Lawns are good, but not all lawns

05/08/2014 6:00 PM

05/08/2014 6:01 PM

In many areas of the United States, some planners, developers and homeowner associations are saying, “Lawns really don’t work here. Grasses can’t survive. They’re just too demanding on resources and will fail.”

One much-discussed alternative, especially in the drought-ravaged Southwest, is replacing lawns with gravel, rocks, cacti and other plants that don’t require a lot of water. While appropriate in some situations, this solution seems unnecessarily extreme.

Lawns are a well-established and accepted tradition of suburban life. And there is no doubt that the hard facts about lawns are disturbing.

For example, lawns drink more water than we do — up to 60 percent of drinkable city water is used to irrigate lawns.

We put 580 million gallons of gasoline into our lawnmowers annually. We spend $700 million on pesticides and $5.25 billion on fertilizers every year, exposing ourselves, our families and the environment to a range of potentially toxic products.

We do all of this just to keep a needy landscape on life support.

Given these facts, you may be surprised to hear that, as an ecologist, I propose the lawn isn’t the problem.

We can easily demonize lawns as an environmental burden, but there can be potential environmental and social benefits of the lawn.

Abandoning turf altogether belies one major misunderstanding. Our American lawns are usually a single species of grass, depending on region, imported from Europe, Africa or Asia.

Kentucky bluegrass hails from Eurasia. Bermuda grass originates from Africa. St. Augustine from pan-tropics. Although often successful, here in America these may be the wrong plants in the wrong place.

In the gardener’s dictionary, that’s a weed.

But we love lawns, and we can fix them by using an ecological approach.

At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, we have experimented with several local native turf species and discovered a grass mix that does brilliantly in the warmer, dryer climates of the Southwest.

This ecologically designed lawn not only removes the necessity for heavy-handed mechanical and chemical maintenance of the industrial lawn, but also provides habitat for butterflies and other insects, and given its infrequent mowing requirement, can be a net carbon dioxide sink.

It saves money, water, provides ecological benefits and doesn’t pollute. These are claims that the average industrial lawn cannot provide.

Such an ecological lawn is also resilient: If the rains stop or the irrigation restrictions mean no supplemental water, the grasses go drought-dormant only to green up as the rains return.

I’m confident that we can develop a native lawn for pretty much anywhere in this country. By mimicking and using nature, we can transform yards, roadsides, parks and campuses into diverse, robust ecosystems.

A better American lawn of American grass species would save us money, water and gas and help a little with some environmental clean-up. And we get to keep that part of our landscape that is so expected and enjoyable.

Mark Simmons is director of research and consulting in the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin.

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