When we purchased the land five years ago we had moved from an area with fairly strict regulations on lawn care. In my previous life I had lived in a subdivision that prided itself on maintaining the facade of the cookie cutter perfection of 1950’s suburbia. With competitions and prizes for “best kept lawns” and strict fines for growth beyond a particular height deemed “unkempt” the ability to live with nature instead of against it was already a losing battle. The arrival of spring always brought with it the faint hint of fertilizer and pesticides as neighbors utilized one of their few forms of expression, picture perfect lawn care. Fighting nature’s ecological drive for balance our neighborhood, and all those like it, traded birds and insects for manicured flowerbeds.
Having organic decomposition and the life that stems from it as one of my favorite areas of study, and one that I brought out at one too many dinner parties after having a drink or two (as if I wasn’t awkward enough), the lack or diversity in both plants and wildlife was devastating. By maintaining lawns and not encouraging at least some sections of overgrowth, we are removing habitats of small animals, birds, and insects at a record pace. This habitat removal is extremely damaging to these populations, with bird populations declining by nearly 3 billion in North America since 1970, with habitat loss and pesticide use being a major factor.1 The loss of the birds alone could have a huge impact on our food webs and ecosystems. While much of this habitat loss comes from changes in agricultural use, which we also need to work on changing, we can also change the way we view the land around our homes.
In America we have 40 million acres of turf grass lawn, which is more area than farmers devote to corn, wheat, and fruit trees combined.2 If we stopped focusing on making our lawns look pristine, if we stopped viewing them as a status symbol and started seeing them as a means to help save the ecosystems we could turn these numbers around. In the five years since we have stopped mowing our fields we have seen a drastic increase in native plants and the wildlife that comes with it. We now have at least 10 nesting pairs of goldfinches, red wing blackbirds, kestrels, mocking birds, a red tailed hawk who tries to catch the chickens when it thinks the dogs aren’t watching, hummingbirds, and indigo buntings, and those are just the birds we see. We also are one of the few areas with active lightening bugs this year, multitudes of native bees and butterflies, hummingbird moths, grasshoppers, cicadas, the list can go on and on. My favorite thing to do during the day is to walk through our fields monitoring the wildflowers and noting which ones are in bloom, which ones are getting ready to bloom, and what insects are utilizing them. I find nest holes in the grass of animals both large and small. I feel like I’m on a field study every time I leave my house.
To Chris and me it is beautiful, but I know our neighbors think it’s an eyesore, and that’s ok. There are so many other ways to do more natural lawns that foster the growth of ecosystems without making our lawn into a tall grass prairie. Many people are fostering the growth of white clover instead of turf. It’s beautiful, is a great nectar source for pollinators, and it’s much easier to maintain than turf. It only needs to be mowed every few weeks (if that) as opposed to once, sometimes twice a week. You can also allow pockets of your lawn to grow naturally. Decide on a corner or two, or the whole back fence area, to grow wild. Put up bird houses and bat boxes. We live in a world that wants to be in equilibrium and we do not know better than these biological systems so stop fighting them. Allow them to figure themselves out, and be patient. In about 3-5 years you will start seeing a difference, and that difference is beautiful. Trust me.
EDIT: I’ve had some questions about how to turn your lawn into a clover lawn. It’s really easy. In the spring, after the last frost, you mow your lawn short. Then take a rake and rake out the dead thatch underneath. Once that is done you just use a broadcast spreader to seed your clover and water it. Clover is fairly prolific and will grow around your grass, and eventually push it out. There are many types of clover to choose from but I recommend Dutch white clover. It grows close to the ground and the bees love it. What’s really nice about the clover is that they thrive in mildly disturbed areas, so once the flowers start to die down you can typically mow it over once and they will start producing again. Here are some links for broadcast spreaders and white cloverBroadcast spreader:this is a great handheld oneI prefer a walk behind. My mom has this one. Clover:This is a good place for clover. You can usually pick it up at farm stores like Rural King, but typically only in 50 lb bags. For a typical under 1 acre lawn you don’t need any more than 10 lbs, 5 lb if your lawn is under .5 acres.