Gardening

We're Rethinking Our Lawn Design (& You Should, Too)

And our entire backyards, for that matter.

May 13, 2022
Photo by James Ransom

If bright yellow dandelions and purple clover are popping up on lawns that usually look like carpet, or it’s eerily quiet on your street on a Saturday afternoon when you would otherwise hear the humming of lawn mowers, there's a chance that your neighbors are participating in the No-Mow May campaign.

The idea behind it is this: In May when native pollinators like bees and butterflies wake up after the winter, they need a major calorie boost to get them started for the season ahead. When faced with manicured lawns with no blooming plants in sight, our pollinator friends are starved for a meal. By not mowing for a month, you create a habitat—and place to forage—for bees and other early-season pollinators.

Not mowing for one month in the spring is a step forward in protecting our food chain and biodiversity, but pollinators need more than a meal in May—they need food during summer and fall, too. Lawns are also the single-largest irrigated crop grown in the United States and require exorbitant amounts of water to maintain, so perhaps what we really need to do is rethink our lawns for the entire year.

That’s where Doug Tallamy comes in. Tallamy is a Professor of Agriculture in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, has authored books on the importance of going native in your yard, and is the founder of the Homegrown National Park (HPN), the largest cooperative conservation project that's ever been undertaken in the U.S. HNP is a grassroots call to action to restore biodiversity and ecosystems by planting natives, with the goal of creating 20 million acres of native plantings in the United States—the equivalent of half the area taken up by mowed home lawns.

Here's why Tallamy believes we need to rethink our lawns, and what the alternatives are.

The Downsides of a Well-Kept Lawn

A picture-perfect lawn might be visually pleasing, but it provides no benefit for wildlife. Tallamy puts it bluntly: “Lawns, with all the chemicals that go into them, have the worst environmental record. A lawn, especially one without clover, also does not support any pollinators. From an ecological and biodiversity perspective, a lawn is a total wasteland.”

Chemical-heavy lawns can be harmful to humans, too. Kids and pets rolling around and playing in grass can be directly exposed to the insecticides and pesticides that have been applied to the grass. Mowing also creates noise and air pollution—all the gas-powered lawn mowers together make up 5 percent of total air pollution in the U.S., according to the EPA.

In 2021, Nevada became the first U.S. state to ban certain kinds of water-hogging decorative grasses, leading to lawns being dug up and replaced with native succulents, mulch, and crushed stone. And states like California and Florida—no strangers to drought—are restricting how frequently you can water your lawn.

Reduce Your Lawn Size

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have any lawn at all. Instead, think about how much lawn area you really need, and for what purpose. If 40 percent of your yard offers spaces for chilling out and playing, then you’re left with 60 percent that you can replace with a natural habitat. This approach can be applied no matter how large or small your yard is.

While a lawn may look neat, it looks the same all season long. When you replace it with other plants, you create a kaleidoscope of seasonal interest, ranging from ephemeral spring flowers to sturdy, vibrant asters in the fall.

Create More Shade or an Edible Landscape

A large lawn left to bake in the merciless sun starts to look sad pretty quickly during dry spells. Instead, get rid of part of your lawn and plant a tree to create more shade in your yard, then fill the area below with groundcover—but make sure to select native ones. Similar to our obsession with lawns, there is also the widespread conviction that “imported species are what makes an attractive, valuable landscape,” says Tallamy. “Our ecosystems, however, are built on a foundation of native plants.”

You don’t have to stick with planting native ornamentals, such as red oaks, either. Native edibles such as highbush blueberry, blackberries, pawpaw trees, and American persimmon trees make great additions to the landscape. The native plant societies in each state are an excellent resource to find out which plants are native to your area.

