Dawn of a New Lawn
There are plenty of things to do
By Andy Wasowski
What if your car needed an oil change every month, a tune-up every 500 miles, and the front end realigned every two weeks? You'd call it a lemon and get rid of it--fast. Now, what if your home landscape required watering two or three times a week throughout the growing season; mowing once or twice a week; periodic edging and pruning; lots of weeding, raking, and bagging; and ongoing applications of herbicides, pesticides, and artificial fertilizers? You'd have to admit it was a lot of work. You might call it a lemon, too.
The fact is, most U.S. homeowners have "lemon" landscapes. Drive through a typical neighborhood, anywhere in the country, and you're apt to see a crew-cut lawn, crisply pruned box hedges in front of the house, and perhaps a row or two of annual bedding plants (impatiens and begonias seem to be big these days) flanking the sidewalk or driveway. This is the American yard; it's on artificial life support, and it couldn't survive on its own.
But high maintenance is just one disadvantage of the typical residential landscape. "The best reason for planting natives is because they're losing so much ground," says Janet Marinelli, director of publishing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the author of Stalking the Wild Amaranth: Gardening in the Age of Extinction. "As wilderness shrinks and backyard acreage increases, we all have an increasingly important role to play in preventing extinctions and promoting biodiversity in our own yards."
Lorrie Otto, considered by many to be the matriarch of the natural landscaping movement in America, describes lawn culture more emphatically: "Maintaining a lawn is one of the most evil practices of the upper and middle classes. It is flagrantly wasteful of drinking water and nonrenewable resources, irresponsibly destructive of our native plant and animal species, and dependent on the defiant and dishonest use of chemicals, which are far more threatening to human health than any weed pollen."
One of the chief problems with conventional yards is that they just aren't very hospitable to wildlife. Lawns routinely driven over by ride-on mowers and treated with chemicals--we apply more than 67 million pounds of the stuff on our residential lawns and gardens annually--reduce the number of earthworms, insects, and microorganisms that serve as food for these animals and compact our soils to the density of concrete. Increasingly, this is what migrating birds and butterflies encounter when they return to hereditary feeding and breeding sites. Moreover, when native animals confront a landscape full of exotic plants, they often react like toddlers faced with pureed carrots. Native plants, on the other hand, attract and nourish native birds, butterflies, and insects.
Water use is another problem with conventional lawns. On average, U.S. homeowners pour 40 to 60 percent of their household water on their yards; in some southwestern cities, that can rise dramatically in the summer. Ironically, these desert communities, which get a mere 4 to 12 inches of rainfall a year, are also where you find some of the lushest lawns in the country. Drive through El Paso, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Palm Springs, and you'll see sprinklers going full blast at high noon--with much of the water running off into the streets. On the other hand, a landscape of native plants, adapted to the local growing environment, doesn't require this profligate use of water.
How did we get ourselves into this mess? start with our colonial ancestors. When Europeans arrived on North American shores, they found themselves surrounded by a wealth of beautiful native plants--many of which had been around since before the last ice age. During that time, these indigenous plants had become perfectly adapted to their region's soils, temperatures, and annual rainfall, and had developed effective defenses against both predators and disease.
But when these pioneers began to garden for pleasure--for aesthetic reasons and not just to put food on the table--they opted for what they were most familiar with: the plants they'd known back home. So they imported seeds and saplings by the shipload, filling their gardens with cedar of Lebanon, English boxwood, hollyhocks, carnations, and sweet peas. Trouble was, summers in the colonies were hotter and drier than they had been at home, so the notion that gardens had to have regular watering became firmly fixed.
Later, when our itchy-footed forebears headed west, they repeated the process, rejecting native vegetation for familiar hybridized cultivars. Little thought, if any, was given to the fact that New Mexico didn't have a lot in common--botanically speaking--with New England.
The rejection of native flora became institutionalized at the end of the 19th century, when various "experts" decreed what the ideal home landscape should look like. In 1870 landscape architect Frank J. Scott, in The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, decided that "a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house."
Conformity was also deemed essential. If your neighbors had a trim lawn and well-pruned shrubs, then by golly you had to have the same. In Gardening for Pleasure, published in 1875, Peter Henderson made it clear what he thought of nonconformists: "It is gratifying to know that such neighbors are not numerous, for the example of the majority will soon shame them into decency." Scott's "closely shaven surface of grass" was suddenly not merely an aesthetic consideration, it had become a moral one as well. And to a large extent it remains so today.
If your yard was based on this ideal--and chances are it was--you have two choices: You can continue to live with it, or you can convert that high-maintenance, wildlife-unfriendly, water-guzzling landscape into one that is largely or entirely composed of plants native to your part of the country (see "Taking the Plunge," below). Remember, though, that your backyard transformation will take a lot of time, work, and money, and that you shouldn't feel as if you need to pull it off in one fell swoop.
But think about it: Instead of a boring expanse of turf, imagine a landscape of colorful seasonal wildflowers and regional ornamental grasses appropriate to your location, such as bushy bluestem in the Southeast, bottlebrush grass in the Northeast, sweetgrass in the Midwest, or Arizona cottontop in the Southwest. Or how about any of a range of indigenous groundcovers, such as wild ginger, coyote brush, horseherb, or white avens. There are literally thousands of native plants that are at home in a residential landscape.
If you don't want to eliminate your lawn altogether, consider replacing part of it with a mix of non-lawn plants. If you definitely want a lawn of some kind, there are native options. Probably the best known of these is buffalograss, which is indigenous to our prairie states and noted for its slow growth rate (making mowing a sometimes event) and drought-tolerance. Today buffalograss varieties such as Prairie, 609, Top Gun, and Stampede are commonly sold in nurseries as sod or seed. If you live where buffalograss is not an option, there may be other native grasses that can be mowed enough to make a lawn or path. But be forewarned: Getting them established will require a lot of time and effort, and it's essential to choose a variety suited to your area and growing conditions. Some possibilities are listed here, from moisture-tolerant to drought-tolerant: western wheatgrass, Scribner's panicum, sideoats grama, blue grama, hairy grama, and Wilcox panicum.
You might be skeptical of all this talk about low maintenance. But consider this: Native plants survived nicely for millennia--long before there were garden centers and irrigation systems and radio gardening experts. The fact is, once your native landscape is established, it can reduce the time you spend on upkeep from hours per week to hours per year.
And forget about toxic chemicals. A healthy native landscape attracts predator insects the way rock concerts attract teenagers. Predators--lacewings, ladybugs, praying mantises, and so on--do an impressive job of managing garden pests, which, says Michael Merchant, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, constitute a mere 1 percent of all the species found in the insect world. When we spray pesticides we kill many of those beneficial insects, and we also reduce vital protein sources for birds. Mother Nature has one other trick for keeping her flora healthy: diversity. In a diverse landscape, disease will likely affect only a small percentage of your plants. Diseases have much greater impact on landscapes of one or two species.
But best of all, your native landscape will reflect your region's unique beauty and character. Unlike those lawn-centered landscapes that have been cloned from coast to coast, a native garden in southern California looks like a southern California garden, and not like one in New Jersey or Wisconsin.
Andy Wasowski is a New Mexico writer and photographer. He and his wife, Sally, have written nine books, including The Landscaping Revolution.