Creating an eco friendly lawn is definitely easier said than done. And a lot of different options are out there. So how can you make your lawn environmentally friendly?
How can you have an eco friendly lawn?
There are three strategies for making a lawn environmentally friendly.
- Reduce the need to mow, use pesticides, and water
- Shrink the size of the lawn and replace it with something else
- Do both of these at once
Reducing lawn maintenance
Mowing your lawn is a requirement for keeping grass healthy. But many homeowners choose to mow much more than is necessary. This keeps their lawn looking nice and tidy, and makes mowing easier. Mowing less often without changing anything else could be a frustrating strategy.
To reduce the amount of maintenance your lawn needs, you need to change how your lawn grows. If you water less and don’t fertilize, you can probably mow less. But your grass might be brown in August.
What about the extreme of mowing schedules? You could mow just once a year. If you time it correctly for your climate and the type of grass you have, it could work. You would have a meadow instead of a lawn. Maybe try this strategy on a small part of the lawn before you commit to the whole thing.
Another way to reduce your lawn’s need for maintenance is to change the ground cover. There are lawn replacement seed mixes available for homeowners who want to have a grassy lawn with a low maintenance need.
Shrinking the lawn
The ecological problem of lawns is really just that they take up a LOT of space. If every square foot of lawn needs maintenance, why not just get rid of some? Some people replace their lawn with hardscaping. Things like paths, walls, patios, and rocks. Or, you could add a waterfall, stream, or pond. But these are all fairly large design projects.
Increasing your lawn’s ecological benefits
If you want to have the biggest impact by shrinking your lawn, you should think about what will replace it. Reducing the amount of lawn you had to maintain is great, but replacing your lawn with native plants is even better. Creating habitat where you used to have lawn tips the scale back toward a healthy ecosystem. Part of your lawn could become habitat for pollinators, birds, and other local wildlife.
How to add habitat to your lawn
Adding a pollinator habitat area to your lawn is an easy way to cut down on mowing. It’s simple, too. You just need a few good native pollinator plants like bee balm, milkweed, and wild blue indigo – the more variety the better. Then, mark out an area in your lawn, as small as a few square feet, to be your pollinator habitat. Plant your native pollinator plants right in among the grass, but pull the grass away from them 2 to 3 inches. Now, lay cardboard or newspaper over all the grass, leaving gaps for your pollinator plants. Lastly, add some mulch for aesthetics and water everything thoroughly.
Once you establish your pollinator garden this way, the mulch and cardboard will turn into soil. You can then add a native ground cover to fill in the gaps between your pollinator plants. Ground cover gives winter interest and makes the border between your lawn and your pollinator habitat look smooth and natural.
Creating a wildlife habitat for birds and mammals is easy too. The pollinators are a great source of food for birds, they just need some nearby native trees or shrubs. The denser it is, the more likely you’ll get nests. Wildlife need water, food, and shelter. So, add some water sources, dense native shrubs, and herbaceous plants like native forbs that will attract insects and can be eaten or produce fruit.
Shrinking the lawn can backfire
The primary ecological benefits from your lawn are that it prevents erosion and is better than concrete. It allows water to penetrate soil, kinda. And it photosynthesizes, kinda. It also contributes less than concrete to urban heat islands.
So, when a lawn is removed, there should be a plan in place. Without a ground cover, the soil could erode. If the plants replacing the lawn can’t survive without constant watering, does nature benefit more than it pays?
You want your lawn to be eco friendly, and you want to avoid unnecessary risks. Unlawning is a way to enhance your lawn’s ecological benefits without letting it go completely feral.
Doing both: the eco friendly lawn combo
Replacing your whole lawn with a no-mow seed mix or a xeriscape is NOT necessarily an effective way to boost your lawn’s natural benefits. Instead, you need to think about the defining characteristics of your lawn and what those mean in nature. Then, use those characteristics to tailor your maintenance and the size of your lawn.
