The Chemical Meadow

The perfect lawn may not be the best thing to have around your house.

provided by E Magazine/Environmental Defense Fund


he Great American Lawn, stretching nearly unbroken from the bedroom communities of New York to the coastal enclaves of Malibu, consumes $8 billion in annual spending and untold hours of human toil. Although a close-cropped lawn is anything but a natural environment, we've elevated our manicured patches of earth into an American icon, symbolic of freedom itself. A community in New York State even fined a resident $30,000 for failing to cut his grass. (The fine was later reduced to $500.)

The idea of a smooth, green carpet as a necessary adjunct to the perfect home is a 20th century invention. By the 1950's, a magazine article boasted that lawn chemicals would give suburbanites "a weapon with which to outwit their old enemy, Mother Nature." The advice proved irresistible. In 1999, homeowners dumped nearly 50 million pounds of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on their lawns. And in mowing our lawns, we produced as much pollution every half hour as a car driven 172 miles.

In pursuit of this ecological monoculture, homeowners also squander water and create an environment that is inhospitable to butterflies, songbirds, and other wildlife. And when we keep the grass short, we deny it the biomass it needs for its roots to grow. As a result, most lawn care consists of giving back to the grass the things we've taken from it - food, water, and shelter.


Creating a greener lawn


Despite their drawbacks, lawns are probably here to stay. But, thankfully, there are some options that eliminate the need for chemical warfare and are kinder to wildlife.

One solution is to plant grass suited to your local climate. For example, if you live in the East, you may want to grow a variety of fescue. In you live in the Midwest, you may want to grow a variety of prairie grasses. In arid Southern California, buffalo grass is more suitable.

Minimize watering (brown is the natural color of grass in late summer) and use nitrogen-fixing clover instead of fertilizer; forgo herbicides and don't bag your grass clippings (they're an excellent natural fertilizer). And in the autumn, allow your fallen leaves to fertilize the ground through the winter, rather than bagging them for disposal.

Before "going wild," draw up a plan, inform your neighbors, and talk to town officials to make sure you're not violating any local ordinances. Pick up one of the natural gardening books that are proliferating at bookstores these days. Among the best are: The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn, by Stevie Daniels (MacMillan) and Landscaping with Wildflowers: An Environmental Approach to Gardening, by Jim Wilson (Houghton Mifflin). For more guidance, contact the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program at the National Wildlife Federation (703-790-4499).


Greener alternatives to grass

More and more environmentally conscious residents are giving back segments of their lawns to nature. For them, an area planted with wildflower seeds - bursting with color and teeming with birds and animal life has more allure than a homogenized lawn decorated with fluttering "pesticide application" flags.

Some homeowners have even declared a "lawn mower-free zone," allowing woodland plants to reclaim a portion of their backyard.

Convert your green carpet into a wilder lawn. By raising your mower deck to the highest setting, you will encourage violets, cinquefoil, and speedwell to take hold and bloom. In shady spots, native ground covers such as low-bush blueberry, wild ginger, and moss phlox remain green year-round. They also provide food and shelter for wildlife. Conserve water through creative landscaping. In arid regions, you can reduce thirsty turf by planting a rock garden strewn with drought-resistant plants. If you have the space, a natural meadow area planted with wildflowers and tall, waving prairie grasses is a low-maintenance alternative that requires mowing just once a year (in late autumn, to disperse seeds).

By Jim Motavalli, this Green Living article is one of a series by the editors of E, the leading independent environmental magazine. Opinions in these guest articles are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Environmental Defense Fund staff. Interested readers can go to to subscribe to E, published six times a year. Regular E features include Your Health, Eco-Home, Money Matters, Consumer News, and Tools for Green Living.