Polyculture: Get an Earth-friendly Lawn

Lawns didn’t become popular because they were easy to grow or good for the Earth. In fact, quite the opposite is true. WealthyGarden landowners in the 16th century began to cultivate lawns on their properties to flaunt their fortunes — they had so much money that they didn’t have to devote every square inch of their land to profitable crops. Instead, they could afford to maintain some of their land as a space for lazy recreation or ornamentation.

Slowly, lawns became a symbol of prestige and power, and as the middle class grew, many wanted that symbol on their own properties. This created a huge lawn industry filled with monoculture grass seeds, fertilizers and tools that homeowners could use to maintain their green grass.

Today, keeping lawns green isn’t green; in fact, lawns can consume plenty of resources without producing much in return. Fortunately, you don’t need to eradicate your lawn to ensure that your yard is eco-friendly. Here are a few ways to make your lawn care more sustainable — without wasting your time, energy or money.

Polyculture Lawns

As mentioned above, modern lawns are monocultures — meaning they include only one type of plant: a particular variety of grass. Most homeowners take pains to ensure that no other plant grows in their lawn; any plant that interrupts the uniform lawn surface is seen as a nuisance and warrants warfare with herbicides and trowels. Unfortunately, it seems that monocultures aren’t a particularly sustainable way to grow anything, let alone lawns.

Initially, those wealthy landowners who created the concept of lawns didn’t have access to a single type of grass seed. They were more flexible in their ground cover; most often, thyme and chamomile grew happily as lawns, but early lawns were a delightful mixture of grassy herbs, clovers and fescues. It wasn’t uncommon to see a lawn covered in broadleaf weeds. This mélange of plants growing in one space is what biologists call a polyculture, and it’s an exceedingly effective way to grow a healthy lawn.

Polycultures tend to be more efficient because different plants bring different characteristics to the environment. Thus, they work together to balance their ecosystem so that everything can grow with greater success. Other plants do so much good for your lawn and garden that you don’t have to pollute your lawn with chemicals or put forth substantial effort to care for it. For example:

  • Traditional grasses tend to strip the soil of nutrients, especially nitrogen, but clover is effective at pumping nitrogen back into the soil.
  • Grass isn’t particularly good at managing in moist soil, but pennywort and ground ivy soak up moisture and help shade grass in sunny spots.
  • Grass doesn’t repel pests like aphids or mosquitoes, but scented plants like neem and chamomile do.
  • Grass doesn’t encourage biodiversity — it doesn’t attract bees, butterflies or birds — but flowering plants like yarrow and dandelion do. weed-free, flowerless grass lawns are wastelands for pollinators, offering no nourishment of any kind. We associate a lush green lawn with vitality, but in many ways a grass lawn is the most sterile part of a garden.

Why must a lawn consist solely of uber-green, short-cropped, nearly identical blades of grass? What is a lawn anyways?floridafriendlyplants

In addition to depriving both native pollinators and honeybees of wild habitat and food, lawncare guzzles water, spews smog and soaks the earth in potentially harmful chemicals. The nation’s lawns demand about 200 gallons of potable water per person per day. Of the approximately 90 million American households with a yard or garden, 45 million use chemical fertilizers, 46 million use insecticides and 47 million use chemical weed-killers. Such chemicals—many of which, especially older varieties, have known health risks—contaminate natural habitat and seep into our homes and drinking water.

Most homeowners have had episodes of insect or disease problems. The problem with trying to maintain a lawn, that is just one plant species is that a monoculture is more prone to insect and disease problems simply because there is just one plant growing in a large area. A prairie can appear to be a vast expanse of one type of grass, when in reality, it is the most diverse ecosystem throughout the world.

Even after laying new sod, we are lucky to go a year before weeds blow into the yard. Instead of trying so hard to kill the weeds that show up in the lawn, just mowing them. Weeds will increase the biodiversity in the lawn and confuse chinch bugs. In addition, when weeds are mowed they look just like a lawn when your neighbors drive by.

How much of a do you want to take care of? There is nothing wrong with reducing the amount of turf that you have to maintain. You can add a tree island, a butterfly garden, a new shrub bed, etc. Don’t forget, if you are adding some new plants to your landscape, we have many native plants that are just as ornamental as the non-native plants that we grow now. Native plants also have the benefit of attracting butterflies, birds, insects and other pollinators.

For more information visit www.cocoafl.org/conservation. Check out UF/IFAS Extension's Florida-Friendly Landscaping™. The St. Johns River Water Management’s plant guide is also very helpful.