A Solution to the Problem of Lawns?

by |March 15, 2011

Last summer I wrote a post about the problem of lawns in America. To recap briefly: The landscapes we have created for most of our built environment in the United States are travesties of nature. Lawns, which occupy 30-40 million acres of land typically suck up 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizer per acre as farmers use, account for five percent of the nation’s air pollution, and are responsible each year for more than 17 million gallons of spilled fuel from the refilling of lawn and garden equipment—more than was lost during the Exxon Valdez spill.

Last but by no means least, 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used on lawns. Given the growing intensity of the global water crisis, to spend such enormous amounts of water on something that for practical purposes does little more than enslave millions of American homeowners by chaining them to their lawnmowers and sprinklers every Saturday from April through October (or longer) seems nothing short of insane.

Or so I thought. I confess, however, that this issue has grown both more complicated and closer to my heart in recent months, as in August of last year I became one of those lawn-enslaved homeowners.

A view of the author's back yard in Tarrytown, New York.

Of course, it was and is not my intention to keep so much of our yard as turf – the plan at the moment is redesign as much of the space as possible as a multi-functional, edible landscape, particularly in the front, where lawn seems to serve little purpose. However, as the father of three young children who could spend hours each day simply running in circles, it would seem wise to keep at least some space available for Frisbee, baseball and impromptu dance performances. But how to do so without poisoning the earth and water?

Enter the Harvard Yard Soil Restoration Project

In 2007, Harvard University embarked on a project to convert its extensive, heavily trafficked lawns to all-organic management. The project began with a pilot implementation on one acre of Harvard Yard, the 25-acre center of the Harvard University campus; the project was based on the organic landscape maintenance plan that Battery Park City Parks Conservancy (BPCPC) in Lower Manhattan had successfully implemented and maintained since 1989. The project team included Eric T. Fleisher, BPCPC’s director of horticulture along with James Sotillo, an organic plant care specialist and guest lecturer at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.

According to the team’s own report, initial testing revealed a compacted, biologically unbalanced soil, with low organic matter, insufficient protozoa and fungi and low nitrogen creation. Over the course of a season, the team applied compost and compost teas and over seeded with shade and drought tolerant fescue to increase the diversity of grass cultivars.

Harvard Yard. Source: Wikimedia.

In the end, the team reported an increased root growth of 3-5 inches over the control plot— a result which improves moisture retention and increases drought tolerance. Irrigation on the test plot was 30 percent less than the control plot, but the team points out that using the same techniques BPCPC routinely save 50 percent of the irrigation needed by Harvard. Finally, the absence of excess nitrogen slowed the growth of the test plot, meaning that it only had to be cut half as often.

The success of the project means that organic management has now been expanded to the rest of Harvard Yard.

The Earth Project

In order to expand awareness of the potential benefits of the project, James Sotillo has now partnered with New York architect Gail Swithenbank, curator Michael Wells and noted soil scientist Elaine Ingham (founder of the Soil Food Web organization) for a public art project to demonstrate the difference between organic and synthetic management. The idea is for artists to create circular patterns of organically managed lawn amidst conventionally managed lawns large enough to be visible from the air. If it works, it could provide a striking example of the difference between the two ways of managing landscape management.

But What About My Lawn?

Alas, if there’s one problem I see with the way with the Harvard Soils Project as it’s presented, it’s that it is information- and attention-intensive – requiring various kinds of soil testing, the making of compost tea, the creation of specialty composts with different feedstock mixes depending on how it will be used, and carefully monitored irrigation.

Given that the lawn is an especially high-traffic areas where aesthetics of primary concern, such a careful approach is no doubt best. For my own purposes, however, I must admit to being drawn to permaculturalist Paul Wheaton’s approach to “Organic Lawn Care For the Cheap and Lazy.” Wheaton’s advice goes something like this:

Necessary:

  • Mow high (and don’t use a gas mower!)
  • Water only when grass is drought stressed and then water deeply

Optional:

  • Fertilize with organic fertilizer in fall and spring
  • Amend pH if needed
  • Add top soil if needed

That sounds pretty simple – if it works out, I’ll be left wondering yet again exactly why everyone spends so much time and energy putting things onto the earth that cannot possibly be good for it—or for us.

