As the summer heats up, many people haul out their sprinklers and lawnmowers, ready to spend the hot season in a Sisyphean struggle against browning and overgrown grass. The ideal of a perfectly manicured lawn has long defined American suburbia, and, to an extent, operates as a signal human control over the natural world. The obsession with this (subjective) curb-appeal comes with a high environmental pricetag, as well as a literal one. Manicured turf grass lawns require near-constant watering, and many homeowners use emission-spewing gas mowers, as well as pesticides for weed control. One might think that with all the effort put into their maintenance, lawns would offer tremendous benefits. Alas, they provide virtually no habitat for wildlife, no substance for pollinators, negligible carbon sequestration, and create runoff that harms the surrounding environment. With mounting concern about climate change, bee population decline, and water shortages, a growing number of ecologically-minded people are transforming at least parts of their lawn into a more sustainable landscape.
WHERE TO START
For those just starting out, focus on a few areas at a time. Create a curving, natural shape along borders/fences as your area to transform. After all, no one is saying it’s not nice to have a small chunk of grass where you could sit at a table, or kids could play. It’s worth nothing that you can certainly just let areas of your lawn grow and naturalize. While a wild lawn is preferable to one requiring high energy-inputs, the grasses typically found in lawns provide very little in terms of whole ecosystem vitality. Replacing these grasses with native plants will result in a far superior environment, both living and nonliving. You can remove grass with a shovel and muscle power, rent a sod cutter, or use the sheet-mulching method, if you aren’t on an expeditious timeframe. This latter method involves layering cardboard and organic matter over existing lawn and weeds, eventually smothering them and creating rich soil in the process.
When your chosen area is clear – or you already have a more natural garden landscape – you have several options. One is to take your yard into edible territory. Perennial herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, etc.) and fruit (try natives: Trailing blackberry, Black raspberry, or one of our three wild strawberry varieties) are permaculture favorites, and other annual vegetables can be integrated to create an abundant and low-fuss garden. Alternately or additionally, many pre-mixed seed blends of fescues and native wildflowers are available for a low-fuss, meadow-like area. More intentional landscaping with native trees, shrubs, and flowers can create lush, low-maintenance, well-adapted, and beautiful garden beds. Try native grasses like Roemer’s fescue (in sunny, dry areas) and tufted hairgrass (in more moist or even wetland areas). Other personal favorites include trees and tall shrubs such as incense cedar, cascara, blue elderberry, manzanita, red-flowering currant, mock orange, and oceanspray, as well as smaller shrubs and understory plants like salal, sword fern, checkermallow, camas, and red columbine.
WHAT YOU GAIN
The benefits to gardening with plants native to the Pacific Northwest, and more specifically the Willamette Valley region, are numerous. These plants are intrinsically suited to our climate and soils; after they’re established, they require little to no watering in addition to natural rainfall. They’re resistant to many pests and diseases, and don’t require supplemental fertilization. Root systems develop into deep, vast networks that anchor soil, prevent erosion, and filter stormwater. These roots systems also act as fantastic carbon sinks: when plants take carbon from the atmosphere, then in turn decay into the soil, the soil sequesters the carbon. In fact, some prairies can store more carbon below ground than forests do above ground. Planting natives in your yard also repairs links in the ecosystem, and butterflies, birds, bees, and other pollinators regain much needed habitat. Perhaps the best example is that of the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly. Native to the Willamette Valley, the butterfly depends on Kincaid’s lupine for its habitat. Introduced Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom, among others, have overwhelmed what is left of the lupine in the valley’s few remnant natural prairies. Through efforts to restore certain natural areas to their precolonial state — replete with plenty of Kincaid’s lupine — conservationists hope to save the Fender’s blue butterfly from extinction.
Many resources exist to help people move away from monoculture lawns to gardening with native plants. Visit your county’s Soil and Water Conservation District website for extensive information on natives, how to identify noxious weeds and invasive species, and help with water conservation. The Native Plant Society of Oregon is also an abundant source of knowledge and very helpful gardeners.
While one yard might not seem like it makes a difference, American lawns cover a combined area approximately the size of Texas, and are the most grown crop in the country. Lawns are an opportunity to effect great positive change towards a more resilient and ecologically sound landscape.