Lawns were invented at least 900 years ago in Great Britain and Northern France. But these ancient lawns were not just great expanses of green grass: medieval paintings show various flowers like poppies, primroses, violets, wild daisies among the grasses; a replication of pastoral meadows. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans planted white clover, chamomile, thyme and groundcover plants often mixed with the grasses. The wealthy employed laborers to trim the overgrown grasses with scythes, and commonly used sheep to trim and fertilize the lawns.
In the US and Canada, beautiful green lawns have become an obsession, but early colonists didn't have the time or money to maintain a lawn. The first gardens were made of medicinal plants. Native grasses in America were considered too unruly to make lawns out of.
Turf grasses began to be imported from Europe and Asia for wealthy Americans to create lawns around their houses. But the game changer for Americans was the invention of the lawn mower in 1830. Now North Americans of modest means could have lawns that didn’t require dozens of workers or a flock of sheep to maintain.
In the 1860’s, landscape designers such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Frank J. Scott published books that advocated the lawn as a necessity for respectable homeowners. In 1871, the first lawn sprinkler appeared and garden hoses became cheaper.
Today, the US has more than 40 million acres of residential and commercial grass lawns (calculated by NASA using satellite data and aerial photos). The emphasis on lawns is their uniformity: no weeds, and no other species of flowering plants.
The very real consequences of lawns:
The obsession North Americans have with pristine lawns has been a double-edged sword. Turf grasses are not foods for native pollinators and honeybees. Lawn care can require a tremendous amount of water, as well as chemicals/pesticides/herbicides to maintain the perfect carpet of green. And then there is the gasoline usage of the motorized mowers, and the sound pollution of the various electric and gas powered trimmers, leaf blowers and grass trimming blowers.
An estimate by the EPA showed that watering lawns accounts for 30-60% of water consumption during the summer months.
According to the EPA, a gas-powered push mower emits 11 times more air pollution for every hour of operation than a new car. A riding mower emits as much hydrocarbons in one hour as a car driven 20 miles. And, Americans spill more than 17,000,000 gallons of gasoline when refueling mowers and other garden equipment.
The chemical cocktail that lawns require:
- Forty-six million Americans use insecticides and chemical weed-killers on their lawns.
- Americans use 70 tons of chemical fertilizers on lawns every year.
- Fungicides and pesticides can kill 60-90% or more of the earthworms in the soil when applied.
- Including farmers, exterminators, and homeowners, about a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the US. 78 million households in the US use home and garden pesticides.
- Of the commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 are probable or possible carcinogens, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 15 with neurotoxicity, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 27 are irritants, and 11 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine system.
- Studies find that dogs exposed to herbicide-treated lawns and gardens can double their chance of developing canine lymphoma.
- Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides: 16 are toxic to birds, 24 are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, and 11 are deadly to bees.
- Herbicides and insecticides can have a huge impact on honeybees and wild pollinators by killing their food supply because they reduce the number of flowering plants. Dandelions may be called a weed, but they are the spring food of the honeybee and bumble bees.
- The herbicide Roundup is the most used herbicide in the world, according to the EPA. In 2001 between 85 and 90 million pounds were spread in the US; by 2007 that had risen to 180-185 million pounds. A peer reviewed journal [Environmental Sciences Europe (Feb 2, 2016)] reported that 18.9 billion pounds of Roundup has been used globally. Enough Roundup was applied in 2014 to spray over three-quarters of a pound of Roundup on every acre of harvested cropland in the US, and almost one-half pound per acre on all cropland worldwide. In the US alone, farmers and homeowner use an estimated 100 million pounds of Roundup a year.
Rethinking what a beautiful lawn is:
Several years ago, I got tired of having to use a weed-whacker to trim grass and weeds along my pasture fences. So I bought a pollinator blend of seed and spread it along my fence lines. Up popped poppies, and sunflowers, cosmos and coneflowers, which attracted the butterflies and hummingbirds.
