Lawn update – the good, bad and just less of it


Lawn in the News

"Study shows that Lawns May Contribute to Global Warming" say the headlines, but the study actually confirms what we all knew – that conventional lawn care is the culprit, not really the turfgrass itself. Findings are summarized in UC Irvine Today:

Turfgrass lawns help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through
photosynthesis and store it as organic carbon in soil, making them
important “carbon sinks.” However, greenhouse gas emissions from
fertilizer production, mowing, leaf blowing and other lawn management
practices are four times greater than the amount of carbon stored by
ornamental grass in parks, a UC Irvine study shows. 

Virginia Smith wrote this terrific story about Lawn Reform
– the concept, the Coalition and lots more – in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In my chat with Smith for the article I learned that
she's an ex-lawn gardener herself and confirms that, counter to
urban-suburban legend, she found gardens to be more work than lawns.  By far, she
says.  GrassMinnesota

This article in proclaims: "Natural and eco-sensitive lawn care is IN."  Even Turf Magazine covers the move to organic lawn care and Paul Tukey's SafeLawns campaign.  There we learn that Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota and Vermont now have restrictions on "lawn chemical application."   And here's Minnesota's info about how to comply.[pdf]

From the golf world we learn that:

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America has released the results of a nationwide survey of golf courses examining nutrient use and management on golf facilities. The results indicate that superintendents apply fertilizers at rates that fall within the guidelines recommended by university scientists. [Italics added.]

That raises the question: WHICH university scientists and who funds THEM? (But that's a rant for another day.)  Here are the findings to read yourself but I'll just note that the survey found, on a less favorable note, that only 64% of nitrogen applied to U.S. golf courses is slow-release; less than half of golf courses have written nutrient plans; and not all of them even have their soil tested.  I'm just saying.
Lawn on the WebSunset

The Wild Ones organization has compiled some great information about landscape laws that protect native-plant gardens
Stuart Robinson offers a rather positive telling of what it takes to maintain synthetic turf but still it serves as fair warning about the work involved.
Found on Sunset Magazine's blog: a Portland lawn-to-border make-over, with step-by-step and how much it costs to do.  (Photo right.) Sunset also posted a great rip-out-the-lawn do-over in San Diego.

In the Boston area, Rochelle Greayer posted this story of a front-yard makeover from lawn to garden.

And a gardener in NE Florida sent me these photos of his front-yard ex-lawn make-over.  (The top photo in this post is one of them.)
Photo credits:  Top photo: State of Minnesota.  Lower lawn reduction photo by Janet Loughrey for Sunset.


  1. I’m pleased to see Paul Tukey and his supporters finally making it clear that to shift from a chemical treated lawn to a truly organic lawn takes 3 to 5 years which is the same period of time farmers need to shift from chemical to approved organic.
    Tukey has everything right except one omission and that is how does the current soil under the turf with less than 1% organic matter get back up to the 5% that is needed for feeding a healthy soil food web of earthworms and microbes. Compost does not do the job. It is organic matter already decomposed; it is not food for earthworms. It serves many valuable functions but does not contribute to increasing the organic material in the soil. The only options I know of is a layer of 1/2 inch of chopped leaves or a 1/8 inch layer of peat moss and compost combined every year, year in and year out for at least 6 or 7 years. Then you have a lawn described by Paul.

  2. Replacing lawns is an important trend in water-short areas like Southern California, and we could use more and more photos of beautiful front yards without lawns to give people ideas and inspiration.

    If you must keep your lawn however, consider a motorless push mower (or at least electric). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a traditional gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars each being driven 12,000 miles. Yes, a statistic that is hard to believe, but it seems to be for the entire life of the lawnmower, and we know that older gas mowers release 25-30% of their gas and oil unburned into the air. So yes, consider a push mower for yourself or your gardener!

  3. But Jeff, Paul Tukey’s faith in compost is definitely backed up by the famous compost expert Dr. Frank Gouin, who just 2 days ago recommended compost to increase organic-matter content in soil. Here’s my post about his talk: Look under the heading “About pH”.

  4. I always chime in on most of these conversations cause I am in the good old South, I have a big old fat lawn, I’m an organic gardener, and I can talk your talk.

    NC has strict storm water run off regulations so that helps but I do understand the gas and EPA releases you are referring to but bear with me.

    There are other factors to weigh in the equation which are health related also. They aren’t all air quality especially when it comes to the South.

    I can weigh the pros and cons of the above arguments for my situation. Our town developed a code for grass height and such because we have a rodent problem. If you got rid of your lawn and planted a wildlife area, you’d be taken over by rodents and black widow spiders.

    The rattlesnakes, field mice, squirrels, ants, and such would haul you off. We eat too much sugar and fat which upsets the natural balance that nature would normally take care of itself.

    Everything would overpopulate with the abundance of food. Fried chicken doesn’t just make Southerners fat it makes raccoons fat too.

    This would cause people to spray and bring in other measures worse than fertilizers. There would come out of the South new species of animals that only liked fried chicken and then there would be a shortage of it.

