds, lizards, spiders, insects, and other critters that eat them.
Beneficial insects come in three varieties: predators, parasites, and pollinators.
Some predators, like spiders, lie in wait for their food to come past. Others, such as ladybugs, go hunting for it. Parasites, such as some species of wasp, lay their eggs on other insects. The eggs hatch and the larvae consume the host.
When we think of pollinators, bees come easily to mind. Actually, anything that goes from blossom to blossom gets pollen all over it and carries it with them. Butterflies are especially beautiful pollinators.
Attracting these helpful insects entails planting the kind of plants they like. It also helps greatly to avoid monocultures. For example, don’t plant all your tomatoes together. The insects and other pests that come to eat them want to have as easy a time as possible getting from tomato to tomato.
Having something they don’t like between tomato plants makes extra work for them. Maybe they’ll just go to one of your neighbors who make finding tomatoes easier. Plus, the plants between the tomatoes just might harbor the kind of insect that eats the pests.
Why spend money and time on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to do what nature will do for you free of charge?