Replace Your Lawn With a Mini Meadow

If you prefer something more low-growing than trees and shrubs, or a more uniform look, the closest to a lawn is a prairie-style meadow with native grasses and sedges, or a mix of perennial wildflowers and native grasses. Each region has its own native grasses that are perfectly adapted to your local climate and less affected by drought and other environmental conditions. Look for seed companies specializing in native grasses. Again, size doesn’t really matter—you can have a mini meadow even in a small backyard.

As with a traditional lawn, it takes time for a meadow to establish itself, but the grasses don’t need to be mowed regularly like a lawn. In fact, a meadow only needs mowing once a year, if at all—in the spring, it will regrow on its own. Many grasses have eye-catching seed heads and some are even fragrant, such as the prairie dropseed, which smells like cilantro. And in the fall, many of them have a striking color palette, such as the tufted hairgrass that turns golden late in the season.

City Folks Can Take Action, Too

What about city folks who don’t have a yard but are still itching to contribute? Does it make sense to grow natives in containers in an urban environment, or is that more of a symbolic contribution to the movement? “Sure,” he says, “If you put Joe-Pye weed in a planter, butterflies will come. And potted milkweed or fall asters will attract native bees. So you can turn things around in your own little ecosystem—an individual can make a difference.”

What About Invasive Weeds?

The question that inevitably comes up when replacing a lawn is: What can be done about non-native, invasive weeds? It seems impossible to create a lasting native habitat such as a meadow in your backyard without constantly battling invasive plants such as tree of heaven, oriental bittersweet, autumn olive, kudzu, and garlic mustard, to name just a few. Is it possible to eradicate them without using a broad-spectrum herbicide? “It’s the lesser of two evils,” says Tallamy. “The harmful effect of herbicides is not comparable to the harm that invasive plants cause. However, instead of spraying, I use the cut-and-paint method, in which you apply the herbicide on the cut stem of a woody plant or perennial. It’s a more targeted use.”

Plant the Species, Not the Bred Cultivar

When you set out to replace your lawn and refill it with native plants and meadows, does it matter what type you plant—the straight species or a cultivar? Tallamy’s response is unequivocal. “Unfortunately, cultivars that have been bred as a novelty have absolutely zero food value for pollinators; they are just ornamental. So, there is no point in planting cultivars whose genetic makeup has been changed in a way that makes them unpalatable to native insects—and ornamentals without any value for insects is like a house built of wallpaper instead of walls.”

Have you cut down on mowing, or reconsidered your lawn? What have you planted instead?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Writer, editor, and translator

2 Comments

M May 13, 2022
Excellent piece that makes me wish I had a lawn to rethink! I'd be interested in a follow up of images that show this approach put to use.

Another perk of a smaller, more use-focused grass area: you can use an old-school rotary lawn mower easily and avoid the sound and gas. They're fun.
 
Smaug May 13, 2022
I rechristened my lawn areas as vernal meadows a while back- lawns have become pretty much out of the question in California, so I decided on an experiment with letting the species that survived without watering go to seed. Mixed results so far, the species I really wanted seems quite reluctant to make seeds, but away we go.
There are some downsides to this- the long grass can protect rodents, a real problem if you're near open spaces, and walking across when grasses are seeding can be unpleasant. So far as I know, grasses are wind pollinated- a lot of bugs find something to interest them there, but the usual bees and such don't seem interested. I can't replace the lawns- gophers coming in from all around my perimeter make new plantings very difficult, but I grow a lot of plants in containers that are slowly taking over the space.
This thing about "native" plants needs some thinking; Native plantings out west have been a thing for some time, and I was doing a lot of it before it became really popular, but what is a native? California has habitats from alpine to high desert, with near infinite stops between; plants don't really care about political boundaries, so what to consider "native" isn't at all clear cut. Native plants in my immediate area are pretty much scrub oaks and some very vigorous grasses, along with some very invasive weed species, some of them imports-not ideal for making a garden. Plants from other California zones mostly are adapted to summer drought- as are plants from similar climates around the world- but their needs are otherwise quite diverse, and they scarce qualify as native to this area.