Every year Americans spend countless hours, at least $30 billion, and millions of gallons of gasoline maintaining the dream of a well-kept lawn. In addition, an estimated 70 million pounds of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides are applied around people’s homes and gardens.
The British aristocracy of the 1860s and ’70s first introduced the idea of the weed-free lawn in an attempt to show affluence. Homeowners were encouraged to display their wealth by keeping pristine grass lawns instead of using the space to grow food. Before this trend took over, people actually pulled grass out of their lawns to make room for weeds, which were often incorporated into family salads and herbal teas.
It has been estimated that 30 to 60 percent of our nation’s urban water supply goes to water lawns. Yard waste is estimated to comprise at least one-fifth of our country’s overcrowded landfills. And running a power mower for just a half hour can produce as much smog as driving a car for 172 miles, according the California Air Resources Board.
Furthermore, studies show the pesticides we use to kill weeds are also bad for humans. A 1987 grant from the National Cancer Institute revealed that children were six times more likely to develop leukemia in households that used lawn pesticides. A 1991 report by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute revealed that dogs exposed to the lawn herbicide 2,4-D more than four times yearly were at risk of developing canine malignant lymphoma. When sprayed, chemicals can drift to other neighbors, kill birds (who eat insects), and endanger precious water supplies. They also affect honeybees that pollinate 90 percent of our fruits and vegetables.
What would happen if you stopped watering, fertilizing, spraying, and mowing your lawn? You would certainly have more free time. The grass would grow a bit higher or lower depending on weather conditions. And then the wild things, which are naturally hardy and require no special care, would grow. For two and a half years in the 1970s, I lived in The Ozarks in a tepee, totally subsisting on all the wild edible fruits, roots, leaves, and berries that were provided in the untamed wild. All without watering, fertilizing or spraying. It was a very healthy time.
We do not need to fear wild plants. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Dandelions look like rays of sunshine and have edible leaves and roots. The dreaded Lambs Quarter is really wild spinach and is far more nutritious than its cultivated cousin. Malva and violet leaves are refreshing additions to the salad bowl. Even the prickly thistle can be dug up, its roots consumed, as Lewis and Clark once did while traveling. Purslane is one of the richest sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
We should focus more on our education of “weeds” and less on eradication. The average American can recognize more than a thousand logos and corresponding products and yet can identify fewer than five plants in their area.
A Few Ideas On Environmental Lawns:
1. Compost. Use organic fertilizers such as manure, rock dust, and wood ash. Do a soil test and find out what your land requires.
2. Choose plants that tolerate dry conditions.
3. Learn to use wild plants that grow easily and might even provide salad fare or herbal teas. Consider that these plants do well in the shade:
• Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
• Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
• Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
• Chickweed (Stellaria media)
• Dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla species)
• Clover (Trifolium pratense or T. repens)
• English daisies (Bellis perennis)
• Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
• Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
• Penstemon (Penstemon species)
• Pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides)
• Plantain (Plantago major)
• Pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta)
• Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)
• Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetelosa)
• Strawberries (Fragaria species)
• Thyme (creeping, lemon, and wooly) (Thymus species)
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
• Periwinkle (Vinca species)
• Speedwell (Veronica officinalis),
• Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
• Violet (Viola odorata)
4. Mulch around plants, using grass clippings, shredded hardwood, dry leaves, or wood chips to retain moisture.
5. Group together plants that require similar amounts of water. Use a drip system or soaker hose to get to the roots, rather than sprinkling. Watering during the heat of the day is wasteful, as the water quickly evaporates.
6. Collect water from washing vegetables. Recycle rainwater. An ancient Hindu proverb says, “If you have water to throw away, throw it on a plant.”
7. Don’t water, don’t fertilize, and in many cases you won’t need to mow. Let the wild things grow and learn to use them. Learn to eat dandelion, malva, purslane, and violet.
8. If you do mow, keep the mower’s height around three inches, or the highest setting. Have sharp blades. The taller the lawn, the more drought resistant it will be. Tall grass shades the soil and helps keep it moist.
9. Use a non-gasoline push mower for less noise and pollution. Leave clippings on the ground as mulch and fertilizer.
10. Use an organic landscape service. Find out what products they are using and tell them you want to look at the labels.
11. Boycott businesses that use lawn pesticides. Write them a letter and tell them why you are no longer giving them your business.
12. Those who live in condominiums and apartments can organize the neighborhood to create edible landscaping and community gardens. Let the maintenance managers know you would rather have a few weeds than be subjected to sprays.
A healthier environment begins with you. Our parks, schools, and businesses need to set a better example and not buy into the harmful hype about chemical lawns. Make all your actions conscious of conserving, nurturing, and honoring the earth. Resist conformity and allow your ecological lawn to flourish and flower, celebrating life and diversity!