A field of late season dandelions in front of Four Seasons Trail Association in Madawaska. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

Summers are already short enough in Maine. There are better ways to spend those precious outside hours other than cutting grass.

About 40 million acres in the United States are devoted to grass lawns. That means close to 2 percent of the country needs to be mowed, watered and fertilized regularly so this non-food producing plant can grow as the single largest irrigated crop in the country.

Those gas-powered lawn mowers add to the country’s air pollution and it’s estimated that 10 times the amount of pesticides and fertilizer are used per acre on lawns than on farmers’ crops.

Reducing or eliminating your lawn completely for a low-maintenance alternative not only helps the environment by cutting down on chemicals, it’s going to save you time and money and leave you with something every bit as appealing as all that manicured grass had been.

That does not mean you should go out and immediately rip up all the turf in your yard, according to Jesse Watson of Midcoast Permaculture Design.

“I advise people to think of their goals,” Watson said. “What are you trying to do with the space? Do you entertain? Do you have children or dogs? Do you host events?”

Any one of those uses may call for at least some of your yard left with some grass, Watson said.

If there’s a part of your yard you never need to use, try turning it into an ornamental grass display. Ornamental grasses like prairie dropseed, switchgrass, moor grass, blue grama and some of the virgatus can grow in Maine. Ornamentals are often drought tolerant, disease and pest resistant and thrive in many types of soil with little or no fertilizers. They are pretty to look at but walking on them can cause severe damage.

If you have shady areas, you can plant a moss bed. All you have to do is press small moss “plugs” — bits of moss with roots attached — into the ground several inches apart. Mosses tend to spread quickly and you can plant several different kinds together to create interesting patterns of varying colors and shapes.

Sowing wildflower seeds in your yard not only creates a colorful area, it helps insects and birds.

“The easiest thing to do instead of grass is letting your yard be an insect or pollinator habitat,” Watson said. “This is a thing people are fired up about now since the ‘insect apocalypse’ is on people’s minds.”

Shrinking habitats, use of toxic chemicals and climate change have all had detrimental effects on the insects and birds that pollinate flowering plants and vegetables on which humans depend.

Before planting or transplanting anything into your lawn, you should check with a local greenhouse or nursery to make sure you are not introducing an invasive species to the area.

You can also get some nice habitat by ignoring your lawn completely.

“It all comes down to aesthetics,” Watson said. “Aesthetics drive management, so if your eye wants an open expanse, it will require you mow it, but if you stop mowing, your lawn will go through ecological succession and will become a meadow and will become better habitat for insects and birds.”

Watson’s work is with permaculture, a design system that works with the natural patterns in nature. It uses the wild local ecosystem as a template on which all landscaping, gardening, farming or forestry decisions are made.

It can be as simple or as complicated as the individual wants, Watson said.

“You can design an edible forest garden kind of thing,” he said. “You would measure your spaces and design areas for trees, shrubs and the understory and this is quite involved.”

Or, you can go for what Watson terms the low-hanging fruit approach.

“Find some flowers that you like,” he said. “Maybe some lupine, something from the bean family, echinacea or black eyed Susans and spread those seeds or just let the dandelions do their thing.”

No matter what you choose, or how much to replace your grass, Watson likes to see people active in their environment.

“We are not about trying to pretend like humans should not exist in the landscape,” he said. “We should interact constantly with the landscape.”


Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.