Finished With That Lush Lawn? Here Are Green Yard Choices For The Environment

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Think of a lawn as a blank canvas. In this new era of climate consciousness, no longer is a lush lawn mandatory. You can convert that cultural status symbol into the best yard on the block — even without green grass. In fact, because a drought resistant yard is suddenly quite relevant to today’s changing climate, your eco-friendly landscape will thrive in low water, fertilizer, and maintenance environs.

It might even make you the model for your envious neighbors.

Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution! A traditional lush lawn comes with serious costs to you and the environment, contributing to rising carbon dioxide emissions.

  • Manicured turf grass lawns cover up to 50 million acres of land in the US.
  • 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled annually while refueling lawn mowers.
  • Most lawns require about 1.5 inches of water per week just to survive.
  • Rainwater runoff from lawns can carry pesticides and fertilizers into rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans via the sewer system. This can poison fish and other aquatic animals.
  • Lawns create a type of monoculture that represents the opposite of a biodiverse ecosystem.
  • Neighborhoods that favor lawns over trees are often hotter on average and have impact on air conditioning bills, which drives up carbon consumption.

University of California Berkeley innovation designer Ian McRae, who studies climate resilience in the built environment, told Wired that lawns are an inefficient way to cool a green space, compared to building out a diverse grouping of native plants that are more aesthetically pleasing, water efficient, and conducive to biodiversity.

But how do we begin the shift away from the cultural icon of a lush lawn?

How Do You Create an Alternative Yard Landscape?

A successful lawn conversion depends on climate, terrain, and, of course, individual taste. But you can do it!

You can divide the space; replant boundaries; add a pond; layer gravel paths. Use borders with annual topping of compost to lock moisture in and add nutrients to the soil, especially around the shrubs and small trees. Shrubs and small trees give the garden height and structure. Ornamental grasses add softness and a sense of structure, holding together flowering plants and giving them definition.

These no-mow yards typically fall into 4 categories:

  1. Naturalized or unmowed turf grass that is left to grow wild
  2. Low growing turf grasses that require little grooming
  3. Native or naturalized landscapes where turf is replaced with native plants as well as noninvasive, climate friendly ones that can thrive in local conditions
  4. Yards where edible plants — vegetables and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs — replace a portion of turf

Bob Vila of This Old House fame suggests several different approaches for creating intriguing yard spaces that forego a lush lawn.

  • Succulents: They’re not fussy about soil as long as it drains well, and they add all kinds of color to your space. They’re an especially good option in arid climates or where you’re limited on irrigation options.
  • Creeping perennials: Ground hugging perennials come in mixtures of spring and summer bloomers, so you’ll have seasonal changing color. Look for varieties like vinca, thyme, and creeping Jenny.
  • Hardscapes: Many small and urban lawns can be augmented with hardscapes that become relaxation and entertainment spaces. A permeable hardscape has the ability to drain water directly through itself. This means that the drainage system is built into the hardscape and requires less or even zero extra drainage features to keep the surface from pooling or flooding.
  • Edible forest garden: Convert your lawn into a sustainable garden with herbs, berries, and fruit trees. You can even create a permaculture design, which is a self-maintaining space that waters, fertilizes, and mulches itself.
  • Artificial grass: With new technologies in artificial turf, you can design sections of yard that look natural but require little to no maintenance. You can dot live plants around the yard to balance the look — and you’ll be able to practice your putting, too.
  • Rock garden: An artistically-designed combination of small, different sized stones, some larger rocks for height and interest, low water perennials, even a fountain or small stream offers a lot of color and visual interest.
  • Wildflowers: If you’re looking for a No Mow option, wildflowers adapt to their environment, tolerate harsh winters and summer droughts, and need little irrigation. A wildflower yard that’s carefully curated with blooms throughout the growing seasons can be quite striking.

Look to Those Who’ve Tackled the Lawn Issue — with Bravado

Not sure how to start? Check out an inspirational public garden nearby — its design, naturalistic plantings, use of land contours, and plant varieties should offer you lots of ideas.

  • Botanical Garden of the Ozarks features 12 themed gardens across 6 acres. Devoted to educating visitors about the environment, the Ozark Native Garden is home to natives and the butterfly garden takes you along a beautiful path bordered by pollinator friendly plants that leads to the only butterfly house in Arkansas.
  • Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in Ohio includes a butterfly garden with a variety of plants, a green roof on a giraffe building, and an endangered species garden, devoted to the propagation and preservation of endangered plants. A spring delight is the 100,000 bulb tulip display.
  • Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona includes 55 cultivated acres showcasing more than 50,000 plant specimens in one of the world’s most important collections of arid flora.
  • Huntsville Botanical Garden in Alabama offers 118-acres of diverse ecosystems. The garden includes a seasonal open air butterfly house, a dogwood trail, a fern glade, themed herb gardens, and a nature trail with paths through an indigenous lowland forest.
  • Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California focuses on various desert plant community ecosystems of North America: the Mojave, Chihuahuan, Sonora, and Colorado deserts. There are numerous specialized focus gardens, including agave, aloe, hummingbird, butterfly, palm, sage, and East African.
  • San Francisco Botanical Garden is set across 55 acres and offers a collection of almost 9,000 species divided among several climate zones. An impressive magnolia collection, an area dedicated to plants native to Andean cloud forest habitats, an ancient plants garden, the moon viewing Japanese garden, and a succulent garden are just some of the offerings.

Final Thoughts about Saying Goodbye to your Lush Lawn

Up until recently, a lush lawn stood as a required symbol of community and cooperation. But many people are starting to accept the fact that lawns are another problem in our push to a zero emissions world.

Still, the rejection of a long run of green grass is an ideological shift. Our future climate will be an unpredictable one. Looking to nature and observing what thrives could also help us to survive. We can make the move in our own yards to the promise of a greener tomorrow.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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