The new green
Embracing the trend toward a kinder, gentler lawn (hint: weeds are OK)
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
– Aldo Leopold,
from “A Sand County Almanac”
In her fascinating and informative book “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” author Virginia Jenkins relays a quote from a 1969 magazine in which the writer states, “Today’s approach to lawn-keeping is that man is the master, and while natural elements can make it difficult at times, having a perfectly manicured, evenly green lawn is a highly satisfying experience.”
For centuries, this concept of how a good and highly satisfying residential lawn should look – verdant, closely cropped and controlled – has prevailed. But is this ubiquitous, homogenous, non-native turf grass as “good” as this cultural tradition implies?
Today, in response to the ecological concerns associated with traditional lawns, a new movement is gaining momentum. Known as “regenerative landscaping,” it emphasizes rewilding our lawns and cultivating a more diverse and resilient landscape; one that requires less water and maintenance and is more hospitable to pollinators and other beneficial species.
“Regenerative landscaping takes a more holistic approach while still creating beautiful landscapes that support healthy soils, healthy plants and pollinators,” Brooke Safford, owner of Durango-based Blooming Landscape & Design, said. According to Safford, Southwest landscapes can be beautiful and vibrant, as well as resilient and environmentally friendly.
And to help spread the word, Safford, a landscape architect who obtained her permaculture design certification in 2019, has launched a speaker series focusing on regenerative landscaping.
“Collectively, we can do so much by making even small changes to our gardening and landscaping habits,” Safford said.
Thomas Jefferson: The Original “Get Off My Lawn” Guy
Granted, these are well-entrenched habits. The American lawn dates to the 18th century, when landscape designers in aristocratic circles in England and France began experimenting with closely shorn, grassy garden areas meant to invoke the image of a lush, emerald green, outdoor carpet. The palace at Versailles soon boasted a charming lawn installation amid its gardens, and wealthy English landowners soon followed suit at their estates. Thomas Jefferson, greatly impressed by this new aesthetic, emulated the design at Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, Va.
Soon after, the neatly kept front lawn became the epitome of wealth and good taste. Only the wealthy had the time and money to cultivate such a well-manicured lawn. Maintenance alone kept these lawns within reach of only the very rich who, before lawnmowers, utilized fleets of scythe-wielding servants and herds of goats or sheep to keep the grass weed-free and closely shorn.
Then, in 1830, with the development of the first lawnmower by Edwin Budding in Gloucestershire, England, and the subsequent mass production of mowers and lawns, all that changed. This privileged landscape aesthetic was no longer exclusive to the upper echelons of society.
By the middle of the 20th century, seas of immaculate, monoculture lawns had become status symbols among the suburban middle class and a permanent fixture in the ethos of the American Dream. However, this massive and expansive sprawl of perfectly manicured lawns comes at a cost.
The Thorny Side
of Traditional Lawns
In 2005, a NASA satellite found that American residential and commercial turf grass (for example, homes, parks and golf courses) encompass 63,000 square miles, roughly equivalent to the entire state of Georgia. And with these monoculture lawns across the country comes a high degree of required maintenance, such as mowing, raking, fertilizing, watering and the application of herbicides, all of which equates to substantial amounts of time and money.
However, as we now know, these lawn care activities contribute to environmental costs as well. Gas-powered lawnmowers, trimmers, leaf blowers and other lawn care equipment leave behind a substantial carbon footprint. Though plants serve an important ecological role absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, this benefit is often offset by the heavy carbon cost associated with turf maintenance.
According to a 2011 study by the Environmental Protection Agency, lawn care equipment was responsible for 162 million tons of greenhouse gases that year alone. The study also reported an estimated 17 million gallons of gasoline spills annually while refueling lawn care equipment.
Additionally, the necessity of applying ever-increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizers and indiscriminate herbicides to lawns has taken a toll on plant and animal biodiversity, pollinators and the microorganisms found in soils. These are not only vital for nutrient recycling and a well-functioning ecosystem, but honeybees and other pollinators are crucial to food security in the U.S., maintaining fruits, nuts and vegetables. In fact, some crops, such as almonds, are almost exclusively pollinated by honeybees.
Unfortunately, many traditionally landscaped lawns lack the plant diversity needed to provide important food sources for birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators whose populations are steadily declining.
And then there’s the water issue. Perhaps nowhere else in the U.S. is the absurdity of the traditional American lawn more evident than here in the arid Southwest.
According to the Denver-based nonprofit Colorado Waterwise, more than half of all potable water in the state is used on landscapes, with much of it going toward irrigating turf grass. Tragically, a lot of outdoor water used for lawns is wasted due to faulty sprinklers, over-watering or evaporation, particularly when watering during the hottest parts of the day.
A New Paradigm
In regenerative landscaping, design favors an array of drought-resistant, wildlife-friendly flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees that enhance biodiversity while also implementing an aesthetic design, Safford said. As the trend toward more sustainable yards gains traction, even small changes to landscaping practices can make a difference.
For those just beginning to rethink their lawn, she has a few suggestions:
• If mowing your grass, keep it 3 inches or higher;
• Make sure to keep the clippings on the grass;
• Apply organic fertilizer such as compost or compost tea, and allow nitrogen-fixing plants, such as clover, to grow for increased soil and plant health.
To learn more, attend the Durango Botanic Gardens Great Garden Series talk on regenerative landscaping on May 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Durango Public Library, which will include a talk from a representative from Blooming Landscape & Design.
Also, check out projectdungbeetle.org for information on the Regenerative Landscaping Speaker Series, running May through September. ?