Exploring Alternatives To Toxic Lawn Chemicals

Dear EarthTalk: I’m sick of having to maintain my lawn, and I’m sure that all the chemicals I’m using are no good for the environment. What alternatives can I explore that will save time and money while keeping the property looking nice?

—Sarah, Bethesda, MD

Grass lawns first appeared in Europe in medieval times, status symbols for the rich that had to be kept trimmed by fairly labor-intensive methods, often by grazing livestock and certainly not by polluting lawn mowers and poisonous weed killers. Lawns actually did not become popular in North America until the middle of the 20th century, but are now as common as the middle class suburban homes they surround.

Besides hogging public water supplies—over 50 percent of U.S. residential water usage goes to irrigating lawns—a 2002 Harris Survey found that American households spend $1,200 per year on residential lawn care. Indeed, the booming lawn care industry is more than eager to convince us that our grass can be greener—and then sell us all the synthetic fertilizers, toxic pesticides and leaky lawnmowers to make it so.

According to Eartheasy.com, which offers online insights on a host of environmental issues alongside books and green products for sale, there are many alternatives to a carpet of monochromatic grass for one”s property. They recommend groundcover plants and clover, which spread out and grow horizontally and require no cutting. Some varieties of groundcover are Alyssum, Bishops Weed and Juniper. Common clovers include Yellow Blossom, Red Clover and Dutch White, the best suited of the three for lawn use. Groundcover plants and clovers naturally fight weeds, act as mulch and add beneficial nitrogen to the soil.

Eartheasy also recommends flower and shrub beds, which can be “strategically located to add color and interest while expanding the low maintenance areas of your yard,” and planting ornamental grasses. Ornamental grasses, many which flower, have numerous benefits over conventional grasses, including low maintenance, little need for fertilizer, minimal pest and disease problems and resistance to drought.

According to David Beaulieu, About.com”s Guide to Landscaping, moss plants should also be considered, especially if your yard is shady: “Because they are low-growing and can form dense mats, moss plants can be considered an alternative ground cover for landscaping and planted as “shade gardens” in lieu of traditional lawns.” Moss plants do not possess true roots, he points out, instead deriving their nutrients and moisture from the air. As such they like wet surroundings and also soil with a pH that is acidic.

In all fairness, lawns do have a few plusses. They make great recreational spaces, prevent soil erosion, filter contaminants from rainwater and absorb many kinds of airborne pollutants. So you might still keep a short section of lawn, one that can be mowed with a few easy strokes. If you do, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends avoiding traditional synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. A number of all-natural alternatives are now widely available at nurseries. Natural lawn care advocates also advise mowing high and often so that grass can out-compete any nascent weeds. Also, leaving clippings where they land—so they can serve as natural mulch—also helps prevent weeds from getting a foothold.