A sustainable lawn alternative in Pennsylvania by Stan Kotala used with permission.

I made my childhood fortune pulling dandelions. My father saw them as the scourge of his beautiful green lawn. He paid two cents per pulled dandelion, provided the roots came up, too. I had job security because the neighbors let their dandelions go to seed, so there were always more for me to pull.

I remember the annual lawn care ritual: the arrival of the spreader delivering various powdery compounds to the grass, the mowing, the watering, the edging. When I was old enough to pull the starter cord on the lawn mower, I supplemented my dandelion earnings by mowing the lawn. Though the lawn was totally flat, we had a noisy, gasoline-engine power lawn mower.

Kids played on the lawns. Mothers shrieked about grass-stained clothes, but everyone wanted a yard with a large expanse of grass for the kids to play. It was a time of innocence. Now it’s a time of consequences.

Green—and terrible for the environment. Image by Sarah Barker licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s time to re-think using chemicals—and lawn altogether

Many of us didn’t realize the harm that lawns bring to our natural world. Fertilizers wash off of lawns, into storm sewers, and eventually flow into the Chesapeake Bay, where the excess nutrients cause algal blooms that choke out sunlight and kill the submerged aquatic grasses young fish and shellfish need for shelter from predators.

Most fertilizers are petroleum-based bags of negative environmental impacts. The herbicides run off into our waterways, contaminating the water we drink and the fish we eat. Those little yellow flags warning of pesticide applications are required for a reason; pets and kids should not be playing on lawns where pesticides have been sprayed. Is a weed-free lawn more important than the health of your pets and your kids?

Removing some or even most of a lawn has a lot of benefits—besides the environmental and health reasons, there’s less time spent on mowing and less money spent on lawn care. We’ll all enjoy less lawnmower noise. Plus, we would save large quantities of natural resources by reducing our need for water and gasoline.

Lawn-free front yards in DC by Caroline Angelo used with permission.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about a third of all public water is used to water grass. In the US, lawns consume nearly 9 billion gallons of water a day, and our mowers consume 200 million gallons of gas. If restoring and protecting our native pollinators and wildlife is important to you, consider that that turf grass provides virtually no habitat for pollinators or other animals and plants that make up a healthy, diverse ecosystem.

And how much lawn do you really need? Do you have kids? Are they of yard-playing age? Then sure, maintain some turf for them. Stop worrying about weeds – the kids will trample the lawn anyway. But do your kids really use a quarter acre or more of grassy terrain?

How to kill your lawn

If you don’t need that much lawn, you may consider killing a portion or the entire thing, and replacing it with native flowers and other plants. But killing a lawn is harder than you might think.

Many non-toxic products can be expensive and don’t work because they simply kill the above-ground vegetation. Horticultural vinegar (which is 20% acetic acid) will burn the above-ground vegetation, but the roots will just laugh and send up new blades. Using such concentrated acid can be hazardous, and can cause severe eye irritation, possible permanent corneal injury, and burns to the skin.

Native flowers like echinacea make a great lawn alternative. Nicholas Clements used with permission.

Vinegars with acetic acid concentrations of 11% or greater can also burn the skin and cause severe eye injury, including blindness. Only systemic products—those that kill the entire plant—really work. Although safe, according to the EPA, if used as directed, and additional precautions can be taken, glyphosate may not be an option for those alarmed by the recent jury decisions linking non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to glyphosate use.

What works then? Cover the lawn with heavy-gauge black plastic for a few weeks. It is non-toxic, effective, and inexpensive. Weigh it down with bricks, rocks, or use plastic landscaping stakes. When you remove it, be prepared with your lawn replacement plan in place.

Replacing your lawn with something better

Shrubs (think native!) are great alternatives to lawns. When small, mulch will be needed, but as they grow larger and fill the space, you can rake the leaves around and among the shrubs, providing a haven for butterflies and other invertebrates such as lightning bugs.

Clovers are a good groundcover option, although the last thing most of us want is a yard full of deer candy. Other native groundcovers include lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), common blue violet (Viola sororia). For shady areas, try Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) or Baltimore sedge (Carex senta). Some people opt for meadow-like lawns of native forbs and flowers.

Avoid English Ivy, vinca (Periwinkle) and pachysandra, which are invasive and will crowd out native species.

Wildflower garden at Four Mile Run in Arlington. Image by Erinn Shirley used with permission.

Montgomery County residents are lucky as the county has amended its nuisance laws to allow for naturalized lawns after it realized that wild gardens improve air and soil quality and reduce stormwater runoff. The Fairfax County regulatory code restricting the height of vegetation in lawns expressly exempts wildflowers.

The District encourages planting pollinators in residential yards, but also mandates removing weeds more than four inches in height (it does not define what a “weed” is.) DC’s Green Yards Recognition Act of 2016 covers pesticide practices and the use of certain types of leaf blowers and lawn mowers, but doesn’t mention replacing lawn with native vegetation. The Department of Energy and the Environment is creating a new webpage that will include all of the Green Yards information in one place, as required by the law. DC’s RiverSmart program includes “bayscaping,” or landscaping that replaces grass with plants native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

I hope this guide will help you free yourself from the tyranny and expense of lawn care, and make your yard a haven for wildlife!

Ellen Paul lives to bird and birds to live, but, along the way, she also notices the insects, mammals, and plants that surround us. She works to protect the habitat for all our native flora and fauna. She’s also on a mission to eradicate all the vinca, English ivy, lesser celandine, and other non-natives within a five-mile radius of her home.