Turf: How to Green The American Lawn

Because of the ridiculousness of our current turf culture, where vast seas of monocultural lawns are touted as beautiful by industries that want to sell us the chemicals to keep them that way, there’s been a backlash in many circles against the all-American lawn.

And I agree with those detractors. The standard American sea of turf is like a dead zone for wildlife, uses tons of resources, and can release dangerous chemicals into our groundwater that we all drink. It’s usually used in a thoughtless and non-creative way, and the vast majority of it isn’t even used for sports, play, or entertainment for families. It’s just there.

But even though that’s true, let’s be perfectly honest: many of us have dogs, kids, or simply enjoy a game of badminton every so often. Turf can serve an important purpose for the humans that use a landscape, and I believe that for many families, lawn can provide a gathering place for people to come together and have fun.

Turf alternatives can work great, but replacing your turf can be an expensive and labor-intensive process that not everybody’s up for.

So how does one reconcile a love for wildlife and care for the environment, with a desire to have a soft, open area of lawn to play on?

Keep it small

In contrast to those people who install or inherit a lawn and never think about it again, begin noticing how much of your lawn you actually use and enjoy.

Lawns that are useful and  help you enjoy your garden can be of overall benefit to the environment, because if you’re paying attention to your garden and what it can do to feed wildlife, feed yourself, and help people love nature, then you’ll naturally take some great steps towards contributing to your local ecosystem.

Once you have an idea of how much of your turf is actually used regularly, you can begin chipping away at the unused portions of it to plant food for you or food for wildlife.

Don’t use chemical weedkiller

If your lawn is of a reasonable size, then using organic techniques to kill weeds isn’t so hard. If you need to remove dandelions to create a more even surface, then use a Fiskars UpRoot Weeder or Grandpa’s Weeder to get them out.

For creeping weeds, rake them out vigorously with the Garden Shark rake. You won’t get the roots, but repeated rakings will make weeds into a minor issue rather than something that’s taken over your lawn.

You can also just enjoy the natural variety in what pops up. Clover, for example, attracts happy humming bees that can be a pleasure to watch, so long as little ones aren’t running barefoot on the lawn. English daisy, Bellis perennis, can create a magical feeling and give you an excuse to make daisy chains. We need more of that in our lives, I think.

Take care of your lawn naturally

Mow on the highest mower setting possible (many new mowers have settings that mow up to 4″ tall). This allows the blades of grass to shade their own roots and stay cool and moist longer, and reduces pest problems in lawns.

Apply at least 1/4 to 1/2 inch of compost to your lawn every year. This helps to preserve the moisture in the soil as long as possible, and keeps lawns gently fed and resistant to pests and diseases.

Mow often, and leave the clippings. Many people are put off by leaving the grass clippings on the lawn, because they’re thick and clumpy. However, if you mow twice as often, the little grass clippings are half the size and don’t clump up. Leaving tiny clippings in this way creates a natural fertilizer cycle where you preserve the water and nutrients you’ve already given your lawn.

Use a techno-forward push mower like the Fiskars Momentum Reel Mower. The old push mowers were hard to use, jammed up in taller grass or weeds, and were heavy and clunky. This newer incarnation of push mower is lightweight, easy to adjust, and (dare I say it?) fun to use.

Don’t water it, or don’t water it much

In my small town, anyone with a lawn over 100 square feet generally lets it go brown in summer. Here, it rains until June and starts again in October, so letting the lawn go brown for a few months isn’t much of a hardship. In hotter climes, contact your local agricultural extension or water agency to ask them how much water they suggest using on your lawn.

For most of the Pacific Northwest, 1 inch of water per week on your lawn is all it needs to stay green. You can test by sinking little rain gauges or cups into your lawn and see how much water you’re actually applying each time. You may even need less water if you’re applying compost, mowing high, and leaving the clippings. (Read more here.)

The disadvantage to letting your lawn go brown is that the weeds can come up in the summer since the lawn isn’t out-competing it. But even so, it can be a good solution, and hey, at least you don’t have to mow while it’s brown!

What do you think?

Does a small patch of ecologically-managed lawn have a place in a wildlife garden, or should we work to get rid of all of it? If you have lawn, what do you do to lessen the impact on the environment?

© 2011, Genevieve Schmidt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Genevieve Schmidt

    Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of Northern California. She writes regularly for Fine Gardening Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor. Read more from Genevieve at North Coast Gardening.


    1. Ursulav says:

      I’d be happy if lawn weren’t the default setting for houses. There are so many climates where lawn are wildly inappropriate, but the American mindset is still house = lawn. I got no beef with people choosing a patch of turf for their space–I just wish it had to be a conscious choice.

      • Genevieve says:

        Ursula, I couldn’t agree more. When these choices are made consciously, they usually end up being in more reasonable proportions.
        Genevieve recently posted..Deer Resistant Gardening Made Easy: a Book Review

    2. Elephant's Eye says:

      We have NO lawn. Ours is one of a tiny handful of gardens without lawn in our town. And the weedeaters they mow with sound like Chainsaws!!
      Elephant’s Eye recently posted..Inspired by Ifafa lilies

      • Genevieve says:

        Yep! It certainly disturbs a peaceful time in the garden when someone decides to maintain their lawn with power tools. This is why I just got one of those Fiskars Reel Mowers that I mentioned. I hate the smell and noise of gas mowers.
        Genevieve recently posted..Deer Resistant Gardening Made Easy: a Book Review

    3. Sue Sweeney says:

      nice summary of how to do it!

