Mowing down the myth of high-maintenance lawns

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Apparently I am not supposed to trust my own experiences. I’ve had lawns at every house I’ve  inhabited, which has been several over my more than half century above the earth. I’m baffled when I read that lawns are high maintenance, bad for the environment, and provide nothing for wildlife.

Really?

I’m watching a robin as I type this and nobody told him to stay off the lawn, and it sure looks like he’s finding worms and grubs. Last week I saw a flicker probing for ants. The pair of thrashers that nest in the shrub mass in front of my office window seem ignorant of the drawbacks of turfgrass. Every spring, I watch them picking up insects on the lawn between me and those shrubs, distracting me from my work as they teach their young to hunt for themselves.

Should the phoebes, bluebirds, wrens and wood peewees be scolded for picking up the many insects on the lawn? I so enjoy watching them leaving their elevated observations posts to snatch a juicy morsel from the evil turfgrass.

One spring my sister called from north Mississippi to report she’d seen on her lawn a vivid painted bunting in with a number of indigo buntings and goldfinches as they were feeding on dandelion seeds.  What a brilliant sight that must have been!

I could recite a longer list of birds that not only will use lawns, but prefer them as hunting grounds, but instead will move on to the bees, butterflies and the less celebrated pollinators that I see visiting the dandelions, spring beauties, daisy fleabane and henbit that spangle my lawn each spring.

Of course I am not keeping my lawn up to golf course standards, and why would I? My imperfect lawn fulfills several functions as is. It is the floor, and the causeway to get around in my landscape. It stops erosion and slows rainwater, allowing infiltration, cleaning and restoring water to deeper soils and eventually to aquifers.

As I watch the dogs run over it, or wrestle in it, or nap on it, I smile. They are the reason for my current lawn, perhaps the lowest maintenance I’ve owned, though zoysiagrass is considered by many to be the Cadillac of southern turfgrass species.

I finished my house in 2012 and moved in just before a tropical depression spun up from the Gulf with heavy rains. The disturbed red soil was soon a mire that moved indoors on my feet,  on the many furry feet of my rescued mutts through the two built-in dog doors. The hard rains moved rivulets of what little friable soil I had down the hill toward the creek.

The small amount of building funds I had remaining was supposed to go toward furniture, but I decided what I needed more was sod. I further decided that if I was going to buy sod, by golly, it would be zoysiagrass. The few times I’d actually suffered a stab of lawn envy was when standing on zoysiagrass. It’s dense and springy underfoot, with crunchy grass blades full of silica. You can hear zoysia underfoot.

So I plunked my money down though it was nearly twice as high as bermudagrass, which I despise for its rampant growth. I call it “Bermuda the Hun”.

Sure, I watered it during its first year, and even sprinkled fertilizer on it twice, but not since, and I’ve never used herbicides or insecticides on it at all. I could care less if it isn’t a lush brilliant green all summer long. It’s green enough, and rain restores its color.

During ideal times of plentiful rain and warm sun, it could use a mowing every couple of weeks, but as summer grows hot and dry, I might do it every three to four weeks. For the first several years, I mowed it all with a walk-behind self-propelled push mower and could knock it out in less than two hours, which is much less time than I spent every two weeks in my mixed borders planting, mulching, weeding, watering and saving meek plants from bolder neighbors.

As my mixed borders grew and became more demanding, I caved, and bought a riding mower a couple of years ago. Truly, the half hour or so spent sitting on a mower with the breeze in my face feels like I am taking a break from the truly hard work of gardening.

No doubt the emissions from the gas-powered mowing equipment I’ve used over the years is undesirable, but that is the only negative I see concerning my choice to have a lawn. In the larger picture, I like to think that negative impact is balanced out by the many ways I manage my landscape for the benefit of the wild things.

If you want lawn in your landscape, don’t let them make you feel guilty. I don’t know who they are, or why their claims run rampant, but I do wonder if they ever actually garden, or even look out the window.

Out my window, I see dogs wiggling, bellies up, probably scratching their backs on the stiff grass blades. I’m going out to join them and throw the ball on the lawn that serves our lifestyle so well with so little input.

