Unsolicited Advice, pt IV: Kill Your Lawn Before It Kills You

OK, so obviously everyone who has ever had a yard or garden before has probably gotten the message: your lawn is trying to kill you. Well, not you specifically. But our cultural obsession with immaculate green grass wastes water; makes life harder for bees, especially native bees; and requires a bizarre ritual whereby we water and fertilize the lawn to make it grow, then expend our energy and leisure time to trim it back, then water and fertilize it again to make it grow. (And, in some cases, collect the grass clippings in plastic bags and put them into our cities’ landfills. WHAT.) Also, lots of people use very harsh pesticides and herbicides on their lawn that are leaching all kinds of chemicals into the ground.

“[O]ne of the best ways to do something about conservation and climate change is to change how you take care of your own land.”
Ecological Gardening: The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer

So I won’t beleaguer the point about how lawns = bad. But what to do instead of a lawn?

  • Replace part of your grass with: flower beds, vegetable gardens, perennials, rocks or mulch. Native plants, in particular, tend to be well-adapted to the climate and the amount of rainfall they will receive, and will be a good habitat for insects.


I replaced half my front yard with mulch and stones, with a native plant bed we pretentiously call the “urban alpine meadow” in the middle. Also visible in the foreground: quack grass windbreak.

  • Allow other plant species to grow in your lawn. Clover has become a common choice for lawns, often sown on top of an existing lawn. It is a great choice because it fixes nitrogen, making the soil more fertile for other surrounding plants. My lawn is full of strawberries along the edges, which have pretty white flowers, berries for the birds), and will bounce back from a mowing.
  • If there’s a part of your yard that doesn’t get walked on much, plant it with creeping groundcover plants that won’t need to be watered as often, or at all. In Edmonton, sempervivums (hen and chicks), creeping jenny, and wooly thyme will all do well in the sun. (Be careful of creeping jenny. It’s a pretty plant, but it needs to be grown in an area where it’s contained – by a sidewalk, for example – because it will spread. You can use edging to prevent it from spreading, since it spreads by sending out runners along the ground.) In a shady area, hostas, wild ginger, snow on the mountain and lamium are all good choices.

And even without making these substantial changes, you could still:

  • Leave the clippings on the lawn when you mow.
  • Leave the leaves (or some of them) on the ground in the fall, but run over them with the mower to chop them into pieces that can break down more easily. (If I’m not supposed to LEAVE them, then why are they called LEAVES?)
  • Hand-weed instead of using a herbicide — a small change that might take a bit more time but will reduce your chemical impact.
  • When you do water your lawn, do it efficiently. Even if you do have your heart set on a grass lawn, you can still take steps to reduce your water usage. See the CMHC – Water-Saving Tips for Your Lawn and Garden

Changes you make don’t have to be huge. One little area with native plants will provide a habitat for insects and birds, especially if there’s a little pond (or a place for water to puddle) there. (You can find a good list of Edmonton native plants from the Edmonton Naturalization Group).

IMG_1188Replacing part of your lawn with fruit shrubs will require very little work from you (probably less work than caring for a lawn!) and will produce food you can eat. Making a patio area with stone or mulch (or both) could make a difference, especially if you put it in an area that always requires extra effort from you to keep grass healthy – because it’s in the bright sun and it dries out, because it always gets weedy, or whatever.

<< I replaced part of my lawn with this area: more stone and mulch, clay tiles planted with succulents, and a fruit area, with raspberries, honeyberries and a cherry tree. This was also a perfect spot to cover up, because it had the most dandelions of anywhere in our yard. Don't mind the giant piles of debris.

We also have a push reel mower, which makes mowing the grass a pretty good workout and motivates us to reduce the amount of lawn we have. (Using our laziness to ecological advantage!) Since buying our house, we’ve probably reduced the amount of “lawn” (really quack grass and other weeds thanks to the home’s previous owner) by two-thirds, and we’re not quite done.

More info:

lawngoneLawn Gone!: Low Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard – Pam Penick*
[amazon | library]
The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-less, Grow-more Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden – Ivette Soler
[amazon | library]

Ferris Jabr – Outgrowing the Traditional Grass Lawn (Scientific American)
City of Edmonton – Greening up your yard

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