December 1, 2014: Mow No More

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

I want a show of hands. Who relishes mowing? Um, I don’t see any hands raised. Does that mean that giving lawns a crew cut isn’t a favored American pastime? Mowing does tend to be a chore, more tolerated than enjoyed. Yet this task can be greatly reduced—or dare I say eliminated. Intrigued? The solution will require a reversal of your status as the neighborhood’s Lawn Queen or King. However, if you’re game…

It is surmised that the American obsession with the lawn finds twin origins. Although most of the American population—and possibly worldwide population–today lives in cities and suburban settings, this has not been the case in human society until recent history. Mankind has inhabited natural environments, living in open oceans of prairies or, more accurately, the savanna of Africa. A yard of grass may be fulfilling an ancestral need for the savanna, for the plains gorged with prairie grass waving in the breeze. A lawn is a little piece of the open prairie.

The twin speculation possibly finds its nativity in medieval times when castles were surrounded by protective moats. Grass girdling a house provides a pseudo or psychological moat. Note that it is seldom that a stranger will veer off of the sidewalk to walk on your moat.

Do you think you can do without your Savana, your moat? Do you think you can swap your makeshift prairie for a cover that is not a mower magnet? Perhaps a bit of enticement—or a lot of enticement–is needed before you flirt with the idea of switching out at least part of your lawn.

Naturally, you will guess that the real concern is the well-being of nature—of our animal kinfolk. Grass has little to no nutritional or habitat value for wildlife. Yet vast acres of residential and public land are usurped from wildlife and are covered now with our modern Savannas. In America alone, about 40 million acres of land dons a lawn. Lawns, additionally, require much more water than native ground cover. And, of course, the one cannot be the only neighbor on the block with a browning yard. Approximately a third to over a half of city water supplies are relegated to keep yards and golf courses green.

The pollution of mowing is, likewise, a concern for creation. Lawn mowers emit exhaust that pollutes the air that we and animals breathe, while creating significant noise pollution. The hourly polluting power of a gas push mower is equivalent to that of eleven cars; a riding mower compares to about thirty-four cars. As an aside, whereas nature decomposes and recycles her plant waste, grass clippings typically find their way to the landfill, unless the home owner is resourceful and mulches the clippings, reusing them to feed the lawn.

Still not quite convinced that you should say, “Bye, bye” to part or all of your lawn, are you? Yes, it is a scary, disconcerting prospect to give up a tradition that spans generations, to buck the norm–to be different, a trend setter. So take your time in making this decision. However, not eons of time, as the well-being of creatures depends on this decision.

Growing your yard in a turf alternative would mean a savings in time and finances, especially if the alternative is native. Hours saved in mowing and trimming. Bucks saved on fertilizer and herbicides. You see, native ground covers and plants pretty much take care of themselves. They have evolved to do so. And because you won’t be fertilizing or using herbicides on the grass alternatives, there is no risk of run-off of these dangerous chemicals or the fear of harming the critters that visit your yard. Natives have further evolved to survive with the type and amount of moisture that Ma Nature decides to give them—no more watering.

Convinced? Hopefully at least intrigued enough to explore lawn reduction.

Taking out your lawn can be a daunting decision and undertaking. Baby steps. Experiment with a small patch of your yard, planting this area with a native ground cover that holds up well to significant human traffic. You will, after all, need a play area. Give your psyche time to grow accustomed to this unconventional venture. Once you–and other family members—become comfortable with your baby step, it will be time to plan further lawn alternatives.

Traditional grass landscaping can be parceled out with a variety of techniques to create an oasis that will serve human esthetic and activity needs while, more importantly, providing for wildlife and enhancing the environment. When planning out just how you wish to segment your yard, think native, think native, think native.

Now that you are indoctrinated into thinking native,–you are, aren’t you–how much of your yard do you want to plant in native ground cover for children and adults to romp on? Which sections do you want to plant in a native garden? Where would be a good spot to grow berry bearing bushes? So many options. So much fun planning.

A rainbow hued garden would be a must. People love its meditating, mesmerizing draw. Wildlife finds food, shelter, and nurseries amidst its flora. Birds and squirrels relish trees and shrubs.

A water feature of some sort is ever so necessary. Flowing or spraying water has such a calming effect on the soul. Watching a fountain or waterfall puts one in a trance. Minimally, birds and squirrels welcome a bird bath. However, think on an even grander scale. A multitude of decorative and natural features—wall mount to free standing to full blown water fall—offer such an enjoyable array of choices that fit pretty much any taste, decor, and budget.

Ponds serve a variety of wildlife—frogs, rabbits, deer. Although it may depend on the wildlife that you attract, size is of little consequence, except to the human. A moderately sized pond usually fits the needs of most of the creatures that visit residential yards. However,—and better still—how cool is a larger pond with a mini waterfall?

The choice of water feature is entirely yours. Animals don’t care. It’s water that they seek. So design to your most modest or grandiose desires.

One corner of your yard may beg for a rock garden. Crickets, chipmunks, lizards, and others of our smaller animal and insect brethren seek shelter among these stones. Butterflies will rest a bit on a sunny bolder to warm and recharge.

Paths intertwined among the various landscape features beckon a stroll with nature. A path constructed of mulch—organic preferred—discourages the growth of weeds. The choice of organic material will add nutrients to the soil and improve the land’s ability to hold moisture.

Borders, perhaps around the perimeter of a butterfly or rock garden or framing a meandering path, become decorative accents that add just the needed bling to a turf alternative yard. As an added bonus, skeptical neighbors will now see the definitive vision your brain has conjured. No longer will you be the neighbor who went off the deep end. They may even be a tad envious as they are mowing their yards while you are enjoying the flit of a dragonfly or the scurry of a chipmunk as you leisurely rest on a bench or stroll along a path.

Going counter to neighborhood norms may be initially discomforting, but it will be so very rewarding for humans and wildlife. Ridding your yard of at least a portion of its turf in favor of native alternatives would be ever so beneficial for the environment in the form of water conservation, reduced pollution, and restructured ecosystems. Yes. Rethinking of our dependence on yards carpeted in lawns. It is past time for homeowners to start a new trend, a trend toward environmentally and wildlife friendly yards.


National Wildlife Federation

Small American Lawns Today

Wild Ones-Natural Landscapers, Ltd.

EPA’s Greenscapes Program

EPA/s Green Communities

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center


Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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