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May 26, 2020

A KIB Friendly Lawn

By: Jeremy Kranowitz

A friend of KIB recently asked me to weigh in on “natural” lawn services and offer an opinion on whether this was a preferable option to traditional lawn care companies. While I had my own thoughts, I also checked in with the very knowledgeable Native Landscapes team, who spend their days creating vibrant green spaces around the city, pulling out invasive species and replacing them with beautiful native plants. They responded immediately with strong opinions, which I will share in a moment.

What’s the Issue?

Americans love their green lawns of turf grass—in fact, there are 40 million acres of lawn in the United States, almost twice the size of the entire state of Indiana. You may be surprised to learn that many common grass species, including “Kentucky bluegrass,” are actually native to Europe and North Asia—it was brought to the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s as European colonies were established. 

For grass to thrive, we spend lots of energy, money, and time to keep these lawns looking their best. We apply millions of tons of pesticides on our lawns every year to eliminate dandelions and clover, and dozens of other “weeds” (i.e., plants that aren’t grass growing in our monoculture yards). We apply more nitrogen-based fertilizer than farmers use on their crops. And when the grass starts to grow tall, we use 600 million gallons of gas to mow it all. And that doesn’t include the mental anguish of parents trying to get their teenage children to go out and mow the lawn!

What about “natural” lawn care?

There are a number of companies professing to use less harmful chemicals, including high-iron fertilizer, and fatty oils and corn meal gluten to inhibit weeds. Regardless of the type of fertilizer, they all contain nitrogen, and only some of the fertilizer is absorbed by our lawns—the rest washes down the drain, to our waterways, where it pollutes our rivers and lakes. The algal blooms seen in the Great Lakes and down in the Gulf of Mexico result from fertilizer runoff. The problem with “organic” herbicides is that they may be less effective than chemical-based treatments, requiring even more application per acre, negating any benefit.

Most importantly, we need to talk about what constitutes a “weed.” As I noted earlier, weeds are simply plants that are growing where we don’t want them. Clearly, for KIB, an invasive species like Asian honeysuckle is ALWAYS considered a weed because it spreads rampantly and it crowds out native plants along waterways, and in forests and yards. On the other hand, dandelions are often thought of as weeds, but are wonderful for bees and other pollinators. Plus, they’re edible and nutritious if you want to put them in a spring salad! Clover helps affix nitrogen to the soil, it’s drought tolerant, and is resistant to pests like grubs.

So what does KIB suggest?

Take it easy! If you have a lawn, that’s cool—most of us do, too. If you want some more nitrogen in your soil, try sowing some clover in there. If you have dandelions, let ‘em be (for the bees). And try mowing a little less often, too. The pollinators in your backyard will thank you, and your teenager will, too!

Categories: Habitat Restoration