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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”

 

36 COMMENTS

  1. Finally! The truth about the ease of a natural weedy lawn as opposed to maintaining flowering beds. Won’t give up my beds but won’t be taking out this easy care lawn to add more work to my life. Thanks Carol.

  2. Lawns are WAY easier to maintain than flower beds! I too bought a riding mower this year, saving my energy for the pretty stuff. I mow high, don’t water or fertilize, spot treat the weeds if they get too out of hand. New introduction this year: short early spring flowers in the grass.

  3. I spend about 1-2 hours cutting down my 4,500′ of garden beds each spring. That’s it for the year. Seems pretty easy to me.

    While I agree that a lawn is not devoid of wildlife value — especially one like yours — it’s also a little disingenuous to tout it as a wildlife mecca. I think it’s real easy for all of us, lawn supporters or not, native plant proponents or not, to point to fauna using flora and say “look, wildlife value, don’t make me feel bad.” And when we talk about “feeling bad” or “guilty,” I wonder how much of that is the person giving it and how much is the person receiving it (there’s lots of psychology on this).

    Thank you for not dousing your lawn with petrochemicals, and, I hope, not fertilizing four times a year.

    • I agree, my “imperfect” lawn is not Mecca, for sure! I hope the many other plants I provide in my mixed borders (shrubs, small trees, perennials, augmented with annuals) plus the woodlands beyond, help it come a little closer…which brings me to my question. What do you grow in these beds that is all cut down each year? Mine are mixtures with plants for four seasons of interest and some are allowed to grow quite large.

  4. Thank you, thank you! I’m about to post about this very thing. l have a Certified Wildlife Habitat with stretches of lawn. Perennial gardens are indeed more work. I leave my lawn high, mowing maybe twice in the summer. I don’t fertilize. It doesn’t get any more water than anything else–which is not much water at all in my garden. It’s cooling, soothing, with as you said, birds nabbing a meal and enclosing the ground and aerating roots.

  5. “I’m baffled when I read that lawns are high maintenance, bad for the environment, and provide nothing for wildlife.” What a strange world we live in. Mowing is not only easy, but it’s relaxing…at least for me.

  6. It seems to me that the many proud claims made here and elsewhere about avoiding lawn chemicals, mowing high or infrequently, welcoming flowers in lawn, limiting irrigation, and other “sustainable” ways of managing lawn all reveal the success of efforts by so-called “lawn-bashers” to educate the public about the drawbacks of once mainstream attitudes and expectations about lawn. No one who advocates smaller, healthier lawns says that lawn is evil, nor that enjoying lawn is wrong. Instead the message is and has always been that conventional lawn treatments, which have for decades involved using tons of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, priceless water resources, and endless petroleum products, all of which together give lawn its large carbon footprint and negative effect on the natural world, are relatively undesirable, and we can do better. Apparently, that message has gotten through to many people. It still needs to spread farther, though, and this post is no help.

    Our new book, Climate-Wise Landscaping, shows anyone who is interested how to create lawn that enhances people’s lives and the life of other species while also helping to mitigate climate change. We don’t suggest that anyone should or must do this, but instead we say it could be a good thing in a variety of ways, and we explain why. It is this larger goal – taking care of the planet while we take care of our own needs – that we are trying to encourage and demonstrate. There is no intention to bash or embarrass those who enjoy lawn.

    As Ben Vogt suggests, it might be interesting to look at where these feelings of shame originate. I’m not entirely convinced they come from those who speak of gardening on behalf of nature and the environment. As a thought experiment, would a company that proudly sells “ethically-made, sustainably-sourced, 100% organic cotton bedding” (which I just saw in my newsfeed right after this post) be accused of trying to shame or bash people who buy conventional sheets? I don’t think so. We recognize that this product is just trying to help, to offer something a little better to anyone who would like to try it. And so I wonder: what is it about gardening that brings out such defensiveness and backlash? It happens again and again. I find this so fascinating. End of rant.

    (Note to self: be prepared for the venom that will now be heaped upon you.)

