How to Maintain a Lawn Without Herbicides or Synthetic Fertilizer, Version 2

Although I can appreciate the benefits of grass around the home, I am not a big fan of big lawns. They demand lots of energy and water, and in return, our family, which consists entirely of humans, cannot eat grass. For this reason, we have devoted most of our backyard to a vegetable garden, shrubs, berries and fruit trees. Unfortunately, a borough by-law prevents us from growing tomatoes or other produce in front of our home, so I maintain a small lawn.

Here’s what it looks like today, in early September.

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Although not “impeccable” by conventional standards, it’s quite green, and yet it has not ever received any herbicide or pesticide in its entire 21-year existence. For the last 15 years or so, it has not received any synthetic fertilizer either. So how do I keep it green?

I add used coffee grounds to my lawn throughout the summer. In the spring I also spread a few composted chicken manure pellets with my backyard’s compost in areas that have mostly grass. It also gets some urea(a nitrogen-source) from dogs who pee on my front yard during the winter. What’s wrong with synthetic fertilizer? Aside from being expensive, it inevitably spreads beyond the lawns’ borders, eats away at sidewalks, and runs off into our storm drains and river.

Next we come to the subject of “weeds”. Using such a term demonstrates ignorance of botany, which is a beautiful but underappreciated science. By not using herbicide, I save money, don’t risk health effects and allow plants like bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) to survive. Before flowering it looks like this patch from my lawn:

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It is a legume so it provides some of its own fertilizer thanks to a bacteria in its roots. If I don’t mow the lawn for a while, the trefoil produces attractive flowers that look these:

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Other non-grass plants worth tolerating are herbs like oregano, which spread to the lawn from the rock garden. If you look carefully, there is also parsley at the bottom center of the picture.  P1170382.JPG

There are three plants that I treat as “weeds” because they would otherwise grow at the expense of the grass, oregano and trefoil. They are dandelions, plantain and crab grass. To remove dandelions and their entire root, I use a tool. But trefoil does compete with them nicely. The other two have shallow root systems and are easy to pluck out with my thumb and index:P1170378.JPG

These were removed a little late. They have flowered and could have already spread their seeds. It’s best to learn to recognize them and pull them out earlier and donate them to the compost pile.

To encourage a deeper root network, I rely on rain, and even during dry spells, I water grass only every second day.  To conserve more water I use some water from a rain bucket positioned below the roof gutter. Since the patch of grass is only about 300 square feet, it takes me less than 15 minutes to hose it down.

Hopefully, if you haven’t already adopted similar practices, you will now be willing to save money, learn some botany and spend a little more time outdoors.

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Why Lawn Grass Is Not Green

From an aesthetic or ecological point of view, a lawn is preferable over concrete, stone and asphalt. The latter trio absorb light energy but then slowly re-radiate as infrared, adding to the heat-island effect of urban areas. Grass instead keeps things cooler. While growing rapidly and absorbing carbon dioxide and water, it invests a fair amount of light energy into the bonds of cellulose. If mulched when mowed, its carbon conditions the soil.

But what’s wrong with grass in the city? Most lawns in temperate areas of Europe and North America consist of Kentucky bluegrass. To be kept in a juvenile state and to be given a competitive edge over plants of the C4 variety, lawns leave behind a deep ecological footprint: they have to be watered, fertilized, mowed and weeded.

Few take measures to conserve water and electricity by relying only on rain and using a manual reel mower. Only a minority use compost instead of synthesized fertilizer, which is energy-intensive and which can lead to runoff and eutrophication. And in most neighborhoods, people don’t get on their hands and knees to remove plantain, dandelion and other “weeds”.  Instead they reach for herbicides, some of which contain glyphosate, a probable carcinogen.

We can learn from history, as researched by the authors of this Calgary website. The popularity of lawns is historically rooted in status—they first became fashionable among 17th century English and French aristocracy who were the only ones financially capable of hiring others to maintain the luxury. Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda grass became adopted only in the 19th century when people did not realize the shortcomings of  “monoculture”.

Some low-growing oregano and black medic adding a variety to my lawn.
Some low-growing oregano and black medic adding a variety to my lawn.

Why can’t lawns be an example of biodiversity and showcase a variety of low-growing, low-maintenance plants? Many plants that normally grow taller will succumb to the selective pressure of an electric or manual mower and will even flower when only a few centimeters tall. Legumes such as black medic, white and red clover fix nitrogen from the air and require need little or no fertilizer. Thyme and oregano, which generally prefer well-drained soils and are ideal for sloped terrain, need less water than grass. Young leaves of maligned dandelion actually make a good addition to salads. Species of stitchwort and wild violets produce small but subtle flowers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson lived at a time when lawns became popular. Yet he realized that “a weed is a plant whose virtue is not yet known”, a statement quite consistent with his transcendentalism. Our surroundings could bring out our better nature. Ecological lawns could help urbanites become more environmentally responsible.

Birdsfoot trefoil, vetch & red clover abound near  St.Laurent's  duBoisé library, one designed with  ecology in mind.
Birdsfoot trefoil, vetch & red clover abound near St.Laurent’s duBoisé library, one designed with ecology in mind.

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