Low-Waste Lawn Care

Although summer is nearing its end (good riddance), we still have at least a couple more months of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and herbicide sprayers. Let’s talk about lawns, shall we? Here we’ll discuss the wasteful drawbacks of having a traditional lawn and possible alternatives. Lawn enthusiasts: you may have your backs raised by the time you’re finished reading, but at least hear me out. My own father is a self-proclaimed grass farmer, and he takes great pride in his lawn. However, I would like to offer another perspective.

First, I want to know: why are lawns such a touchy subject? People can really get bent out of shape over a lawn. I’ll be forthright: I haven’t ever been one to care for lawns. I don’t really understand Its Holiness, The Lawn. Lawns are useless, and there is a lot of waste associated with lawns. We spend countless hours and dollars grooming our yardspace, which is not usually even used for anything besides putting on airs. Let’s be honest–how many of us use our front lawns for leisure? Alternately, how many of us use our front lawns to compete with our neighbors over whose is the greenest or shortest or best maintained? How many of us are waiting by the phone watching our neighbors’ weeds creep up to the legal limit, poised to dial the city’s nuisance hotline? Don’t deny it, too many of us fall into the latter category. I’m not saying we shouldn’t maintain our front yards. I’m just saying there are better (and perhaps more beautiful) ways to do it.

I do see the value in having grassy, pest-free areas for kids and adults to run and play. Playgrounds, ball fields, and parks are all necessary. I like yards that are landscaped thoughtfully with plants that are beneficial to the natural habitat. I just don’t care for your water-guzzling, pesticide-filled, once-a-week-you-blow-your-grass-into-my-driveway lawns. I don’t have one of those, and I don’t have much time for people who expect me to have one.

Let’s think through the cycle of our lawns today:

  1. Water the lawn, use too much water,
  2. Apply chemicals to the lawn (herbicide/pesticide/fertilizer),
  3. Let chemicals runoff into city water supply and also poison naturally occurring plant and wildlife,
  4. Mow and weed-eat the lawn using fossil fuels,
  5. Release air pollutants into the atmosphere, including ozone and CO2,
  6. Blow the grass clippings into street/neighbor’s yard or driveway/drainage ditches,
  7. Clog ditches with grass clippings,
  8. Bag up additional yard waste and send it to the landfill to turn into methane and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (unless your landfill has a methane catchment system),
  9. Repeat 1 through 9.

Watering

We could water our yards more efficiently, and therefore less (if at all). The EPA reports that 30% of individual household water usage in the U.S. is devoted to outdoor use, and 50% of it is wasted. I have seen countless sprinklers being run on a rainy day, or directed toward the street. Certain sprinklers are very inefficient (think: the kind you run through as a kid. Much of the water evaporates before it even hits the ground.)We also have to take the runoff into consideration. Poisons and grass clippings get into the water supply. This contaminates our water and clogs our sewer systems. And you know what fixes those problems? Tax dollars.

  
I took this photo on a walk one morning. These people’s sprinkler is watering the street. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Does this make sense to you? 

Another way to ensure your yard and gardens have enough water is to implement strategic water catchment systems. Earthworks, as it were. Swales and berms create topographic catchment mechanisms that allow the earth to hold more water and provide moisture to your plants naturally, without ever having to turn on the sprinkler or hose. When it rains, swales fill up with water (the berms help the water get to the swale). *Cue automatic fear of standing water and the liability of having what are essentially small rivers running through your yard.* The water seeps into the earth quickly enough that no problems from standing water arise. The swales can be filled with your favorite climate- and ecosystem-appropriate plant so there isn’t a hazard of tripping! Like elephant ears or a decorative grass.

Cutting

We could choose to use less carbon-intensive methods of grass cutting, and/or reduce the amount of grass there is to cut. Not only do we spend valuable resources growing our grass, we then spend valuable resources cutting it. Ozone season is usually from about May to October. Ground-level ozone is a smog-forming pollutant that is created when oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds react in sunlight. The NOx and VOCs are what we call “precursors” to ozone. So, when we mow we release these precursors and they form ozone. Humans are susceptible to harm from ozone when it is directly inhaled. Among other things, ozone contributes to development and exacerbation of lung diseases such as asthma in adults and especially in children (learn more about ozone here). This is why you’ve heard not to mow your yard on ozone alert days. You will contribute to ozone in our atmosphere, and you will be in danger of inhaling a harmful pollutant.

I do have to admit, gas mowers and edgers are much more powerful and efficient than even electric ones (in my experience). Nevermind reel mowers. However, if you want to make the conscious choice to contribute less emissions to our environment, cutting the fossil fuels out of your lawn care strategy is imperative. The Tulsa area currently does not have a lawn service offering low-carbon methods. This is unfortunate.

Discarding

Why is it acceptable to blow yard debris into the street onto passing cars? Or onto your neighbor’s property? Why do we have to dispose of it at all? INSTEAD, leave your clippings in the yard. The National Geographic reported a study showing that lawns are a great big carbon sink when the clippings are left in the yard to decompose. (Yes, that is my academic summary.) Above all, avoid sending your yard waste to the landfill in plastic trash bags, where it will decompose in such a way that emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In Tulsa, you may dispose of your yard waste separately. (Another blog post is dedicated to the topic of green waste in Tulsa.)

Here are some examples of my ideal (anti) lawn, pulled from the design website Houzz:

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