50% Less Lawn - Accepting the Challenge

Michele MacKinnon

Simple solutions allow private citizens to tackle complex problems that may appear overwhelming at first glance. This is true, once again, with the conundrum of typical suburban lawns versus shrinking natural habitat.

A bold challenge

Professor Doug Tallamy, who helps lead the charge for restoring ecosystems with native plants that support insects and wildlife is back with a new challenge: Reduce lawn sizes by 50%. This clear action, proposed by Tallamy during a Connecticut appearance in January, 2019, is likely a foretaste of many ideas in his forthcoming book titled “Nature’s Best Hope.” The book is described as a “blueprint” for private homeowners and citizens offering “practical, effective, and easy…suggestions you can incorporate into your own yard.”

 

Yet, how many of us are ready to cut lawn sizes by half? Here are a few facts which may compel us to act: 

  • Conservative estimates report “there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn”—a land area equivalent to the Northeastern United States.

  • Lawns—including residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, etc.—could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area

  • According to www.beyondpesticides.org, “Suburban lawns and gardens receive more pesticide applications per acre (3.2-9.8 lbs) than agriculture (2.7 lbs per acre on average).”

  • “The US EPA estimates that 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled each year from re-fueling lawn mowers alone; over 50% more than the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez.” Estimates related to handheld equipment refueling add several million more gallons of spillage annually.

  • Land care equipment produces more than 20 million tons of carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

  • Summer water use in the Northeast United States as much as doubles in some locales, likely due to the increasing prevalence of lawn irrigation systems. Ironically, a sloping lawn, which is the case in most neighborhoods, absorbs as little as 15% of surface water. The rest runs off, hence lawns have earned the dubious nickname “green concrete.”

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Bold yet easy actions

In lieu of larger lawns, Tallamy suggests planting trees, especially shade trees. Among the many benefits they offer, a single mature tree can absorb 1,000 gallons of precipitation yearly. Native trees and shrubs amplify benefits by providing food and shelter for birds. The annual Northwest Conservation District Earth Day sale, held in Goshen, Connecticut, is a good source for native plants. The organization has a helpful chart of plant choices suitable for our region.

Consider installing a rain garden. These gardens are another opportunity to add plants with high wildlife value. The UCONN Smartphone app named “Rain Garden” offers start-to-finish guidance, including tips on plant selection. The public may view demonstration projects at Cooperative Extension Centers in Haddam and Bethel, CT.

Eastern Swallowtail butterfly visits coneflower

Photo credit: Michele MacKinnon

The wildlife activity that occurs where I’ve replaced lawn with gardens is a source of year-round delight. I haven’t reduced 50% of my lawn, but I’m well on my way. If you accept the smaller lawn challenge I can assure you bees, butterflies and birds will offer daily demonstrations of their gratitude.

 

Michele MacKinnon is a Sierra Club member, UCONN-Certified Advanced Master Gardener, garden educator, and speaker. Contact Michele MacKinnon for more information.