Ideas for ‘Greener’ Grass

Posted on: June 29, 2018

Most of us are surrounded by it. We help it grow with extra nutrients, we keep it from being bullied by invaders, and we provide water to quench its thirst. But then we cut it because it grows too well. Often it is bagged and thrown away with the garbage. The concept of the “American lawn” is a bit puzzling, but the majority of people want a lush, green, soft carpet around homes, offices, parks and cities. We spend billions of dollars in lawn care products annually and tens of billions hiring others to manage our lawns. It is estimated that the equivalent of 50,000 square miles of U.S. land is covered in turf grass – the largest irrigated crop in our country.

The history of lawns is a fascinating read. There are many players that helped shape our love of grass. Most are traced back to Europe. Keeping vegetation cleared around castles in France and England may have contributed to the “look”, as well as having common areas in towns for grazing sheep, goats and cattle. In the 1700’s, formal estate gardens became more common and the wealthy would hire people to scythe the long vegetation around the home. Shorn grass became a status symbol. The first lawn mower was developed by Edwin Budding in the 1830’s. This desired look arrived to America along with the settlers.  The popular sports of golf and lawn bowling also migrated, along with the need for short cut fields in which to play. The invention of the automobile also played a role, as keeping land along roadways clear for better visibility was required. In the 1950’s and 60’s, subdivisions became popular, similar homes with yards of grass.

We love grass and there is a need for these open spaces. Areas for people to gather, play, and socialize without becoming a muddy mess. Places for pets and kids to run free, away from obstacles. Grass is soft and holds up to wear and tear. Around our homes, a groomed lawn looks ideal alongside flowers and trees. Lawns convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, they help control soil erosion and soak up rainfall.

However, there are negative impacts associated with maintaining grass. The Environmental Protection Agency lists that 5% of our air pollution is related to lawn care equipment. There also is the noise pollution associated with the loud engines – which impacts not only our peace but wildlife’s ability to hear prey and predators, and decreases their ability to communicate. It is estimated that close to 90 million pounds of fertilizers, herbicides and insectices are applied in the United States each year. Production of these chemicals, transporting them and applying them can be dangerous. Fertilizer ingredients not taken up by the plants, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, can get washed from lawns during watering and rain events, into storm drains and into our rivers, streams and lakes. Extra nutrients create havoc on aquatic systems, from algae blooms and unnatural plant growth, to decreased oxygen levels and fish kills.  A lawn is also a very sterile environment, void of diversity, offering little to support wildlife. Last, we tap into our precious clean drinking water to keep the grass green. Landscape irrigation accounts for almost a third of all residential water use, and some estimate that 50% of that is wasted due to leaks, run-off and evaporation.

These complex issues have no easy answers. There will always be a need for grassy areas, but perhaps we take a harder look at how we manage the carpets of green and find more environmentally friendly approaches.

WHAT WE DO The Glen Ellyn Park District manages a lot of turf grass in parks, athletic fields, around buildings, parking lots, and pavilions. We strive for an integrated pest management approach that uses effective weed and pest control with minimal impact on people and the environment. Understanding soil conditions and nutrient deficiencies, along with monitoring turf conditions help guide decisions. Aeration and over-seeding are less impactful methods to keep the weeds down. Our athletic fields receive the most “attention”, as having suitable and safe playing conditions usually require use of fertilizers and occasional pesticides. Thicker, softer grass equals a more cushioned impact when athletes fall and hold up to high-usage. If fertilizers are used, they have little to no phosphorus, helping ease nutrient loads in stormwater. Many parks have a reduced regime of lawn care needs, primarily we just mow. Parks may be treated, but only when needed, not routinely. Some athletic fields may get watered during dry times, but other park grass is left to go dormant. Glen Oak Park is currently a pesticide-free park. We are trying a new natural, organic, biodegradable herbicide in select areas. The District also has created “no-mow” areas, primarily adjacent to natural areas. Over time, with some weed management and seeding in native plants, those patches incorporate back into nature.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Check out the E.P. A.’s website, as there are several guides and resources available for environmentally friendly yards. Reduce use of fertilizers, are they really needed at the beginning and end of the growing season? Learn to tolerate weeds in the grass and intervene occasionally when needed. If you use herbicides, read the product label. Also, spot treat only the weeds – why blanket the entire yard if weeds are hardly present? Reevaluate how you water. Many sources state water your lawn slowly, deeply, and less frequently. If you have a sprinkler system, turn it off it if recently rained. Check sprinkler heads while in use to make sure they are watering the grass and not the sidewalk, street and driveway. Consider reducing the amount of grass in the yard. If the sunny corner is never used, maybe convert it to a flowery butterfly garden or a place to grow peppers and tomatoes. Look into alternatives to grass, like ornamental groundcovers, buffalo grass, eco-grass and sedges. When the lawn mower is beyond repair, it could be replaced with an electric model that is quieter and less of an air polluter. The new, ‘old-fashioned’ manually pushed reel cutters work great on small yards. You may have to go over it twice in a few places and the clippings will be left behind, but you’ll get some exercise and clippings help retain moisture and break down fairly quick.  And check out our No Mow Monday posts this month for additional ideas on lawn alternatives.