Less Lawn, More Food (and Wildlife)

The lawn at our house is disappearing nearly as fast as delectable desserts do.

Our half-moon metal edger has a big appetite. It nibbles back turf to enlarge perennial beds. It carves around the expanding drip rings of fruit trees. It swallows swaths of grass to extend the vegetable garden.

Through each planting season, we are shrinking the lawn and growing a more diverse and edible array of plant life.

I didn’t realize at first that this mission was part of a (un)grassroots movement going back decades. There were always a few “lawn dissidents” (as Michael Pollan calls them), but the ranks of rebel homeowners, gardeners and activists appear to be growing.

Calls for “lawn reform” may sound extreme, but there are myriad reasons to reconsider the dominant yard aesthetic inherited from Europe of expansive (and expensive) turf grasses.

Turf grasses in this country now span an area of about 49,000 square miles – larger in size than Maine and New Hampshire combined. Turf represents roughly 2 percent of the surface area in Maine and the nation as a whole, but in a few states (like Massachusetts) it claims up to 20 percent of the surface area.

Across the United States, lawns, playing fields and golf courses “constitute a vast … and terribly impoverished ecosystem,” Sara Stein notes in Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards. Green in color only, lawns are far from sustainable.

In much of the country, turf grasses are ill-suited to the climate and require routine watering. Nearly a third of the nation’s residential water use goes to landscaping (according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), consuming nearly 9 billion gallons a day.

Despite having no food value, turf grass is now the country’s predominant irrigated crop, taking up at least three times more acreage than corn does.

Turf can hasten soil erosion, a growing concern as heavy downpours increase with climate change. Beneath woodlands, a dense network of roots creates sponge-like soil conditions that readily soak up rainfall. By comparison, “as much as 90 percent of the rain falling on a lawn is immediately lost as runoff, and with it the soil’s mineral fertility,” Stein writes.

Whereas trees and other plants act as a valuable “carbon sink,” taking up excess greenhouse gases, lawns can aggravate global climate change. A recent study in the Journal of Environmental Management revealed that close-cropped turf grasses with fuel-intensive mowing and fertilizing regimes produce more greenhouse gases than they absorb (particularly nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that can deliver hundreds of times the warming potential of carbon dioxide).

Noxious air pollution from gas-powered lawn mowers contributes to ground-level ozone and health concerns. Those operating gas-powered lawn equipment have direct exposure to volatile organic chemicals – many of which are linked to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer and neurological conditions.

Lawn applications of fertilizers and pesticides represent a diffuse pollution source that is notoriously hard to control. In Maine alone, residents purchase roughly 6 million pounds of pesticides annually for their homes and gardens.

Chemical-soaked lawns endanger wildlife, children and pets, and runoff from these applications contaminate soils and waterways. The Maine Board of Pesticides Control has found evidence of more than 25 herbicides, fungicides and insecticides in waterways, many at levels that could harm aquatic life.

Even if lawns are managed without chemicals, they still represent a wildlife wasteland – with only a few species like American robins and Japanese beetle grubs that value these monocultures.

Lawns have inherent ecological challenges because their maintenance runs counter to the cycles of nature. We repeatedly thwart the impulse of lawn grasses to grow and go to seed while simultaneously feeding their futile growth through fertilizers. “Lawns are nature purged of sex and death,” Michael Pollan writes. “No wonder Americans like them so much.”

The solution is not to manage lawns better, but to manage our yards less. Rather than fighting continually to establish dominance, at great cost to other species and ourselves, we need to recreate healthy ecosystems in which we participate.


FOR THOSE READY to downsize their lawn, the first question becomes “what do I replace it with?” Look for a diverse array of native shrubs and trees and perennial plants, preferably ones that suit the soil and conditions of your site.

TAKE TIME to plan and consult resources like the Cooperative Extension’s bulletins “Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape” and “Native Plants: A Maine Source List.”

FOR IDEAS on alternative plantings, read Evelyn Hadden’s Beautiful No-Mow Yards (or her lesslawn.com website), Pam Penick’s Lawn Gone! and Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home. If you retain a smaller lawn, manage it organically (see Paul Tukey’s Organic Lawn Care Manual for guidance).

TO SHRINK your lawn by small degrees, remove and compost sod. To replace larger areas, consider smothering the lawn through the slower but soil-enriching process of sheet mulching. Shrinking your lawn makes it easier to maintain with a reel mower, which produces no noxious fumes or greenhouse emissions and offers healthy exercise.

© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.