“Smart lawns” give homeowners something to think about

May 3, 2001

ANN ARBOR—The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the street but it may be more environmentally sound. As homeowners begin their spring gardening, they might want to consider a “smart lawn” this season.

Robert Grese, director of the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum, has turned his yard into a combination of woodland and prairie habitats. While his neighbors spend their free time mowing, weeding, watering and fertilizing, Grese spends his relaxing and enjoying the view. His yard has more than 80 species of trees, shrubs, grasses, and wild flowers that bloom throughout spring and summer and attract unique birds, butterflies, and crickets. “During the summer, I’ve occasionally found people sitting in my driveway just listening to the crickets and appreciating the scenery.”

Grese helped start the Ann Arbor-based chapter of the” Wild Ones” natural landscapers group. There are now eight chapters around the state of Michigan. Members include homeowners who have converted their lawns into prairies or woodlands as well as folks who just want to make their yards more sustainable or simply enjoy natural areas and learn something about native plants. Grese says the group’s goal is to “share environmentally sound gardening practices and promote biodiversity.”

While lush, green lawns have become a standard of suburban beauty, Grese and other environmentalists feel their over-use and dependence on high fertilization and pesticide use can cause unnecessary harm to the environment. Standard lawns also lead to a greatly impoverished local flora and fauna when compared to a “smart lawn” that includes a greater variety of plants or is modeled after locally native prairies. As one of the brochures from the Wild Ones states, “if nothing moves in your landscape but a lawnmower, it’s time to think about designing a natural yard.”

Fertilizers can be one of the biggest offenders, especially if applied excessively or allowed to spill over onto nearby walks and roads where fertilizers wash directly into storm sewers and eventually into local streams and lakes. Grese warns that many people over fertilizer their lawns. They don’t know when enough is enough. Some environmental groups, like the Huron River Watershed Council, have encouraged homeowners to take soil samples to determine their actual fertilizing needs, rather than guessing. Through a carefully orchestrated campaign that included ads in local papers and direct mailings, the Watershed Council has stimulated a dramatic increase in the number of people requesting soil sample tests from local County Extension offices.

Along with a standard suburban yard comes tremendous upkeep in terms of mowing and blowing. Recent studies have found that approximately 5 percent of air pollution comes from lawnmowers, weed whips, blowers and other yard tools with small engines. Environmentalists are encouraging people to use manual mowers instead of those powered by gasoline. Grese adds that many companies are now making their manual mowers lighter and easier to use.

And, those green lawns can be a big drain on local water supplies. Many communities experience droughts and water bans during the hot summer months. Conventional lawns are water dependent and can easily dry out and die without the proper amount of water, but a smart lawn needs less water and draws on resources that are available in the soil.

Grese says a diverse prairie or woodland planting is a partial answer to environmental problems, like global warming or increases in storm water runoff. A conventional yard can’t adapt as easily to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and warming temperatures, but a locally native prairie or woodland can survive more extreme environments. The rough grasses of a prairie or the variety of ground covers found in a woodland can absorb and filter excess water that drains off of roofs and driveways. If applied on a regional scale, these native gardens can have a dramatic impact in improving water quality and helping to maintain healthy creeks and streams.

While many homeowners count down the days to the spring thaw so they can plant and pamper their lawns, Grese says he gets that same feeling of “rebirth” by burning his prairie. Every few springs, he burns his yard to get rid of the dried grasses and thatch. By burning off the layers of thatch, more sunlight can reach the ground and warm things up faster. Grese says after a burn, his prairie greens up quickly and blooms more profusely.

Grese acknowledges that a “smart lawn” isn’t for everyone, but he does hope that homeowners will be “smarter about their lawns.” He hopes people will change their mowing and fertilizing habits, convert to other types of planting that don’t require so much upkeep, and just make more intelligent choices.

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smart lawnRobert GreseAnn Arbor-based chapterHuron River Watershed Council