Rethinking Lawns

Useless turf_ColoSpgs-CO_LAH_8420Lawns—it seems we either love them or hate them. I was surprised when an informal survey of around 100 Colorado Master Gardeners revealed that only two people (2%) were very interested in growing lawns. Yet, half of the callers to the master gardener help desk ask for advice on growing turf grass. Clearly there’s a major disconnect here! Why are lawns so popular among the general public, yet loathed by many avid gardeners?

I unhesitatingly admit that a lovely lawn sets off the rest of the landscape. Flower beds, shrubbery, and other garden beds often look their best when they’re bordered by grass.

LakewoldGardens-WA_PLH_5862Moreover, I think that there is something in the American mentality that equates a perfect, green and smooth swath of turf with wealth and status. Perhaps it’s a carry-over from the estates of Great Britain and their perfectly manicured lawn. Before the advent of power mowers and commercial fertilizers, only the upper class could afford to hire the gardeners necessary to maintain such a carpet.

Today, that mentality is expressed in HOA rules that require a certain percentage of one’s property to be planted in turf. Here in Colorado, they often go one step further and insist that grass be Kentucky Bluegrass. While bluegrass is one appropriate choice for our climate and soils (but not the only option), the whole idea of growing a lawn needs to be reconsidered.

Pesticide warning flag_ColoSpgs-CO_LAH_8430Lawns make perfect sense in the parts of the country that get plenty of rainfall during the growing season. I’ve driven through places like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Vermont and marveled at the acres of green, with huge shade trees, island flower beds, and perhaps a small pond. If those homeowners are willing to spend all that time mowing, fertilizing, aerating, poisoning, and (at least during periods of drought) watering, that’s their privilege.

Useless turf_ColoSpgs-CO_LAH_8415The problem comes when we try to transport those huge lawns to the arid west. Kentucky Bluegrass can require up to 2.5 inches of water per week, while Colorado Springs receives on average 15 to 16 inches per year, and not all during the growing season. It’s easy to see why our lawns require substantial irrigation. Is this a wise use of a limited resource?

Useless turf_ColoSpgs-CO_LAH_8418Some more radical gardeners have gone so far as to insist that lawns have no place in western gardens. I disagree. There’s no substitute for turf when it comes to romping dogs, tumbling children, picnicking families or putting golfers. What frustrates me is when developers install mile after mile of grass alongside roadways, in shopping centers, or around office buildings (as these photos illustrate). No one is likely to actually walk on this grass, much less play on it. (That’s a good thing, as the warning flag indicates.) Yet we lavish precious water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels on its upkeep.

American Robin_20100426_Pueblo_LAH_3953Lawns aren’t even good for wildlife. As monocultures, they lack the diversity that offers food and shelter for birds and other animals. Deer may graze on it, and robins seek worms, but few animals call a lawn home. (And when they do, we quickly evict them!)

@PawneeGrasslands 12may07 LAH 734Compare that to a meadow containing a mixture of grasses and perennial and annual flowers. Our native short-grass prairies were once full of life, from nesting birds to grazing bison, until we replaced them with sod. Maybe it’s time to reverse the trend.

Lawns have their place, but it’s a much smaller place than we currently allow. When designing a new landscape, consider why you want to grow grass, and limit the size of your lawn accordingly. For the rest of your yard, consider planting groundcovers (especially those with berries) perennial gardens, or a native short-grass prairie. A good layer of mulch will help defeat the weeds.

If you are going to grow turfgrass, be sure to do it correctly. Most people add far too much fertilizer and water, then wonder why they have to mow so often and why their water bills are so high. For excellent advice on growing a lawn in Colorado, check out Colorado State University’s fact sheets on lawn care. CSU’s Turf Program offers homeowners advice that is practical, easy to follow, and pretty much guarantees success.

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