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Landscaping... your lawn
Green grass

Fast & Easy Info

  • It's time to re-imagine "the perfect lawn." The current concept revolves around the notion that we should grow a monoculture - just one crop, free of weeds, other plants, insects, and wildlife. This model does not exist anywhere else in Nature. Why should we force it upon our homes? Especially when.

  • In order to have "the perfect lawn," we must use toxic chemicals - a LOT of toxic chemicals. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 are probable or possible carcinogens, 14 are linked to birth defects, 18 to reproductive effects, 20 to liver or kidney damage, and 18 to neurotoxicity, according to the national Beyond Pesticides coalition.

  • Suburban lawns and gardens receive far heavier pesticide applications per acre than agricultural areas.

  • The "perfect lawn" also requires frequent mowing and watering. Gasoline-powered lawn equipment causes nearly 5 percent of the country's total air pollution during the summer months.

  • Many alternatives to "the perfect lawn" exist, from planting native ground covers instead of turf, to shrinking the size of our lawns, to maintaining our lawns organically.


Dollars & Sense Options

If you want to grow a lawn, follow these steps to minimize your use of fertilizers and pesticides.
  1. Build healthy soil using organic fertilizers - Grass grows best where soil organisms like earthworms recycle plant material so nutrients are slowly released in the root zone of the grass. You can help by applying organic fertilizers. Most commercial fertilizers boost plant growth rapidly. In addition, consumers often apply too much fertilizer, sending polluting phosphorus and nitrates into ground water, streams, rivers and lakes. Choose "natural" fertilizers like composts and pasteurized manures, which will release nutrients more slowly and reduce runoff.
  2. Aerate - Remove small cores of soil from your lawn when it has become compacted. You can do this by hand, or you can rent a machine to make the job easier.
  3. Mow high, mow often - Mowing your lawn at a higher level encourages grass to develop a deeper root system as well as to tolerate drought, heat, shade, disease and pests.
    Recommended mowing heights are 3 inches for tall fescue, 2 1/2 inches for perennial ryegrass, and 1 inch for bentgrass. Mow often when the grass is growing fast, but cut no more than 1/3 of the length of the grass blades so the grass is not stressed.
  4. Grasscycle - Grasscycling is the simple practice of leaving clippings on the lawn when you mow. It's one of those easy yard chores that saves time because you don't have to bag the clippings. It saves money because you don't need to buy fertilizer: the clippings decompose and return nutrients to the soil to help keep the grass growing. Grasscycling also is good for your community. It's estimated that grass clippings make up about half of all yard trimmings that are thrown away over the course of the year. Leaving the clippings on the grass reduces pressure on shrinking landfill space. Just mow, and go! See more on grasscycling here.
  5. Water deeply and infrequently - Frequent, light watering creates a shallow-rooted lawn. Over watering leaches grass nutrients, promotes certain weeds, and starves grass roots of oxygen. Soak your lawn to the roots, but not to the point where the lawn remains soggy.
  6. Remove excess thatch - Thatch is the partially decomposed grass stems, roots, and leaves found between the green part of a lawn and the surface of the soil. About 1/2 inch of thatch helps reduce soil compaction and prevent some weeds seeds from germinating. Thicker thatch can make your lawn less tolerant of drought. To reduce thatch, pull a thatching rake across the lawn and pull up the debris.
  7. Have realistic expectations - Your lawn doesn't have to be perfect for it to serve your purposes. In fact, it should harbor some weeds and insects. Remember, it's an ecosystem - it should host a variety of animals and plants. If you notice that your yard is too shady for grass, or too dry, consider native plants, paving stones, and other landscape alternatives.

When You Mow.

    Clean Air Gardening tells you what you need to know about pollution-free alternatives to the gas-powered lawn mowers that generate smog and contribute to climate change. Highlights: Electric mowers use either a rechargeable battery or an electric cord. For smaller lawns, reel mowers offer a low-tech option.
  • If you buy a power mower, choose one capable of mulching the grass, not just bagging it. Here's what to look for.

Lawn Alternatives

  • A natural meadow requires no feeding or watering after the seeds and young plants are established, and needs mowing only once a year. Meadows, which grow best in full son, attract a variety of plants: goldenrod, asters, coneflowers, bee balm, and phlox, as well as butterflies, dragonflies, and bumblebees.
  • Evergreen groundcovers like partridgeberry, wintergreen, creeping thyme and bugleweed require no mowing or fertilizing.
  • You can also replace part of your lawn with rock gardens and ponds.

Want more tips? Visit Beautiful Alternatives to Lawns or The Wild Lawn Handbook


Researchers at Oregon State University are developing the concept of the " eco-lawn," a mixture of grasses, flowers, and herbs that stands up well to mowing. Eco-lawns are designed to provide the same pleasures as a conventional lawn, but without the need for fertilizers and heavy water. Read more about eco-lawns here.

For Your Shopping List

Stepables specializes in ground covers that love foot traffic.

Extremely Green sells organic lawn fertilizers.

Gardens Alive offers organic soil amendments and nematodes to combat lawn grubs.

Peaceful Valley has put together a colorful herbal lawn mix that includes chamomile, alyssum, creeping daisy, thyme and Johnny-Jumpup.

Rodale's Chemical-Free Yard & Garden is a terrific, step-by-step guidebook to organic lawn care

In My House

Our "lawn" is a mix of anything and everything: grass, weeds, various low-growing herbs and flowers. What it's not is a monoculture: just one plant that requires a lot of water and an herbicide to kill off everything else. A big advantage it offers is that it stays green all summer long, even during a drought. We don't worry about not having "the perfect lawn." We have a safe, green groundcover almost year round with very little expenditure of time and money.

What Else?

We mow our lawn with an electric lawn mower, which works well as long as the grass isn't too thick. For years, we used a reel mower, but it was hard to keep the blades sharp enough throughout the summer to do a good job. I really liked the idea of a reel mower, but I didn't have enough time to maintain it. The blades needed frequent sharpening; they also needed to be wiped down after every mowing or they would rust. If you have a really small lawn, a reel mower may work well for you. For a larger lawn, an electric lawn mower that mulches grassclippings may be worth considering.


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