      On clover: traditionally, 1/3 of the lawn was white dutch clover, supplying the nitrogen for the whole lawn. My grandfather and my father did it this way up until the 1950′s or 1960′s when the chemical companies (once making WWII munitions) convinced us that clover was a weed — then they could sell us a weed killer and a nitrogen fertilizer!

      The only constraints for clover:
      1. bee sting allergies
      2. broad leaf lawn plants are more slippery than turf grass so aren’t good in large quantities where the grassy area is actually used for games and athletics
      3. for me, when not watering the lawn at all, clover did best with a bit of shade; it did not thrive in areas regularly bone dry and baked by the sun.

      I personally like “mowable meadows” – collections of very short plants that will still flower when kept cut the 3″level, so walking across the lawn is full of pleasant surprises. Natives for CT include common blue violet (rabbit’s favorite), oxalis, and veronica.

      • Genevieve says:

        Sue, your words are so encouraging to me. After reading your article and comment, I spoke with my partner about possibly adding some white clover to our lawn. He is the only one who ever walks barefoot out there, but he was enthused. He loves bugs and bees!
        Genevieve recently posted..Deer Resistant Gardening Made Easy: a Book Review

    4. Benjamin Vogt says:

      Shoot, I just want to be able to sleep past 7:30 on weekends without hearing a lawnmower 8′ from my bedroom window, and the plates rattling in the kitchen cabinet. Or be able to garden without smelling exhaust. Who cares about actual environment degradation, global warming, or resource conservation. (sarcasm, snarky sarcasm, very snarky)
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..On Silence and Solitude

      • Genevieve says:

        It’s the worst when they start early…
        Genevieve recently posted..Deer Resistant Gardening Made Easy: a Book Review

    5. Bethesda Locavore says:

      I love this. We’ve reduced our lawn a lot (have two small kids) and I’m now pondering taking out the back yard completely, just having mulch paths among the playspaces/garden spaces. Honestly, my kids are happiest running around the shrubs and making little hideouts. So I envision more of a woodland garden with patches of wildflowers and our veggies but no lawn.
      Bethesda Locavore recently posted..Local Condiments for the Busy Locavore

      • Genevieve says:

        It’s funny, some types of play are waaay better with trails to run down and shrubs to play among. You can’t play badminton in shrubbery, but you can’t have a hide and seek adventure on the lawn!!
        Genevieve recently posted..Deer Resistant Gardening Made Easy: a Book Review

    6. Beatriz Moisset says:

      Sam Droege of the USGS (http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/staff/profiles/documents/droege.htm), suggested some time ago to allow the presence of broad leaved plants on the lawn because many of them are beneficial to pollinators.
      I have been trying to take that concept a step further by making a list of the best “grass companions” for my area, mainly natives, but I also included a few non-natives (after all most grasses are not native to your area). I hope that others can add their knowledge so that we can come up with a really good list. http://pollinators.blogspot.com/2010/04/lawn-for-pollinators.html
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Mountain laurels instead of rose bushes?

      • Genevieve says:

        What an exceptionally helpful comment, and a great way to approach this. I’ve bookmarked your excellent suggestions. Thanks Beatriz!
        Genevieve recently posted..Deer Resistant Gardening Made Easy: a Book Review

    7. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

      Personally, I don’t have any lawn, but that is because I have a very small property and do not want to waste any space that could be providing wildlife habitat. I do, however, love to walk through lawns in my bare feet, so I can definitely see a place for them. The problem is that over 80% of our managed landscapes consist of nothing but lawn, and this provides no habitat at all for wildlife. I’d really love to see that number greatly reduced and more wildlife habitat added.
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Ecosystem Gardening The Journey

      • Genevieve says:

        Carole, those numbers are tragic. Personally, I’m with you in envisioning the majority of our home landscapes as contributing to wildlife or food crops, with a few very intentionally-planned spaces for human-only enjoyment, like lawns or roses. I am liking the shift I’m hearing in these comments about moving towards sustainably-maintained lawns with a variety of plants growing in them – the lawn re-imagined as a small and carefully-planned space.
        Genevieve recently posted..Deer Resistant Gardening Made Easy: a Book Review



    1. Lawn Hacks for Organic Gardening Geeks: Garden Designers Roundtable | North Coast Gardening says:

      [...] to Sue Sweeney, old-fashioned lawns used to have about 1/3 white Dutch clover added to the seeding mix, because [...]

    2. Fertilize Your Garden Organically says:

      [...] Grass clippings, animal (herbivore manures, fish meal or emulsion, worm castings, alfalfa meal, blood meal, and coffee grounds are all great for adding nitrogen to the soil. many gardeners have the chaps and easy nitrogen source — grass clippings. By the way, it doesn’t have to be turf grass. [...]


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