The following spring, when the dandelions were in their seed-head state, I blew them around the grassy lawn to spread more dandelions. We lightly sowed white clover seeds and reaped the benefits of seeing an increase in honey and bumble bees. We turn the chickens out in the winter now on the lawn grass to fertilize it during the winter. Rain and snow help drive the chicken manure into the ground and feed the soil. We let the chickens roam the lawn during the summer once or twice per week (with the help of our Australian Shepherd dogs) to eat insects and bugs and ticks that are in the grasses.
Last year with some left over pollinator mix seed and sunflower seed, I haphazardly scattered the seeds along a wide stretch of grass/lawn between a paddock and the driveway that ended in one of our new vegetable gardens. To my amazement, some of the flowers came up, so we let the grass grow, and just mowed a small walking path through it.
I started a pollinator garden several years ago by reclaiming a patch of lawn next to our tool shed. I started with perennial bee balm, French lavender, and day lilies. I planted dahlias, Russian sage, and zinnias. Then added a wildflower pollinator seed mix and placed a hummingbird feeder at the edge.
What I noticed over time as I kept adding more pollinator friendly areas is that our bird population increased: more goldfinches, more bluebirds, our first nesting pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks, more cardinals, red-winged black birds and mourning doves.
Tips on an environmentally friendly lawn:
1. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn. As they decompose, they add valuable organic matter and nitrogen.
2. Create a compost bin and spread the decomposed organic matter on your lawn. You can also make compost "tea" and spray it on your lawn once a month.
3. Crabgrass can indicate soil compaction. Add some earthworms to help aerate and fertilize the ground. You can also plant Tilling Radish, which produces a large taproot to penetrate compacted soil layers. You can plant in the fall two months before the first frost. Pull them up in the spring, replace with native grasses, or clover and compost the root.
4. Want to do less mowing and weed-whacking? Plant pollinator seeds as borders around lawns.
5. For shade areas, plant Daphne, Rhododendron, English Ivy, Hydrangea and Lilly of the Valley.
6. Convert a part of the lawn to flower or vegetable garden, plant pollinator friendly plants along side of the vegetables. Make sure to add some pollinator friendly species to your flower garden: bee balm, aster, calendula, cosmos, daylily, delphinium, fennel, lavender, marigold, nasturtium, oregano, coneflower, sage, verbena, and zinnia.
7. Raise the cutting height of the mower, which will reduce stress on the grasses and require less watering.
8. Think of your lawn as a small eco system that depends on biodiversity. Create a wildflower patch with Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, sunflowers, purple coneflower, bonesets, butterfly weed, goldenrods.
One person’s weed is another creature’s food:
Dandelions and white clover are the spring-time early foods for honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, and wild bees. Dandelion seeds are favored by sparrows and Goldfinches. Dandelion heads and leaves are favored by horses, cows and goats. In Chinese medicine, spring is the time of the liver, and dandelion is considered an excellent liver tonic for dogs, horses, goats, cows and humans.
I look forward to the day when driving down a road it will be a profusion of wildflower lawns, vegetable gardens, and pollinator gardens. And we will be counting the increases in bee colonies and not how many more pounds of chemicals we used in our backyards.
Resources/ Where to Shop for Seeds:
- American Meadows Inc sells pollinator wildflower seed mixes for various geographical zones in the US.
- Eden Brothers: sells The Bees Knees Pollinator Wildflower seed mix.
- Seed Savers Exchange: sells a mixture of Bee’s Friend, Evening Sun Sunflower, Purple Coneflower, Lemon Mint, Valentine Sunflower, Bufferflyweed.
- Prairie Moon Nursery: "Pollinator Palooza" includes 45 different plant species that
- appeal to a broad range of pollinators.
- High Mowing Seed Company: Beeline Pollinator Mix: I have used this mix for several years in my bee garden and it never fails to attract bees.
- US Environmental Protection Agency. 2004. Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 2000-2001 Market Estimates
- Beyond Pesticides Factsheet. 2005. April. Health effects of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides
- Beyond Pesticides Factsheet. 2005. Environmental effects of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides.
- Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn. Scientific American, July 29, 2013
- Bretagnolle V, et al. Weeds for bees a review. 2015. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, volume 35, issue 3, pp 891-909
- The Xerces Society