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Lawn Gone (video)
July 26, 2002

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Interviewee: Janet Marinelli, Environmental Gardening Author.

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The Lawn Institute

In a summer of drought, homeowners might view water shortages as a danger to their perfect lawns.

But as this ScienCentral News video reportrs, there is an eco-friendly alternative.

The grass is always greener

The concept of a lawn as a beautifully manicured uniform area of green didn’t originate in this country. The idea dates back to 18th century England, when landowners in the country aimed for a carpet of lawn on their vast estates. This aesthetic was later adopted by American gardeners and landscapers. "I think it’s time for a change," says Janet Marinelli, environmental gardening author and director of publishing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. "We’re now in the 21st century, not the 18th century, and it’s time to look at our landscapes anew and come up with more creative and less ecologically destructive ways of having a garden."

What Marinelli advocates is abandoning the status quo—the use of a single type of grass that’s not indigenous to an area—in favor of native grasses. "A conventional lawn typically is made up of ideally one species that’s not native to the area at all," she points out. "A native grass lawn, just as the name implies, is made up of grasses that are native to the area, and typically very well adapted to that area, so they don’t require as much maintenance and as much in the way of chemical fertilizers or pesticides."

The type of grass typically used in a conventional lawn depends on what part of the country you live in. In much of the United States, Kentucky bluegrass is used. In the South, however, St. Augustine grass is popular, while in the Southwest, Bermuda grass is often used. "Those are mass produced species that typically aren’t well adapted to the areas that they’re grown in, which is what is the major cause of all the environmental problems that conventional lawns cause, and also makes them very maintenance intensive," Marinelli says.

Environmental problems include the strain on water resources needed to keep such lawns green, and the use of pesticides and other chemicals necessary to achieve the desired effect. In contrast, a native lawn requires very little care once it’s established. Marinelli says that some native grasses don’t have to be mowed at all, and require very little watering and no fertilizing.

Extending the natural environment

The idea of a maintenance-free lawn may be convincing enough, but there are other advantages as well. Working with native vegetation allows homeowners to develop their properties in harmony with their natural surroundings.

Landscaper Jim Grimes, of Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk, Long Island, regularly works with his clients to achieve this goal. At a house on Long Island, for example, he planted half an acre of low bush blueberry on part of the property. "I would consider it restoration landscaping," he says. "What we did is look at the plant community around the property and what was found naturally in the property."

What Grows Where

Landscaper Jim Grimes recommends calling your county agent for soil maps and information about what soil conditions are like in your area. Here is a brief list of some native grasses and where they grow best:

  • Bentgrass: Meadows and woodlands
  • Buffalograss: Dry, widely adaptable but prefers clay soil
  • Tufted Hairgrass: Coastal marshes and meadows
  • Junegrass: Dry, gravelly, drought tolerant
  • Little Bluestem: Dry to moist, pH adaptable
  • Red Fescue: Widely adapatable, tolerates shade
  • Foothill Needlegrass: Dry hills, open woods, rocky slopes
  • Tufted Field Sedge: Prefers moist sites, but is drought tolerant

–from Easy Lawns, published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

But that didn’t mean his client, an avid golfer, had to give up a lawn altogether. Grimes used a type of grass called hard fescue mixed with some bluestem to create a lawn that requires very little in the way of watering. Now wildlife like butterflies and box turtles can be seen regularly among the blueberry bushes, but insects tend to stay away.

Grimes says that many properties developed today have severe restrictions as to what can be done, but this fits in well with the concept of native landscaping. "If you’re told you can only clear a quarter of your property it looks a heck of a lot better to try and blend in with the rest of the property than to try and create this postage stamp oasis in the middle of it," he says.

Not having a traditional lawn may take some getting used to, but the results can be satisfying. According to Marinelli, "If you look at a lot of the native grass lawns that are now being created in various parts of the country, there are wildflowers that bloom in the spring, in the summer, in the fall. Parts of the lawn don’t have to be mowed at all and can be left so that their seed heads are really ornamental. It’s just a lot more interesting to look at."

Starting over

Establishing a native grass lawn initially takes time and money. "Sometimes it’s a little more expensive to establish a native grass lawn, but it’s really cheaper in the long run because it’s so easy to maintain," explains Marinelli. After removing what may already be growing, seed or sod has to be spread and then watered for about a year until the lawn is established. But then it pretty much takes care of itself.

Those who want to have at least a small patch of conventional lawn don’t have to give up the idea of native landscaping altogether. Expanding flower beds and planting native shrubs and ground covers are just some of the things homeowners can do to reduce maintenance and make their properties more environmentally friendly.

"I think what we should all do is get a life, and start chipping away at the size of our lawns," Marinelli says. "It’s not the end of the world if a few weeds creep into the carpet of green lawn. So I just think that we have to relax, make our lawns smaller, and enjoy them a little more and not be so obsessive about them."

–by Jill Max

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