The American lawn has been the environmentalist-gardener's favorite target for a generation now - and to no effect. So I'm proposing a different tactic.
For more than 20 years, it's been like taking the pledge: if you wanted to count yourself among the horticultural green-elect you had to decry those awful lawns that were gobbling up obscene amounts of fertilizer (which, in their traditional form, they certainly do) while gulping down staggering quantities of water (again, guilty as charged). Despite all of our criticism, however, Americans have continued to sow turf grass seed. In a book I wrote in the early 1990's about water-conserving gardens (Water-Wise Gardening), I noted with awe that the area of the U.S. covered with turf grass was at that time roughly equivalent to the state of Virginia. In 2005, a NASA researcher, Cristina Milesi, using data collected by satellites updated this estimate. She calculated that after ten years of vilification, the area of lawn in the contiguous 48 states hadn't shrunk. Instead, it has expanded adding acreage equivalent to Connecticut and ¾'s of Rhode Island.
It's time for us eco-warriors to admit that we can't win the war against lawns. What we can do, though, is to recruit them to work for our side.
Turf actually offers lots of benefits. Among other things, it can help fight global climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, one of the principal greenhouse gases, from the atmosphere and storing it as organic material in the soil. Research by Dr. Yaling Quian of Colorado State University indicates that turf grass can sequester 800 lbs. of CO2 per acre annually in this fashion
If only someone could cure the lawn of its addiction to fertilizer and water.
Turns out, someone has.
Neil Diboll is the proprietor of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin (http://www.prairienursery.com/store/). An ecologist by training, he's been promoting the restoration of native prairie and the use of tallgrass prairie plants in garden settings for more than 35 years. For clients who also want to incorporate turf into their landscapes, he developed "No Mow Lawn Mix" suited to the climate of the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Northwest. This is a blend of six different varieties of native fine fescue grasses (grasses that belong to the botanical genus Festuca) that form a dense, albeit shaggy, carpet some five inches high. "No Mow" is, in fact, a slight exaggeration: these fescues do benefit from a single cut in June to nip back that the taller seed stalks that shoot up in early summer. Otherwise, though, you never need to take the mower out of the garage. What's more, except on the poorest, sandiest soils, Diboll's no-mow lawn actually grows better without fertilization. It is even "allelopathic", which means that these grasses release chemicals from their roots that naturally deter the growth of weeds.
Fine fescue lawns are not appropriate for every yard. Though shade-tolerant, they don't flourish on poorly drained, wet sites. The virtue of this unthirsty quality is that, once established, Diboll's no-mow lawn requires little if any irrigation even in midsummer. That's becoming crucially important as suburban and exurban growth stresses public water supply systems (according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, water utility managers in 36 states anticipate chronic shortages by 2013). Lawn watering accounts for more than 50 percent of the water withdrawn from municipal supply systems in summertime; reseed your ¼-acre lawn with a fine fescue lawn and every time your neighbor waters and you don't, you've saved 6,700 gallons of drinking water.
Many communities mandate low-flow plumbing fixtures to conserve water; low-flow toilets have been the law nation-wide since 1995. Isn't it time that gardeners switched to low-flow (and no mow, no feed) lawns?