Archive for June 18th, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 8 - Lose the Petro-Lawn

Sharon June 18th, 2007

I live far enough away from my neighbors that I can’t hear what they do now, but I have vivid memories of Saturday morning in my small city, when all of a sudden, sleep was interrupted by the sound of a rhino passing a kidney stone. Oh, wait, it was just everyone in the neighborhood firing up their lawnmowers.

The average American uses 18 gallons of gas on their lawn a year - lawnmower, leaf blower, string trimmer, sprinkler, hauling the products, and landscaping eats up half our average personal water use. The average homeowner is putting 20xs the pesticides on their little lawn per acre that commercial farmers use on their land. Many of those chemicals are untested, undertested, and carcinogenic. The extras, along with the chemical fertilizers, run off into our local water tables. And running your lawnmower for an hour puts as much greenhouse gasses into the air as driving 20 miles, according to the EPA, not to mention particulate pollutants that cause asthma and other illnesses, and noise pollution as well that can damage hearing and reduce your ability to be outside and enjoy your neighborhood. Mowing the lawn is especially toxic for the mower.

And think about all the *time* you are spending on your lawn - it isn’t just eating up oil and gas and chemicals, but every Saturday morning (or whenever) you are devoting your limited free time to standing behind a lawn mower that smells bad, makes so much noise you can’t hear nature. Instead of listening to the birds and smelling the fresh air, you are riding or walking behind a big old machine. And for what? So the neighbors can glare at you if you let the lawn get over 1.5 inches long?

Time to re-think the lawn rituals. There’s a lot we can do. First and foremost, consider checking out H.C. Flores’s _Food Not Lawns_ - an inspiring book about all the things your lawn could be.

First of all, think about replacing your lawn with something else. How about trees that shade and cool your house, protect them from winter winds, and absorb carbon? How about native grasses and wildflowers that would attract beneficial insects and native pollinators? How about xeriscaping that wouldn’t require watering? Or replace it with a vegetable garden - grow a beautiful “V” of eggplants, kales or peppers, and wait for the neighbors to ask you about it.

We need millions more small, even tiny farmers in order to de-industrialize our food system. And the places we most need food producers is in the places people live right now - in your neighborhood. During World War II, American Victory Gardeners produced 40% of the nation’s produce - many of them in cities. We can ensure a safe, reliable, healthy food supply by growing food on our lawns - in fact, we need to do this.

We can also use permaculture techniques to design a gorgeous landscape of edibles and medicinals on your lawn. Many food producing and useful plants are gorgeous - you don’t have to tell anyone that you eat the acorns from your white oak, that those flaming autumnal bushes are blueberries, not burning bush, that you had daylily petals in your last salad and that last time you got a cold, you treated it with something from the border of coneflowers. Toby Hemenway’s _Gaia’s Garden_ is a great place to start here, as is the magazine _Permaculture Activist_.

But say you’ve got to have a lawn - the deed restrictions say so. Well, if I were you I’d start talking to local zoning boards about changing the rules - all these zoning restrictions about lawn heights, no clotheslines, no front gardens, no chickens…these are energy wasters. If we’re going to be aware, we need to change the rules. But if you can’t do that, the next best thing is to cut down on the energy you use on your lawn - reduce fertilizer, mowing, water use, and dump the chemicals altogether.

You can still mow the lawn with a push mower. My family uses one - we mow over 1/2 acre with it, and don’t find it too strenuous. If you’ve only ever used an old push mower, you’ll be shocked at how well they work. My 5 year old can push it, and when his friends come over, they fight over who gets to mow the lawn. It is quiet, pleasant to use, and will save you money on gym memberships, because it provides a nice upper body workout.

You could also switch to an electric mower, or to sheep, if you can get them in past the covenants. But I really love my push mower. The other tool we use constantly is a scythe - with 27 acres, the only way to keep things up is to let some of the longer grass go to hay, and scythe it down when we’re done. Scything is a *ton* of fun - relaxing, pleasant, soothing. Eric’s birthday is tomorrow, and when I asked him what he wanted to do, he asked if he could spend the day scything one of our fields. I am not joking - scything is a blast. Now this might not work for everyone, but it also substitute for string trimmer.

If you do need a powered mower, cut the grass less often - optimal height is around 3 inches. There’s no reason to devote all your spare time to this. And don’t leaf blow, rake - it really won’t kill you. If you can’t do these things yourself, teenagers are a time honored tradition. Show them the push mower and the rake, pay them well and don’t forget the occasional glass of lemonade.

Instead of using groundwater or city water to water your lawn, either let it go dormant in hot weather, or collect rainwater whenever possible and use that. If you stop adding commercial fertilizer and replace with compost, more organic matter in the soil will also improve its water holding ability. But remember, dormancy is a normal, natural response - when it gets hot and dry, that’s what the grass is supposed to do.

Don’t fight the weeds unless you really have to - most of them are products of disturbed soil and some are edible or useful. Remember, your land is an ecosystem - no ecosystem has just one species in it. And get out on your lawn - don’t just mow and go back into the house, but get outside. Put a table out, or chairs, and wave to your neighbors as they pass by. Use those lawns to build community. Invite people to join you. Put up bird baths and bat boxes, make butterfly gardens and plant some tubular red flowers for the hummingbirds - invite not just your human neighbors but your flying ones as well. Track your ecosystem. Make lists of the birds and animals you see. Get out a magnifying glass and identify bugs. Get to know your lawn as a living thing, and invite more living things to enjoy the space.

Best of all, tell your neighbors what you are doing and why. We can turn our lawns into something more than a way to make noise on a Saturday morning.