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8 thoughts on “A Solution to the Problem of Lawns?

  1. Monica Ibacache says:

    Great Article! Lots of information and resources. hoooray!

  2. Renee Kashuba says:

    What about just letting the lawn be? I’ve never been attracted to over-manicured lawns and they are even less interesting to children. There is not much to explore in them and they make you feel like you are not really outside. I say we let the kids run where they want and let it all go. But that’s just your wife’s opinion.

  3. Michelle Brock says:

    The BPCPC plan sounds lovely but, alas, as the author notes at the end of the piece, complicated. I grew up in lawn-heavy Southern California and while all our neighbors and friends spend tremendous amounts of time and money to have lovely looking lawns, my parents followed the same approach as “Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy”. The result: ample grass for endless hours playing in the yard for the kids and time for the parents to do something other than be glued to the mower (and money left in the wallet). The lawn, however, was far from winning any Home and Garden competitions. While this was not lost on me as a kid, I felt the trade off was worth it — all the fancy lawns lacked the lovely yellow flowers and clover for me to play with (aka weeds). Here’s to the low maintenance approach!

  4. Mandamus says:

    Haven’t you heard? The secret to a happy marriage is yardwork.. What are you trying to do? raise the divorce rate?

  5. Stiva says:

    Interesting article and while I am all for organic low maintenance lawns, but I certainly would advise against high grass, since mowed grass keeps the risks of tick bites and lyme disease down. Also you don’t mention lawns vs concrete in the cities. I would rather see green grass than concrete. I might add that I recently what had been left of my lawn turned over last summer and re-seeded. I used organic fertiliser and am very happy that it remained fairly green over the winter and now is a nice shade of green, while neighbours using typical chemicals have brown grass.

  6. Lakis Polycarpou Lakis Polycarpou says:

    Michelle: I find it interesting that your parents had decent results with the “let it be” approach even in a supposedly high-maintenance lawn area like southern California! Encouraging.

    Mandamus: No comment.

    Stiva: Glad to hear about your results using organics on your lawn. You do make an interesting point about ticks and lyme. Maybe that’s a tradeoff worth thinking about (or maybe there’s another solution?)

    Regarding lawns vs. concrete, I think it’s a false dichotomy. I am against pavement (see my other post, “No More Pavement!” http://bit.ly/i7uNSB) but there are many other options besides turf, including natives, edibles, etc. — many of which could be watered with gray-water/wastewater, or water runoff from the pavement we do have. And of course, where we do have turf we can manage it organically as Harvard Yard has shown.

    Thanks for all your comments.

  7. CW says:

    YOUR COMMENT ABOUT exactly why everyone spends so : eVERYONE DOES NOT DO THESE THINGS..AND I DO NOT THINK IT IS EVEN MOST..I HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR 60 YEARS NOW..MOST PEOPLE WE HAVE SEEN DO NOT PUT FERTILIZERS ON THEIR LAWNS..AND IN OUR AREA..WE GENERALY HAVE TONS OF RAIN.
    LAWNS ARE OFTEN SMALL AND BACKYARDS ARE FREQUENTLY TAKEN UP WITH GARDENS, POOLS. DECKING OR STONE SURFACES.
    IF YOU ARE HIT WITH A DROUGHT, THEN LET IT WITHER AND DIE. IT ALWAYS COMES BACK. NOT A BIG DEAL. BEST TO UTILIZE THAT SPACE WITH THINGS THAT GIVE YOU FOOD ANYWAY. FRUIT TREES ALWAYS LOOK NICE ON A FRONT LAWN AND USE YOUR BACKYARD TO GROW YOUR FOOD. YOU THEN KNOW IT DOES NOT HAVE CHEMICALS ON THEM.
    ALSO, HERBS LOOK NICE IN FRONT OF HOME, SAGE CREATES THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BLOOMS OF PURPLE IN THE SPRING.

  8. Andrew says:

    Good read. Can someone answer this for me – Do you ever have water shortages in the States, to the point where the authorities regulate the supply for lawn watering, like a hose pipe ban or similar.

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