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  • Mohan Iyer

Lawns, our biological deserts

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

By Mohan Iyer, Mississauga Master Gardener and BB volunteer member

A friend of mine has spend over $15,000 in the last 4 years on his front and back yards.

His reason? "To grow lawn”, referring to his turfgrass sod, a high-maintenance blend of European grass species plus the surface layer of earth held together by their roots.

I was aghast! Lawns are dead ecosystems. They are equivalent to concrete footpaths when it comes to their ecological contribution. Yet home owners in North America collectively spend billions of dollars in trying to perfect the art of turf maintenance. What a marketing success, I must say.

Lawn was historically grown by the elites in Europe, especially in England and France. The climatic conditions there are well suited for the growth of grass. European colonizers (English and French) introduced grass to North America among other places in the world. In North America, one had to be very affluent to be able to maintain estates with sweeping turfgrass lawns. Before the invention of the lawn mower, one would either have to have paid labor to take care of it or prior to that, slaves. Even today, some suburban owners' associations fine home owners for not maintaining their lawns according to set standards. This is after large academic studies show that present day lawns are one of the best examples of unsustainable practices.

Lawns are monocultures which makes them biological deserts. Monocultures like lawns support very little in terms of species diversity. At the same time, they are easily susceptible to invasive species, diseases and other biotic outbreaks. And to counter that we treat the lawn with a whole horde of chemicals. Not only that, lawns are the largest irrigated crops, contribute to runoff, consume a lot of energy (gasoline/ electricity), and require chemical pollutants and toxins. This clearly shows that the lawn cannot sustain itself and needs constant “lawn care”. Still, after all this work, lawns have very little ecological value.

Our standard lawn growing and maintenance practices are unsustainable and cause substantial degradation to the ecosystem. A study from the University of California-Irvine found that the total estimation of greenhouse gas emissions from lawn care —which includes fertilizer and pesticide production, watering, mowing, leaf blowing and other lawn management practices — was four times greater than the amount of carbon stored by grass. In other words, our lawns produce four times the amount of carbon they absorb.

Above: A 2nd-year growth of perennial native sedges replaces the non-native turfgrass lawn in this front yard designed by Benjamin Vogt. The sedges will fill in and create a lovely silky flowing texture perfect for shady areas under trees.

So, how do we go about fixing this problem? All is not lost. There are various lawn alternatives that are ecologically friendly and help in creating a balance in the natural environment. Consider a drought-tolerant, no-mow lawn of native grasses and sedges that will still form a carpet of green. Even better: convert part of your lawn area to a native plant garden.

Imagine yourself as a tired insect or a bird and are looking at the landscape from a few hundred feet above. Where would you want to land? On a sweeping expanse of non-native grass that has very little to offer in terms of food and shelter? Or would you like to land on a patch that has cozy leaf litter for shelter, flowering plants and leafy shrubs for energy-restoring nectar and pollen, protein-rich caterpillars, berries, and a small watering hole to cool down? If I was a bumblebee, butterfly or chickadee, I know what I would choose.

This spring, when you step out into your backyard and start planning your garden maintenance program, pause. Take a step back. Think. Think of all the possibilities that you have, all the great options that are available to reduce the amount of lawn. Think of this as great opportunity, an opening to create an ecosystem, to create your own garden of Eden, even to create your own Noah’s ark. Think of what you can do to bring nature back to your home, to your very own backyard.


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