Smart Lawns


Few things in gardening are as polarizing as opinions about lawns.

On the one hand, the position of the mainstream turf and landscaping industry is to continue America’s enormous investment in chemical-based, industrially maintained turf, with no consideration for the environmental costs.  Chemlawn forever!

On the other is what is popular with horticulturists and environmentalists––that lawns are an unsupportable anachronism and they must be wiped from the landscape, to be replaced by meadows, groundcovers and flower gardens.

Native American encampment @1900

Caught in the middle are homeowners.  The fact is that most of them want some sort of lawn; turf is America’s largest irrigated crop and its area continues to expand.  Thirty years ago, when I began researching this subject, the aggregate area of lawns in the United States was equal to that of Virginia; this area has since grown to add a Connecticut and a Rhode Island.  Outside of mandated areas in the desert Southwest, almost no new house is built without at least some surrounding lawn.  Homeowners want the play and relaxation space that a lawn provides, and practically speaking, they don’t want to invest the extra money, time and labor that most alternatives to turf demand.

Yet my experience as a sustainable lawn consultant has been that most homeowners also want to do the right thing; they don’t want their lawns to be sources of pollution and greenhouse gases.  Nor do they want their yards to be biologically impoverished green deserts or unsustainable consumers of natural resources.  They are eager to find healthier, more rewarding alternatives.

These alternatives do exist, thanks to a great deal of research over the last decade in every region of the country.

There are new grasses, many of them native to North America, that are being brought into cultivation. There are experimental plantings of biologically-diverse, pollinator-friendly lawns.   New tools and techniques being developed to free lawns from the need for chemical manipulation.

My favorite reality check on the subject of lawns is a photograph of a Native American encampment taken by Edward S. Curtis around the turn of the twentieth century.  This image shows a woman carrying a kettle toward a campfire in front of a couple of teepees.  Stretching out around her is neat, short turf as far as the eye can see. The point is that turf doesn’t have to be a delicate, troublesome vegetation.  It can both tough and at home on this continent.

In future posts, I’ll share some of the new models that are emerging to meet the demand for smarter lawns.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. We can have lawns with a lot less environmental impact. In fact for me it’s the easiest way. I inherited a sort-of lawn on my mid-Hudson Valley property. I’ve slowly troweled out many of the broad-leaf weeds, and left more in place. I haven’t fertilized or watered in my ten years here, though it gets hot and sometimes very dry; and I doubt if that mixed population has ever seen weed killer, certainly not in my time. The lawn may brown off a little in August, but it pops right back with September rains. I let it grow tall and ratty between mowings. Unfortunately I depend on hired help to mow, and if I offered a manual mower they’d walk away. So I am guilty of the noise and air pollution of a power mower maybe 10 or 12 times a year. But it’s green and smooth and the violets and spring beauty self-heal and thousands of small bulbs thrive. So do the moles and the bees that crowd the white clover. I’m not feeling guilty, much.

  2. I am constantly amazed at the suburban sprawl into neighboring rural counties where people have 6 to 15 (or more!) acres of lawn to mow. They tool into the city daily for work, then spend all their free time on their zero-turn riding mowers keeping the lawn short and manicured. But the worst part is, they are required to by the deed restrictions on their 15-acre parcels! I look forward to your next articles on the how-tos of more sustainable lawns. I think if people have alternatives that could also free up time and clean up the environment, they will respond. Thanks, Tom.

  3. Very exciting — can’t wait to see more! My own lawn is a mix of plants including grass, violets, and wildflowers in Spring. Looking for a native groundcover to fill in a few bate spots.

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