    • Yes, grassy lawns have their place, such as they are a great place to pop out a lawn chair and read a book with barefoot feet. And grass is good for many animals (note: most animals prefer the edges of forest or open areas like meadows), especially tall grasses. If we could even just leave sections of our lawns a little longer for the fireflies, we’re doing something good with the Kentucky bluegrass landscape. I love the look of bluegrass when it sets seedheads 😉

      Agreeing with the above comment fully, we have to remember that because you see animals feeding in your yard, that might not mean you are providing good food for them. My mom always tells me how the birds love her Japanese barberry plant, but I have to point out there are only house sparrows eating the berries (one invasive species eating another). And just because the birds are eating the berries, it doesn’t mean the berries provide adequate nutrition. Barberries are like doughnuts, yummy but devoid of vitamins, so how is a bird supposed to fly well on a belly full of doughnuts?

      • Right, but there are many many food sources for wildlife that are not nutritionally complete, but like we do, they graze on many different plants. I can’t live on broccoli alone, but it is a good component of my diet.
        I have a huge diversity of plants in my mixed borders and am lucky enough to live in a wild valley, mostly woodland, though I try to keep some of the meadow areas from encroachment.

  7. No venom here, as it seems to me we are on the same side. I saw nothing to disagree with in your comments about more sustainable lawns. My comments were inspired by those who make categorical comments about lawns, assuming that they are all high maintenance, laced with pesticides and devoid of wildlife. They don’t have to be, do they? I’m a little puzzled that you find our message so different, when I see them as the same. Perhaps I missed your point? Won’t be the first time, I can guarantee you!

  8. Thank you, Carol!! I have a lawn that has some grass, many weeds, even a bit of moss here and there – and it doesn’t trouble me at all. When it’s freshly mowed, it looks every bit as nice as my neighbors who get their periodic treatments. I have birds all over my lawn, a lot fewer harmful insects, and my dandelions help the early foraging bees and flies find food. I’m sure my more fastidious neighbors cringe whenever they look over at my lawn, but that’s their problem.

  9. Amen Carol. Well done. Our old house became a rental house for four years, and though the tenants loved the garden, the only thing they seemed able to properly maintain was the 200sq foot section of lawn, which they could mow, and the green alley next to the fence, which again, they could mow. I am in 100% agreement with you and this nonsense about who is shaming who is so transparently shaming that it is amusing. Great rant – and valuable to those who never speak up about what they know to be true for fear of hostile voices coming back at them.

  10. I think the lawn shaming is perpetuated more by those who live in climates where even a weedy lawn is hard to achieve. Those in the southwest part of our country have a much more difficult time of having a lawn than I do, here in NW Ohio, where we get sufficient rain to maintain a lawn. We live on an acre and there is no way I’m about to take out the lawn we have. We’ve got a lot of gardens on that acre too, but their more than enough for us to maintain and are a LOT of work. The lawn is our least labor-intensive thing on the property and like you, we see nature enjoying it as much as we do.

    And yeah, no chemicals for us either. We like our clover.

  11. I replaced my lawn with gorgeous groundcovers. I love to watch my pup napping in it and she smells great after a roll in the thyme. What I object to is lawns that are diligently maintained and manicured in places like Arizona, where it seems water use has to be higher than that for a simple xeric lawn and drought-wise landscaping. And here in Boise, at the old Simplot mansion on more than a dozen acres, they’re still watering and mowing that hill. In 2016, they spent (taxpayers) 46 thousand dollars to maintain the landscape. Yikes. I’m glad you love your lawn and that it’s so carefree! And, one more thing – I don’t care that my perennials are more work – I love any chance to be in my garden!

  12. Experiences differ. The lawn in our backyard was some terrible species of invasive grass that was impossible to maintain. I ripped it out with glee and haven’t regretted it. More space for plants and an opportunity to create those winding paths I see on garden shows.

    • Btw: by “maintain” I mean control. The lawn required no care at all except stopping its spread.