    Soon all you with backyard urban chicken farms would feel the crunch and be forced to sell your chickens under government run programs because us Southerners were forced to remove our lawns.

    We best just let Southerns have a lawn, k? We’ll do better at putting down organic fertilizers, I’ll warn them.

  5. Thank you Jeff Ball and Anna: You are adding common sense that is much needed in the continuing onslaught of the Ant-Lawn crowd.

    I would like to also add this: What is in the maure used so often as organic fertilizer? If you worry about BGh and antibiotics in your milk and meat guess what? It is in the maure as well. The benefits of a well maintained lawn (organic or not) far outweigh supposed greenhouse gasses from the few times a year it gets mowed with a power mower. Contrary to popular belief leaf rakes are the most common way to remove leaves in the fall not power blowers.
    I am glad that along with throwing this bogus health care bill out the window, the anti-lawn crowd is getting a fight as well.

    The TROLL

  6. I’ve never heard anyone else — even the chemical proponents — suggest that compost does NOT add organic matter to the soil. Can’t agree with Jeff Ball on that one.

    And to also be clear, it does NOT have to take three years to make the transition to organics. The transition can happen instantly and, depending on existing soil and what is put in place for a maintenance plan, it can take three to five years for the appearance to meet someone’s aesthetic expectations. The full transition to great appearances can definitely be done much faster too.

  7. I don’t add compost or fertilizers to my lawn. I use a mulching mower. I’ve had three houses and three lawns. This is not a scientific sample obviously, but all three lawns showed improvement in 1 year. The grass became greener. Moss and clover began to disappear (I like clover, but it indicates a nitrogen poor soil. As the soil improves, it disappears). I use the mulching mower to chop up the leaves on the lawn, too. The lawn continues to get better and better over the next few years. It’s not perfect. I don’t use weed killers, but it becomes more than acceptable.

  8. The California lawn featured in sunset is AWESOME.

    I’m slowly digging up my lawn for flower gardens and vegetable gardens, but I’m with Anna: I’ll probably always have SOME lawn.

    It is the CARE not the GRASS that causes problems.

    Also, to be frank about it, it could be pretty difficult, if not darn near impossible to sell a house that was ONLY gardens, and had no lawn. People get scared of taking care of gardens, or they don’t have time.

    I hope to live in my house for a LONG time, but I could have to move in a year. You don’t know what life’s going to bring you, and the house is nowhere close to being paid off.

    Until everyone’s mindset changes about lawns, lawn care, and how to do it in a more environmentally-friendly way, I think there will be less lawn and less lawn, but there will still be a lot of lawn. (Make sense?)

    If my house and the house next to me are both for sale at one time, and I have a total-garden yard, and the house next door has mostly lawn, how much do you want to be that house sells faster?

    I’m already probably at the point where I’d have to offer a year-long maintenance contract on the landscaping if I had to move.

    It is hard to balance everything at once, but I know for certain that I can’t and won’t entirely replace my lawn.

  9. Okay guys, here is my logic. For millions of years the trees dropped their leaves and the prairie grasses died each fall. Translation – every year for millions of years nature added NEW organic matter to the surface of the soil around the world. By the next year that organic matter was gone, where did it go? I think the soil food web pulled it down into the soil as food.

    The soil food web – earthworms, milipedes, beneficial mites, beneficial nematodes all the way down to beneficial microbes need food to survive. When organic mulch is used and “disappears” we know that what is left after the food web has lunch is something called “humus”. My understanding is that is compost already distributed.

    If that is true then compost, while it does lots of good things in the soil devoid of organic matter, it is not food for the soil food web. My assumption then is if there is no NEW fresh organic matter added to the surface of the soil each year, the soil food web dies or is seriously diminished. That is not how nature works. That is why we need to add a layer of organic matter to the lawn every year. We do it on our vegetable gardens, why is the veggie patch any different?

  10. The subject of compost and humus is fascinating (to me, and I think to many gardeners). And I’m glad you tried to explain your thinking Jeff. But I still think there are gaps in your logic. I think the system is much more complex than you describe it, and I also believe deeply that soil scientists still don’t know exactly what humus is, or what it does (or doesn’t do). PS: your last sentence confounds me…what’s the difference between a vegetable garden and a vegetable patch?

    Those of us who want to debate humus/compost should all read (at least) the introduction to this book–see link above–and then reconvene.
    The author says:
    “Despite the prominent importance which [humic] substances have in sustaining life, their basic chemical nature and reactivities are still poorly understood.”

    “It is not surprising that, despite the efforts of many excellent scientists in the distant and recent past…modern pure chemists have generally avoided the study of humic substances, preferring either chemical or biochemical issues of more recognized molecular regularity.

  12. I know that humus and compost are not chemically, biologically, or physically the same if we are going to be accurate and technical. The difference is probably not important to my yardener audience. I have heard that it is possible to make “bad” compost, but I have never heard of anyone finding “bad” humus. Jeff Lowenfels has introduced me to bacterial mulch and fungal mulch. I think there is bacterial compost and fungal compost (I have not a clue). But I’ve not heard the discussion yet about bacterial humus vs. fungal humus. There is so much to learn and so little time.

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