America’s fascination with green lawns has brought the total crop area to 40.5 million acres, and cost Americans a total of about $30 billion last year. Kentucky Bluegrass – Poa pratensis, the most common lawn grass used in this area has a root system of approximately 1” – 2” at best. Because of the shorter root zone, and non-native status, a Bluegrass lawn requires more water, nutrients, and maintenance. Some of the statistics reported by The National Wildlife Association regarding typical lawns in the United States are:
- 30% of water used on the East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60% on the West Coast.
- 18% of municipal solid waste is composed of yard waste.
- The average suburban lawn received 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland.
- Over 70 million tons of fertilizers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens annually.
- Per hour of operation, a gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a typical auto. A weed-whip emits 21 times more and a leaf blower 34 times more.
- Where pesticides are used, 60 – 90% of earthworms are killed. Earthworms are important for soil health.
These statistics address the environmental argument for lawn alternatives, but there are the time and money factors to figure in also.
The other problem for most homeowners to wrap their mind around is the difference between cool season grasses and warm season grasses. Warm or cool season refers to when the lawn is growing, i.e. a cool season grass grows when it is cool (spring / fall), a warm when warm (summer). Kentucky Bluegrass (a cool season grass) is green and needs little water or nutrients during the spring or fall months, but needs constant mowing. However, during the hot, summer months, cool season grasses go dormant, often turning yellow and crispy. This is usually a problem for Joe Homeowner that expects the lawn to be green all year. This is also the time of year (June – August) that most water is wasted (and overuse of nutrients) by desperate homeowners thinking their grass is dieing. Educating the public about the seasonal nature of Bluegrass (going dormant) could possibly reduce water waste, but peer pressure and the persona of the “Perfect Green Lawn” will most likely win out, for now…
Many lawn alternatives arguably look just like a lawn. Buchloe dactyloides, commonly known as Buffalo Grass, is one of the only perennial, native grasses that can be found from Montana to Mexico. It is a stolaniferous, very drought tolerant, varieties can be from 2” – 8”, and if left unmowed, will have attractive seed heads. Choice of variety (and personal preference) will be the factor of how often the lawn will need to be mowed, but 2X a month is about average. It is a warm season grass, opposed to the Bluegrass, so it is slow to start growing in the spring, but will be green during the warmer months without (or very little) added water or nutrients (compost).
Another alternative to the standard lawn is Clover, which, from a distance can look like a lawn, but not close up. Though there are many, non-native Clovers to choose from, Trifolium repens, or White Clover is the only native of Illinois. Clovers are in the Bean family (Fabaceae), which have a unique ability to recondition the soil by returning nitrogen to it (called: nitrogen fixation). Farmers often rotate Clover seasonally into their fields to prevent weeds, reduce compaction (because of the deep root system), and to restore nitrogen levels to the soil.
Although Clover does not look like a traditional lawn, it will act much like one without all the hassles. Clover is very low maintenance, and stays green with little water and no mowing (unless wanted). Fertilizers are unnecessary, as Clover provides it’s own nutrients to itself by nitrogen fixation. The real benefit for Lake County residents is that it grows well in the hard, clay soils and will better the soil in the process. Another advantage for dog owners, it does not yellow from urine. The cost of a Clover lawn is inexpensive, at about $4 to cover a 4000 square foot area. Durability is the only downside to clover, as it can handle foot traffic, but not hard-core activities.
A compromise option is a half Clover, half Buffalo Grass (or Bluegrass) lawn that will be able to handle the stresses of an active family. Sadly, society may look down at the combination, as it looks as though weeds are overtaking the lawn, especially in the spring when the Clover flowers (beautifully). A back yard may be a better location for this type of arrangement for someone trying to break the ‘bluegrass lawn mode’.
There are many alternatives to lawns (groundcovers) people can use that have their own special characteristics. Thymus praecox, commonly known as Creeping Thyme is an Illinois native that blooms shortly in the spring with light pink flowers. A solution for those shady, moist, hard to grow areas is Thuidium delicatulum, commonly known as Fern Moss, also a native to our area. Both can take a small amount of foot traffic, and most often are used in between stepping stones, or rock type paths.
Up next in the series: BIOSWALES AND RAIN GARDENS
© Ilex Farrell – Midwestern Plant Girl