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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

Reimagining ‘Greener’ Lawns

Feb 24, 2014 05:18PM ● By Kate Goodspeed

Landscape design by Goodspeed and Company

Another year, more deer, more fences and fewer plant choices….what is a gardener to do? Simple…don’t give up. Maybe we have to rethink the whole environmental cycle. Why don’t we start with our beloved lawn. America’s obsession with lawns has fueled the lawn industry and the chemical companies. In the old days, we mowed our lawns with scythes or we had a grazing herd to keep the lawns low and lush. Recycling was a huge part of our processes. Cattle and sheep ate our lawns and then fertilized them. Lawns that were cut with scythes created grass clippings that also fertilized the lawns as they lay on the ground decaying.

In 1830 the lawn mower was invented and that was the beginning of a new industry cycle, as baggers were put on mowers and recycled nutrients were no longer returned to the earth. Grass clippings were now discarded, instead of refueling and fertilizing our lawns. It then became necessary to add nutrients back in with manmade fertilizers.  People began wanting beautiful crew cut green blades of lusciousness. And let us not forget that lawn species were improved to endure harsh conditions, so that instead of native grasses, seeds were hybridized to give us fast growing green lawns that need constant mowing.

When the environmental movement began there was a minimal shift towards natural lawns, often called ‘freedom’ lawns, instead of ‘industrial’ lawns. Think about how long ago people were trying to alert us to the devastating effects of chemicals absorbed into the ground, and ending up in our water supplies. Do you remember bees collapsing because they are unable to get to their food sources? Do you remember overpopulation of deer twenty years ago? My grandmother’s battle was with the occasional groundhog, never with deer.

A Meadow

So how about a first step in breaking the chemical process by changing our mindset about our lawns. How about a short meadow? How about changing over the whole lawn to one that requires less water, grows more slowly, needs no fertilization and minimizes the amount of fossil fuel required to maintain an industrial lawn? Imagine a lawn filled with short flowers that are great pollinators for bees and a good food source for butterflies, deer and other browsing animals. What if we could redirect animals eating habits to our lawn, instead of our flowerbeds? Granted the start-up can have related costs, but consider a lawn that doesn’t need to be mowed nearly as often and doesn’t need to be re-seeded annually and doesn’t require the excessive use of fossil fuels.

To start the changing process slowly, you can begin with short flowering plants. This is relatively inexpensive and should be started in early spring or mid-fall, so it does not need to be watered constantly. Envision a beautiful meadow full of bees, butterflies, and birds. It is absolutely amazing to watch the activity and experience the sights and sounds. It is alive, and if you just stand there for a minute or so, you can actually feel the pulse of a working community. What we need is to become a part of the community again. We are an integral part of this chain and we should embrace it.

When converting to a meadow with small individual plant plugs, there may be voles, moles, and deer at first but that subsides as the meadow becomes more established. This indicates the micro system is beginning to balance out. Many butterflies and bees will be abuzz, and birds will eat seed heads and dart in and out of the meadow in their new habitat.

A new freedom lawn can help to balance our ecosystem and perhaps redirect our goals and our future. By filling our lawn with plants that are attractive to wildlife, while promoting a healthy environment we may find that the deer will become less interested in our flower gardens, and satisfied with our new lawns.

Kate Goodspeed is the owner of Goodspeed and Company, based in Cornwall, which offers landscape design and consulting throughout the tri-state area. They offer landscape planning, garden renovations, planting design, garden maintenance and more. She can be reached at 845.534.5741 or [email protected] For more information, visit