The perfectly manicured lush green lawn has become as much an aspiration for American suburbia as the white picket fence. According to landscape professionals, though, that aspiration is not only aesthetically tired, it can be bad for the environment.
“Lawns are not bad,” Jennifer Cummings, owner of Full Circle Landscaping in Yarmouth, said. “It’s the over-fertilization of lawns that [is] not good, and our aesthetic that we’ve come to that all of our lawns need to look like putting greens. That’s not a healthy lawn.”
Naturalizing your lawn by skipping the pesticides and herbicides and instead letting plants like clover, dandelion and ground flower throughout the season will create opportunities for pollinators all season long. These lawns also require less maintenance and fewer resource inputs like fertilizer.
“There are these lawn guys when they find a leaf of a clover plant in their lawn, they buy the chemicals,” Thomas Berger, owner and operator of Green Art in Kittery, said. “That is totally irresponsible. We shouldn’t aim for these picture book lawns that the chemical industry put in the fliers.”
How to naturalize your lawn
The first step is to choose a mix of seeds for your lawn that will thrive.
“Don’t try to grow something that doesn’t want to be there,” Cummings said. “You’ll be watering it forever and ever and ever if you’re planting an entire Kentucky bluegrass lawn.”
A lawn with a mix of seeds rather than a monoculture of one kind of seed will be more resilient, as well as a more hospitable place for all different kinds of wildlife.
“The diversification of the lawn is really important,” Kristen Brown, crew supervisor at Full Circle Landscaping in Yarmouth, said. “Weeds are a social construct. [You should have] clover and dandelions and violet and everything flourishing out there. Having that diversification out there is really key.”
Besides, plants like white clover, Cummings said, will naturally nourish your land while attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinators — even when you mow over them.
“Clover is a nitrogen fixer,” Cummings said. “The roots of the clover store nitrogen, so it’s its own fertilizer. When you cut it, the nitrogen is released.”
While you’re at it, Brown said, stop watering your lawn, even during droughts.
“Grass is extremely resilient,” Brown said. “It’s really unsustainable to be using our clean water sources to be growing grass. For our home lawns, unless you’re growing new grass seed, I think it’s best to put the sprinkler away.”
Taking lawn naturalization further
If you want to take the rewilding of your lawn one step further, consider making part of your lawn a meadow.
“Let part of it grow up, see what comes naturally [and then] we might plant things like lupines [and] black eyed susans to help it to become more of a meadowed look,” she explained. “Introduce a few native flowering perennials. Eventually, what likes it there will multiply.”
If you do want this feature in your landscape, though, make sure you do your research or hire the appropriate experts to make sure it is not executed haphazardly.
“You can’t just toss out some wildflower seeds into the lawn and have a meadow,” Brown said. “A lot of it is doing the prepwork in terms of removing some of the grass and things that can strangle out other plants and creating space. That’s where some of these experts come in in terms of getting them established.”
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to not fight what is already going on around your property. This will not only be more sustainable, but it will require less maintenance.
If you are willing to make a big change to your landscape, you might consider opting for a yard that is more in-line with your local ecosystems. For example, Ted Carter, owner of Ted Carter Inspired Landscapes in Buxton, has installed dune systems on coastal properties in lieu of lawns.
“I’m not a big lawn person — they bore the hell out of me,” Carter said. “Instead of working against nature and imposing our will on nature with a monoculture, which is what a lawn is, we use a polyculture approach [and] lots of different native indigenous plants.”
Working with your local ecosystem instead of fighting it will also reduce the amount of water and energy that you use on your property.
“There’s no inputs — no mowing, no inputs of fertilizers — [because] you’re basically giving it back to nature,” Carter said.
Cummings emphasized, though, that naturalized lawns do not have to be unkempt.
“What we’re talking about changing in your yard doesn’t mean you have to live in a jungle,” Cummings said. “It still can look neat and tended. Just a few small shifts can make a big difference.”