  13. I agree that lawn care is much simpler than even a perennial flower bed. However, here in the Mountain West, in the 10 to 15-inch annual precipitation zone, our Board of Public Utilities estimates that at 1 percent per year population growth, our water needs/wants will exceed the amount of water the city has legal access to by 2040. And that’s if we always get the average amount of snowfall to recharge our reservoirs and groundwater.
    So it behooves us to look at alternatives to water-thirsty bluegrass lawns (none of my neighbors ever lets them go dormant in the summer!) like native grasses and perennials which are adapted to our dry climate. Right now, landscape irrigation is a huge percentage of our city’s annual water use.
    No one here is suggesting that we have no lawns at all. Maybe lawns that are intentional and useful rather than the default.
    The upside is that planting natives and adapted plants will cut down on the fertilizers washing into our groundwater and streams, and provide more for pollinators and other wildlife. And it is more interesting to look at. If I want to see great swathes of grass, I just need to go to the edge of town and look out on the Great Plains.
    In gardening, there are few statements that apply to every region of the country. Cutting back acreage devoted to bluegrass lawns makes sense here.

    • Low input is my mantra, is it not? My swathe of grass is not “great” and it is bordered and broken up with groups of woody and herbaceous plants, many of which are chosen for wildlife appeal, so it seems we are championing the same principles, are we not?

  14. My lawn is in full spring bloom right now. It is so amazing I’m not willing to mow it just yet. The only thing my lawn really lacks is a preponderance of grass.

  15. I have to take some issue with this – partly because your lawn is not the problem, but the solution. The problem is areas like the American west and the southwest and the intermountain west where the yearly rainfall can’t support the acreage of golf-course-like lawns that people have been trained to find desirable. The problem is the heavily fed, watered, herbicided and pesticided lawns all over here that Scotts and Bayer promote so well.

    In my California neighborhood people have to be convinced to let their lawns go brown in the summer during a drought and as soon as we get any measurable rain you see orders of fresh sod showing up on driveways to be rolled back out like a carpet and watered like crazy so they can establish.

    Your incensed pro-lawn writing, while fitting the Garden Rant site in name, seems a little unusually short-sighted for their actual brand. We’re gardeners, we all know that what works great in one region is a terrible idea in another and the differences are what make garden education so interesting and diverse. “My lawn is good, therefore all lawns must be good” is not really a helpful message here. Focusing on decreasing summer irrigation in summer-dry areas, minimizing excessive fertilizer and pesticide use and enjoying a lawn that can also be a wildlife habitat is a helpful message that is getting somewhat obscured by the need to sound controversial.

    • Indeed, I should have made note that there are regional differences, but seems we are in full agreement on the idea of minimal watering (or in my case, none) no pesticides or fertilizers, and mixed (weedy) lawn as wildlife habitat. In some environs, any attempt at lawn, brown or no, weedy or not, may not be doable without inputs. I’m frankly confused that the message you heard was “my lawn is good, therefore all lawns must be good.” Obviously, I am practicing the very principles you condone. As far as sounding controversial, the controversy is simply about how often I hear the insistence that lawns are high input and high maintenance and poor habitat, and I simply pointed out “it ain’t necessarily so.” Again, should have clarified how easy it is in a region of decent rainfall. Otherwise, it feels we are actually on the same page, standing up for the same things, being kind to our environment and reducing inputs.

      • I think it’s the title, the first paragraph and the fact that it’s tagged under Ministry of Controversy that threw me off. High-maintenance lawns definitely do exist and they are unfortunately very common in a lot of areas.

        If you had written a positive, pro-lawn post about how they don’t have to be high maintenance, how great they can be for wildlife habitat in the right environment with information on good grass choices and how much the excessive inputs can be reduced if you can escape the need for the golf-course style look you would probably get way less pushback. Instead this comes off as more divisive, “To heck with all the lawn-haters!” than I would ever expect to see on this site. I completely agree with what you’re saying about your lawn, it’s just the presentation that I find really jarring.

  16. You wrote”If you had written a positive, pro-lawn post about how they don’t have to be high maintenance, how great they can be for wildlife habitat in the right environment with information on good grass choices and how much the excessive inputs can be reduced if you can escape the need for the golf-course style look you would probably get way less pushback.” I’m blinking with confusion because I thought that is what I wrote. In rereading, I can see that the tongue-in-cheek comments such as telling the robin he should not be finding good on the lawn could be taken as sarcastic, but then not everyone enjoys the same sense of humor. I still see us as brethren in our goals so will take cheer from that. Peace!

