Lawns

Many people dream of having a home of their own, with a yard of their own, where they can relax and their children can play. And with a yard comes a lawn.

Theres’ nothing inherently bad about a lawn. The problems arise because people want their lawns to look like putting greens, or carpet, or Astroturf. The problems come from everything it takes to sustain a lawn like that.

A flawless lawn is uniform: millions of identical plants growing shoulder-to-shoulder. Monocultures like this are dangerously prone to disease: a disease that strikes one plant can easily spread to the others. For the homeowner, this either means toxic and expensive pesticides, or worse yet, the work and expensive of reseeding or replacing the lawn.

An over-manicured lawn is self-defeating. A blade of grass is a leaf, and like any leaf, it’s built from nutrients drawn from the soil. The grass has a lot invested in that blade. And then, some well-meaning homeowner comes along and mows it down. All that nitrogen and phosphorus and sulfur and magnesium is lost.

In nature, the grass would grow tall, die, decompose, and return those nutrients to the soil. But homeowners who want flawless lawns also don’t want piles of grass clippings lying around, so they rake them or vacuum them or collect them with bag mowers. (They often get rid of fallen leaves, too, another source of soil nutrients.)

All of this puts an enormous strain on the plants and the soil. With nutrients and water constantly being pulled out, converted into grass, and then mowed and discarded, lawn soils easily become depleted. Modern grass is a pretty demanding crop, so when the soil can’t provide nutrients, the grass becomes dependent on high-potency chemical fertilizer.

This just makes the situation worse: not only is the soil depleted, but all the chemicals have killed off many of the beneficial microbes needed to mobilize those nutrients.

Worse, when applied incorrectly, fertilizers run off of lawns, often into storm drains, some of which drain into bodies of water. There, the fertilizers encourage blooms of harmful algae. None of this is helped by the fact that depleted, microbe-deficient soil is already more prone to runoff and erosion anyway. Depleted soils like this don’t have as much organic matter or sticky microbial secretions to hold water, so they dry out easily, meaning, on top of everything, the lawn also needs watering, which can be a problem in an era of widespread droughts and frequent summer water restrictions.

The solution to all this is simple, in theory. First: leave dead leaves and lawn clippings where they lie, or put them in a compost heap and turn them into natural fertilizer. The nutrients feed the grass, and the organic matter improves soil structure and erosion resistance.

The second part is the sticking point: convincing homeowners to plant less-demanding grasses which are often less uniform and less pretty. Or harder still, convincing them not to plant grass at all and to let nature take over. Just because a lawn has a lot of dandelions and crabgrass doesn’t mean it can’t be mowed and taken care of. And the results speak for themselves: less time and money spent maintaining the lawn. Less soil and water pollution. And healthier soil, which might mean the lawn can flourish without watering or fertilizer.

While it might not be as pretty as a fairway, in the end, a natural lawn is a much better option. Less pollution. Less hassle. Less time and money spent keeping it up. And still a good place to have a barbecue or a pool party or to sit in the shade.

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