Smile Politely

Let’s leave our suburban landscaping habits in the past

A patch of tall native plants along the corner of a house.
Julie McClure

As the summer winds down to make way for autumn, it’s almost time to dust off the old leaf blower and rake and get ready for fall yard work. Or is it? It turns out all that raking and bagging is just one of many suburban landscaping habits that are best left in the past. We recently wrote about the ongoing climate emergency and how important it is to take action, so this week we are diving into environmentally-friendly landscaping and what practices should be left behind for the good of the planet. 

To begin: Perfectly manicured green grass lawns are a waste of resources. Or, as Scientific American put it in 2017, “Lawns are the most grown crop in the U.S.— and they’re not one that anyone can eat; their primary purpose is to make us look and feel good about ourselves.” The article points out that the green carpeting that graces the front lawns of suburban America is a sign of class (read: wealth and social standing) that traces its roots back to 17th-century France and England, and the style was imported to the United States by such well-known historical figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. 

When the rich and famous of the past adopted green lawns in styling their homes, it became an aspirational feature for Americans wanting to display status. Nearly three centuries later, here we are, spraying poisons and herbicides and running our sprinklers even during severe drought. For many of us, it has become a habit. We’ve been conditioned to see a manicured lawn as pleasing, or we’re concerned about judgment from our neighbors or affecting property values. It’s time for tightly clipped lawns to go the way of hoop skirts, powdered wigs, and gelatin-based salads, and to instead look towards more modern ideas. 

There are so many ways to have a purposeful and attractive outdoor space that doesn’t perpetuate grass monoculture or violate any of Champaign’s or Urbana’s nuisance ordinances. And frankly, even if performing respectability is what you’re after, adapting your lawn to favor more interesting and natural landscapes is becoming more and more popular with celebrities and trendsetters. 

While we can’t tell you what exactly will match your siding or which native ground cover will work with the sunlight in your yard, we can suggest a few principles and practices that will better serve the environment. Many of these suggestions were culled from the University of Illinois Extension webpages, which have an abundance of useful information about all things plant, animal, and food-related. 

For heck’s sake stop using herbicides and pesticides 

Herbicides have a role to play in food production and big agriculture, but they are problematic enough in that context. To that end, Prairie Rivers Network and the “Save Our Trees – Coalition for Herbicide Pollution Accountability” are releasing data that shows just how extensive symptoms of herbicide damage are in trees in our community. You do not need to add to the problem by using weed killer on your lawn. Not only will it not work on all types of weeds, it harms other plants and can contaminate waterways. 

Choose your grass species thoughtfully 

Illinois Extension has a guide to healthy, natural lawns and one of their top tips is picking a species of turfgrass that is naturally resistant to weeds, disease, and insects and as a result doesn’t need many, if any, chemicals added. 

Raise your mower settings and leave the clippings 

Clipping your lawn too close is a gateway to weeds and if you’re trying to have an attractive, environmentally-friendly lawn without the use of harmful chemicals, mowing your lawn properly can be a big help. That means that for the majority of lawns, a mowing height of 2.5 to 3 inches is ideal. By not mowing the lawn too closely, you can leave the clippings to decompose and recycle nutrients. As a result, less fertilizer will be needed.  

Water differently, if at all 

Watering your lawn is a Sisyphean task, in that once you start watering the lawn in the spring, you will have to maintain that during the summer. You will also require more fertilizer and lawn maintenance. And if your lawn is older, you are putting your grass at more risk for developing fungal diseases. This reinforces the directive to choose a hardy species of turfgrass. With the climate emergency, Illinois is more prone to drought than ever, as we witnessed this summer. With water being a precious resource, utilizing it to make your grass look nice becomes an ethical question. If you choose not to water your lawn, then when the weather is consistently hot and dry, your lawn will simply go dormant — it will grow back.

Plant more native plants

A cool project called Homegrown National Park has tons of resources about removing invasive species, reducing your lawn footprint, and planting native species. Planting native species can have a powerful positive impact on insect and songbird populations and helps restore and conserve the environment. One of the many useful resources on Homegrown National Park is a native plant finder tool. Of course Illinois Extension also has excellent resources on this topic.

Stop raking up all your leaves 

An article in USA Today shares that, “Leaving at least some of the leaves in your yard can help fertilize your grass and other plants, provide shelter for animals and even reduce emissions from landfills.” That doesn’t mean just leave everything exactly how it falls — you can still mow some of the leaves to help them decompose faster and distribute them evenly throughout your space. This will ensure that sunlight and water can get through to the plants underneath. Extension has some additional great ideas on how to recycle fallen leaves within your own yard.

While converting your lawn from a traditional to a natural aesthetic might have some upfront costs and labor, in the long run they require less time and money to maintain and have many environmental benefits. And with the climate emergency growing ever more urgent, this is a great way to do your part to help chip away at harmful past practices and help heal the planet. With so many beautiful, native groundcover options we’d love to see a community full of gorgeous, healthy, and natural landscapes. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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