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.
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.