Take a Pass on Grass
By Ryan Reed
The idea that homes be surrounded by expanses of lawn is older than America itself. Stately manors of the Old World had a common attribute- large, grassy buffers. What better way to see the enemy approaching from afar? Associated with the upper class and firmly ingrained in settlers’ land use ideology, grassy lawns became ubiquitous here, for better or worse.
Acknowledging that land clearing must be done in order to build homes and businesses, it can be argued that this practice goes too far when it prescribes vast amounts of lawn. It seems we are beyond the days when lawns had utility in spotting advancing rival armies, after all. Perhaps lawns should be examined under the lens of more pressing issues of our modern era, like climate change.
(At right: This 1/5 acre of lawn separating two properties would make a great spot to plant native trees and shrubs.)
Conversion of forests to lawns always results in a net loss of carbon-capturing capacity, biodiversity, and habitat for animals. As if this weren’t bad enough, maintaining lawns increases air and water pollution by burning fuels (i.e. mowing) and using inordinate quantities of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides to maintain them. Lawns also increase runoff and contribute to erosion and sedimentation of streams. Put simply, lawns are an ecological “Pandora’s box” that require further environmental degradation for their upkeep.
Estimates of “unnecessary” lawn acreage (those lawns not used for sports and other play) exceed tens of millions for east coast US states, alone. Imagine the impact if we all committed to replanting native trees in some of these areas! Not only would we harm the environment less, but this could also help mitigate many environmental issues. Ancillary benefits would include more wildlife habitat, more shade, less noise, and better human mental health.
Planting small ornamental trees — like this native eastern redbud — along your property line is beneficial and does not substantially decrease usable open space.
Perhaps an area of lawn is not conducive for replanting trees due to regulations or other concerns. No matter! There are hundreds of options for planting native shrubs, perennials, wildflower mixes, and low (or no) maintenance grasses and groundcovers. Native perennials and wildflowers also aid vital pollinators like butterflies and bees. Even planting a vegetable garden would be a better option than a lawn. Un-mowed areas also accumulate more soil carbon (helping with climate change) while increasing water infiltration and thereby decreasing runoff.
(At right: After the new Tiadaghton State Forest Resource Management Center was built, a native perennial and wildflower mix was used, establishing an eco-friendly habitat without diminishing the view.)
If you own land with a lawn component, you have the power to help mitigate many environmental problems. Consider starting small and adding on year by year. Before too long, you’ll have a native plant oasis that seamlessly ties in with the native ecosystem. Be sure to check out native plant and tree options by looking here, and this spring, let us all take a pass on grass!
About the Author
Ryan Reed is an Environmental Education Specialist in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry. He possesses degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries Science and Wildlife Technology, while currently pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Pollution Control. He has also worked for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and taught high school sciences for 11 years. He is especially interested in biodiversity and ecology. A lifelong hunting and fishing enthusiast, Ryan resides in Harrisburg, PA. This article was originally published in the Bureau of Forestry’s “Forest Fridays” e-newsletter.
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