  17. I think most people who advocate less lawn are not ‘lawn bashers’ as described here. I don’t recall reading anyone stating of the extreme things mentioned in this rant, merely pointing out that the practice of maintaining golf green lawns, with gas mowers and intense water and petrochemical inputs is not sensible or sustainable. Sure, have a weedy lawn! (I like the term calico lawn), but maybe if you have two acres of lawn, that some of the space could be better used, even just left to be if you are concerned about maintenance. I live in suburbia, where 80% of my neighbours fertilize, mow twice a week, water, even have sprinkler systems. We are legally banned from certain pesticides and herbicides, but I know some neighbours to bring some back from the U.S. where it is not regulated. The few plants and trees they do have are exotic, even invasive. The clover in my own lawn has been openly criticized. Dandelions are not tolerated. I think most ‘less lawn’ advocates are hoping these type of people rethink their lawn practices.

    One last point is that, as Tallamy points out in Bringing Nature Home, we do need insects (though they aren’t exciting and showy to most folks). They are a critical part of the food chain and in sharp decline. A plain turf lawn supports very little insect life in comparison to a landscape that includes indigenous plants and does not use pesticides.

    Perfect is the enemy of good. Not everyone needs to have an ideal garden, but I think as a society we can do better than golf green turf lawns.

    P.S. I encourage you to read Douglas Tallamy if you have not. He is a passionate and inspiring scientist with an important perspective on why turf lawns and exotic plants are hurting biodiversity.

    • Good weeds: when the dandelions are flowering, it’s good for pollinators. When the flowers go to seed, they are good for goldfinches (the birds love them!).

  18. Laura, I like the term calico lawn, thanks for sharing that! And we make the same point that we can do better for wildlife than high input perfect lawns…so not sure with what you are taking issue.
    My opening could have been more to the point that I often hear people say they are reducing or eliminating lawn to reduce maintenance, and mine is much lower maintenance than my very biodiverse plantings. As for the wildlife aspects we agree. I also embrace Tallamy’s goals but diverge on the details on how to get there.

  19. I agree that lawns can be maintained in less extravagant ways if one is content with “weeds”, and with brown grass during drought, but that doesn’t address the paucity of vegetation they support. Considering that plants are the producers that support the rest of the ecosystem, the few inches of green growth that is a lawn pales in comparison to the few, or many, feet of growth present in perennial, tree, and shrub plantings that aren’t regularly mowed down to nubs. Observation of various wildlife using lawns is likely not so much because of the bounty offered but because the lack of vegetation allows an unobstructed view of whatever shows up.

    • Of course. My swathe of grass is bordered and broken up with groups of woody and herbaceous plants, many of which are chosen for wildlife appeal. Beyond the outdoor living areas for us and the dogs, which includes my “calico lawn”, is the woods, 98 acres of Tennessee woodland. My little patch of grass invited in many creature that don’t prefer woodland. This property is richer habitat for more different species because of it.

  20. One year, I had health problems and didn’t get out to mow my small lawn. The things I discovered growing in there! It was a revelation, lots of blooms and interesting textures. Nothing grew higher than about 8 inches, except for a few chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace, which spiked beautiful flowers. A friend slyly asked me one day, “What happened to your lawn?”. I told her I was experimenting with a wildflower meadow, which seemed to satisfy her. The next year, I went back to mowing, relishing the exercise, the open space and neat symmetry of my lawn again. So it seems to me that perspective and intention have everything to do with what we do in our yards and gardens. One year, my intention was to get healthy; the next, it was to open up some space in my yard. Both times, I found things to love in that space!

    • …and this is the what a landscape should do, you are on the mark! Lifestyle and setting determine shaping outdoor spaces for user needs, utilizing a nurturing and sustainable plant palette. I guess if I had started with that, I might have gotten a lot less of the blow-back! Thanks for the perspective…

  21. One serious ecological problem with lawns that is hardly ever mentioned is that the roots of all turf grasses are extremely shallow, 8 inches at most. The rest of the soil remains wasted ecologically speaking.
    “Weeds”, especially those with long taproots like dandelions are Nature’s way of filling in the vacuum. It is saying “this is wrong and needs to be fixed.”
    Also, consider all the carbon that could be stored in those layers of soil if a variety of plants with longer roots grew there. No question that the millions of acres of lawn in this country are contributing to climate change.

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