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New suburb beauty: lawn care law, native lawn & groundcover

We have a problem with grass in our country (pardon the bad pun), but we’re tackling symptoms, instead of the real problem. 

New York, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have restricted phosphorus in lawn fertilizers. New Jersey just passed the country’s toughest restrictions on nitrogen in lawn care products. Watering restrictions in much of the country now limit watering to specific days of the week.

How the English grass obsession became our headache

At issue isn’t really that we learn to water on Mondays and Thursdays (as mandated in Los Angeles) or only use slow-release nitrogen fertilizers and only from March 1 to Dec. 1 (now mandated in New Jersey). The real issue is that our lawns are an import that doesn’t really suit most of our country.

“The English grass obsession was really appropriate in a sense because it rains enough there to have grass and they had sheep out munching it down on the big estates,” explains landscape ecologist Kelley Weston, “and that translated over to this country and eventually got adopted by the sort-of every person on the street back in the 40s and 50s.” (See video Why give up turf: bluegrass lawn = parking lot).

Italian grass comes with clover and dandelion

Today there are about 50,000 square miles of lawn in this country, about the size of New York state. “Even conservatively, I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn,” reports NASA researcher Christina Milesi.

It’s not a coincidence that Milesi isn’t American. As an outsider she was shocked at the sight of well-irrigated lawns that stayed green even during hot Montana summers, something she didn’t see in her native Italy. “If there is grass in the yard, it is generally a mixture of clover, dandelions, and lots of other so-called weeds, able to survive the long dry summers with little additional water.”

Bluegrass= parking lot

Our obsession with perfect green turf has turned Kentucky bluegrass into America’s most popular grass. The problem: it’s not native (despite the name it’s not even from Kentucky) and it requires a lot of water. 

“I consider a green bluegrass lawn is the equivalent ecologically of a parking lot,” says Weston who has spent the past couple of decades trying to sell an alternative vision of beauty in the resort region of Sun Valley, Idaho.  (See video The trouble with lawns: a walk through Sun Valley, Idaho).

While Weston advocates going as native as possible with your plants, but he doesn’t think we need to give up our lawns entirely. For most of his landscapes, he adds an “appropriately-sized lawn” (the one I witnessed was nothing more than a small strip behind the house) and they often look very different from traditional bluegrass. (See video Xeriscaping: native plants and a drought-tolerant yard).

He often allows his native grasses- most often, fescues and wheat grasses- to grow to maturity (think: field of wheat) or lets them go dormant (i.e. brown) in summertime.

Changing the golf-course aesthetic

During my last trip to Sun Valley, walking through one of the priciest neighborhoods where lawns are so big they’re often groomed by maintenance workers riding mowers in tandem, the new trend seemed to be a wilder-looking yard with a small green sign reading “Trout Friendly Lawn”.

Finally someone made that connection. Sun Valley has a huge fishing community so while it may be a leap to think about the health of their eco-system, it makes sense that residents should care about their future catch. “Conserving water protects river flows and the aquifer during the hottest months and lowest flows of the year. Our local trout need cold, clean water year round to thrive.”

I’m not sure about the fishing habits of some of the more famous residents in town (Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc), but trends that start here have the potential to go Hollywood. And there’s nothing like a few blockbusters to help us change our ideal of beauty.

Alternatives to bluegrass lawns

A couple things to consider before choosing a less conventional lawn.

  • Watch out for invasives: given that just about any plant is native somewhere and likewise, many native plants can be invasive in other areas, do some research on your area before buying.
  • Grasses vs groundcovers: grasses tend to grow best in full sun while groundcovers tend to prefer more shade.

Native grasses

If you want a lawn for practical purposes (kids’ play areas or croquet), try sod-forming native grasses like fescues, buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), zoysia and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). 

  • Warm vs. cool-season grasses. If you want your grass to thrive during the cool season (either springtime and fall; or if you live in a cooler climate), choose a cool-season grass that thrives in temperatures ranging between 15 to 24° centigrade ( 59 to 75° fahrenheit ). For warmer climates or summertime lawns, choose a warm-season grass that thrives with temperatures ranging from 26 to 35° C ( 78 to 95° F). 
  • Bunch grasses or sod-forming turf: some native grasses will form a turf lawn more similar to the Bluegrass lawns to which we’re accustomed. Alternatively, many native grasses are bunch grasses and can be mowed to appear more like a conventional lawn. These include Fescues, Blue gramma and Deergrass (Muhlenbergia riggers).


If you want lawn for decorative reasons, there are more fragile groundcovers, like moss and clover. While the first year they require some weeding and watering, once established they require little or no water nor maintenance.

  • Moss: ideal for shady, moist areas. 
  • Clover: It’s a nitrogen-fixing plant and acts as a soil conditioner. It grows fast and tends to choke out weeds. One of the best varieties for an alternative to a lawn is Dutch White clover.
  • Edible groundcovers: often used in permaculture, edible groundcovers include strawberry plants or herbs like oregano and thyme (See video Drip irrigation and thyme groundcover).

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