I'm always struck when I travel outside the United States how rare it is to see large expanses of lawn in residential areas in most other countries. Americans are truly grass crazy. We're downright sod-o-maniacs, you might say.
But our dandelion-free, putting green-perfect lawns are tough on the environment and tough on our wallets. Between the water they require, the pesticides and fertilizers, and pollutant spewing, four-cycle lawnmowers, our lawns really aren't as green as they look.
And with U.S. lawn care services now a $12 billion annual industry, our lawns are cutting a lot of the green out of our bank accounts as well. Basic lawn-care service averages about $120 to $150 per month, which could easily be an expense of $1,000 a year or more depending on where you live and the length of the growing season.
Author Michael Pollan wrote, "A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule." Down with the dictator!, I say. Why not reduce the size of your lawn this summer -- or even eliminate it entirely -- and save money, time and the environment too?
Mulch: Mulching over areas of your yard will help to control weed growth and retain moisture. This is particularly effective for shady spots and other areas where grass is hard to grow in the first place. And you don't need to pay a lot for mulch: Make your own from shredded leaves and twigs, or check with your highway maintenance department, landfill, or your local arborist to see if they have mulch for free/cheap.
Hardscaping: My dad, who hated mowing the lawn, was always threatening to "pave over the whole damn thing with green cement!" Apparently dad had totalitarian issues of his own.
Environmentally friendly "hardscaping" alternatives to pop's cement plan include the use of river stone, gravel and flagstone as a sort of indestructible mulch. Think Japanese gravel garden or faux dry stream bed. It's best to put down a fabric weed block -- or a thick layer of old newspapers -- under your hardscaping material.
Ground cover: A combination of ground cover and mulch/hardscaping is an ideal eco-friendly lawn alternative for most homeowners. It's much lower maintenance, far more cost-effective, and so much more interesting than a boring expanse of grass.
Choose ground covers that are native to your area or which otherwise don't require watering or fertilizer and block weed growth effectively. Some favorites include pachysandra, creeping thyme, phlox, liriope, sedum, and creeping juniper. The cost per square foot to plant most ground covers is roughly the same as to plant sod -- but you'll save big money and time in maintenance over the years to come.
Tall grass and wild flowers: For a beautiful, natural-looking yard that still incorporates grass, consider using native prairie and other tall grass seed, mixed with wildflower seeds conducive to your climate. Just let this drought-resistant combination do its own thing all year long and maybe cut it back once a year at the end of the growing season, if at all.
Return of the push mower: If you still have a patch of grass that needs to be cut and you haven't tried an old-fashioned push or "reel" mower in the past 20 years, you'll be surprised at how far that old piece of technology has come.
They're now incredibly light, easy to push, and oh so wonderfully quiet -- not to mention pollution free and low maintenance. With the soft clipping sound of the razor-sharp blades and the smell of fresh air and fresh-cut grass, cutting the grass with a reel mower seems more like meditation than yard work.