Roots and Shoots: The Case Against Lawns

By Pamela Doan

The Native Plant Center based on the campus of Westchester Community College is a tremendous local resource and advocate for preserving and conserving our native foliage. Every year they host a conference that is attended by landscape designers and architects, managers that oversee public and nonprofit landscapes, and gardeners who want to learn more.

This year’s subject at the March 17 conference was “Creating Landscapes That Sustain Nature.” Presenters ranging from researchers and educators to community project leaders discussed ways that personal landscaping choices impact the well-being and survival of whole ecosystems. The fates of butterflies, bees and other pollinators, birds, and amphibians were the focus.

There were several areas of overlap in the discussions and a great deal of consensus, yet each presentation included a common image of a suburban house set in a large expanse of lawn. It’s a familiar image to all of us and a common style for many of the developments in our area.

forsythia
Forsythia is a prolific bloomer, but take note of how many bees you find in it. (Photo by P. Doan)

All the large trees are removed during development — the oaks, maples, white pines, birch — and then the plot is leveled before the structures are built. Topsoil is brought in at the end and turf grass is planted to create a sweeping acre or two of lawn. A few arborvitae, juniper, or rhododendrons are placed across the front of the house. There might be a birch or a flowering tree in the front yard for color, usually forsythia, a Bradford pear, or Japanese barberry. All a homeowner has to do is hire someone to mow and sign up for annual fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications. Landscaping is done. Nature is tamed.

The problem is, the planting that I just described doesn’t have value to sustain wildlife. Landscaping takes some time and effort; there’s no other way about it. We have the challenge of living in a high-browse area for deer, too.

My big frustration overall with any discussion of sustainable landscapes is that it needs to address a management plan for the deer population. Unless and until deer are managed with a strategy that goes beyond hunting, no garden is sustainable without fencing. Browsing deer have decimated the native foliage in our forests, and it’s impossible to restore. The only things thriving in the forest are the invasive plants that deer won’t eat, like Japanese barberry, knotweed, some mountain laurel, ferns and wild grape. Other invasive plants are starting to take hold, too, as our climate is warming.

Deer are a big reason that we all have the same plants in our yards. We can only plant certain things that the deer won’t eat. Try finding a tulip bed in an unfenced yard once this unrelenting snow is completely gone. Chances are, you won’t. Deer love tulips. Daffodils are more common, though, since we all know the deer will leave them alone. Again, daffodils aren’t a great source for sustaining pollinators, though. They are usually a last resort flower.

Back to lawns, alternately referred to as “green deserts” and “sterile landscapes” during presentations at the conference: Those large expanses of turf grass don’t offer sustenance, not even to deer. (Deer aren’t grazers but pick out the clover and other tasty treats that are intermixed.)

Consider creating a native plant garden that can be fenced, instead. Plantings that begin blooming in early spring and last into the late fall create an enjoyable and colorful view throughout the months and will benefit the ecosystem you’re trying to support. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a way to bring nature back into our “sterile landscapes.”

Another reason to cut back on lawn size is savings in time and money for mowing, which is a source of pollution. One hour of mowing with a gas-powered lawn mower is the equivalent in terms of carbon released into the atmosphere of driving a car for four hours. Although setting up a new bed takes time and effort, if it could cut back on 30 minutes or an hour of mowing each week during the summer, it would be well worth it.

The exercise and enjoyment of tending to a flowerbed certainly trumps sitting on a bumpy, loud riding mower for the same amount of time. In upcoming columns, look for plant lists and further information about sustaining wildlife in home landscapes.