Characteristics of your lawn
To understand your lawn and it’s effects on nature, you need to know a few things about it. Does it retain water and get muddy? Or is it fast draining and prone to droughts? Is it shady or sunny? What planting zone are you in? Are parts of it flat? Are certain parts of it perfect for the kids to play or for socializing with friends?
Decide which parts of your lawn are most useful to you. These are places that you could continue to water, mow, and even fertilize responsibly. Places that are annoying to mow, like steep hills or muddy spots, probably don’t need the same level of care. Especially since they also make poor play areas for kids and can’t be used for barbecuing or yard games.
These problem areas are perfect for creating habitat. If your lawn backs up to a stream or woodland, adding habitat to the edge of that natural area has huge ecological benefits. If not, native pollinator habitat is useful anywhere.
Manipulating your lawn’s characteristics for ecological gain
Those characteristics we talked about (water level, light level, and terrain shape) can be changed. Adding woody plants (trees and shrubs) will add shade, which means less mowing and watering. Our unlawning guide further explains how layers of vegetation work together.
Creating a depression to act as a rain garden can prevent muddy grass nearby. Mowing on a steep slope is dangerous and irritating. So, reduce mowing to once or twice a year to create a meadow. Don’t worry too much about seed mixes for this, as your soil is probably already chock-full of wildflower seeds just waiting on the right conditions to sprout. Still, it never hurts to add a handful of native group plantings.
Designing the eco friendly lawn
When taking the approach of combining reduced maintenance with a shrunken lawn, you don’t want to neglect aesthetics. The last thing you want is a sprawling thicket blocking the view of your house and offending your neighbors.
If you decide to shrink your lawn by replacing it with native habitat, your house will start to look different. You’ll have taller vegetation, more shade, and maybe some trees or shrubs that reduce the visibility onto your land. You’ll also have wildlife hiding in that reduced visibility, munching on leaves or insects. Some neighbors may view this as less beautiful, or even ugly.
While you can’t please everyone, you can at least make your new habitat look intentional and inviting. Signs, pathways into the habitat, and borders around it are good tactics to manage your neighborhood relationships.
How is this doing both? Won’t I still have to spend a lot of time and resources on yard work?
Sure, you could just replace your lawn with something eco friendly without changing its size. That would reduce the harm your lawn causes – great! And you could continue to manage it with just mowing. If you add habitat, you aren’t sure what kind of maintenance it will need, how much it will cost, or how it will look when complete.
Instead, start small. Pick a small area of your lawn to restore as habitat each year. If you focus on one project at a time, you can easily test new ideas, manage your budget, and get rid of things you don’t like before they become overwhelming. This approach lets you get to know your land and your plants gradually, while slowly inviting nature back into your space. By taking your time, you’ll notice more of the small things that happen, like seeing a new kind of bird or butterfly for the first time, or finding out that the fruit of one of your plants is edible (and tasty).
You’ll find out that this approach to lawn maintenance, just getting to know your land, is meditative and restorative, rather than stressful. There is very little that needs to be done once your habitat is established. If you have problems with invasive plants, you can take two approaches. One; spend an afternoon or two every month cutting them back. Or two; spend a whole day or two every year pulling them out by the root.
Many native plants can be found for fairly cheap from native plant nurseries. Or sometimes for free from native gardening groups. Plus, because they are well suited to grow here (since they’re from here), many will naturally seed the area and spread out quickly without any need to water or fertilize.
The key to an eco friendly lawn
There are a lot of ways to increase the ecological benefits of your lawn, but there’s only one key to all of them. You have to make space for nature in your life. The space your lawn takes up used to be wildlife habitat. Now that we are entering the Earth’s 6th mass extinction, wildlife need that space more than ever. Inviting nature to come into your lawn and your life a few square feet at a time is a way to personally coexist with nature and take part in healing the Earth. Every square foot counts, so start small and keep an open mind.