Lawns | a few numbers to ponder:
From the Environment Protection Agency (epa.gov), we learn that an American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day; about 30% of that is used outdoors. Over half of the outdoor water is used for irrigating lawns and gardens. The total water use nationally for this purpose is more than 7 billion gallons daily!
Today 30 to 40 million acres are given over to lawns in America, 20 million acres of which are residential. Think of what is required to maintain a so-called healthy lawn-gasoline to run the mowers, fertilizer and supplemental water to keep the grass dense and actively growing , pesticides to control plant and animal competitors (designated as pests), and time and effort to keep on top of lawn management. Looking further, fossil fuels are, of course, burned to generate the electric power needed to make the equipment and to manufacture fertilizer and pesticides (for a lawn that’s the envy of the neighborhood, you’ll need to buy insecticides, herbicides and maybe fungicides, rodenticides and nematicides!). And, of course, anytime fossil fuels are combusted, residual chemicals are emitted into the atmosphere. One estimate is that 5% of the nation’s air pollution is attributable to lawn maintenance. Operating a typical gasoline-powered mower for one hour emits the same quantity of smog-forming hydrocarbons as driving a typical car almost 200 miles. And, of course, these emissions add to the greenhouse gas loadings that affect our climate.
In citing these figures, we grant that lawns provide benefits- exercise, picnics, barreling around on a tractor mower, jobs, and for some, a reason to be outdoors. On the other hand there are even more concerns: For example, wildlife poisonings. Over 200 pesticides are approved by EPA for lawn care although most applications are restricted to abut 35 of these. Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre than farmers do on crops, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Recent Canadian studies found that pesticides applied on farmland may explain three to 14 bird deaths per acre. In the State of New York, testing of dead birds provided for West Nile Virus assessment in 2001 found that, of the more than 80,000 birds tested, the leading cause of avian deaths was pesticide poisoning not the virus (ens-newswire.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2001-06-22-06.html). Other concerns include insect pollinators (especially bees and butterflies) essential for many crops such as squash and tomatoes, which are declining across much of the country. One of chief causes appears to be pesticides. Fish and amphibians also are apparently declining and pesticide applications are partially responsible (ehhi.org).
Much more could be said about confirmed and suspected impacts of lawn-applied chemicals upon aquatic and terrestrial environments. There is considerable controversy over the efficacy of treatment approaches recommended to home owners and over the effects upon non-target species and ecosystems. In fact, it is a vast topic, which does not include human health effects and well water contamination which are real concerns but beyond the purview of this site. I mention only that at least the state of Connecticut has recognized the need to prevent pesticide applications (with exceptions for mosquitoes and biting or stinging insects) in and around day care centers and schools (www.cga.ct.gov/2005/act/Pa/2005PA-00252-R00SB-00916-PA.htm). And lastly, what about all that noise! Couldn’t less intrusive mowers, blowers, pruners and power saws be offered in the market (electric mowers are quieter, of course, but are limited to small lawns on flat terrain and still fossil fuel-based)?
Here are a few simple approaches to advancing your yard to a point where it can begin to be thought of as habitat for plant and animal wildlife. The first photograph shows a patch of a native wild flower that can succeed in lawns without becoming a “problem”. It is growing in a portion of a lawn that has not been subsidized via pesticides, fertilizer, or water for at least seven years. Yes, the photo is taken in the late summer of central Florida when rain is plentiful. But the patch has also gone through the hot dry season each year when water is limiting. And by late April, water stress effects will be evident. But with the rainy season, growth recovers nicely. The site was mowed once every several weeks roughly from May through October. Six plant species are visible here in a patch of 500 cm2 competing with the grass but not overwhelming it and forming a much more diverse and to my eyes, more pleasant view.
The photograph centers on the rosettes of Erigeron quercifolius, a native biennial that produces pleasing aster-like flowering heads and succeeds in the coastal plain of Georgia and Florida where lawns are not mowed too closely. In the spring-summer flowering period, the plant bolts to about 20 cm high. Because it tends to occur in groups mowing can avoid them at this period. The plant produces seeds which can be collected or left to disperse, and then dies, limiting any invasive tendencies. Its first year is spent as a basal rosette shorter than most mowing heights. Comparable species are likely to be available in other states.
The second photo shows the tiny Dichondra carolinensis, a stoloniferous species of the morning-glory family that gets along well with lawn grasses where there’s some protection from summer sun and and , of course, from herbicides. Throughout the southeastern coastal plain this species will thrive where soils are wetter and shadier than optimum for grasses.
Where trees are present, possibilities multiply. Beneath hardwood trees, lawns generally fail even if sparse grass plants hang on. Fortunately they can be replaced by ferns which are perennial, shade-tolerant, need no fertilizer and are naturally pest-resistant. Below see two ferns, a Nephrolepis and a Thelypterus established at the base of a live oak in a central Florida yard. This small patch of semi-natural habitat has been observed to give shelter and,or food to anoles, toads, Black Racers, Florida Brown Snakes, gray squirrels, birds, and invertebrates.
Each of the photographs has illustrated three simple ways a lawn can be given greater interest and diversity while at least decreasing if not eliminating some of the fossil-fuel derived lawn maintenance products conventional lawns depend on.