Time to turf the turf

Cool Tips for a Hot Planet series

By Ginny Colling

Lawns do nothing for our insects and the birds that eat them.

Some people want to see their kids off grass (aka marijuana).  But there’s also a movement underfoot to get our yards off grass. 

The estimated six million lawns in Canada are points of pride for some. For others, they’re a source of time-sucking chores, with all the mowing, fertilizing, weeding and watering. So having less lawn could be a blessing.

There’s a serious reason for the push behind grass-free yards. University of Delaware bug scientist Douglas Tallamy calls lawns “ecological dead zones.” Basically, they do almost nothing for the environment. And maintaining them is actually harmful.

A 3.5 hp mower can pollute as much in one hour as a car driving 560 km. A gas-powered leaf blower is much worse, which is why municipalities like Ottawa and Toronto are looking to phase them out. In summer, grass watering can strain municipal water supplies and dry out our wells, leading to water restrictions. We’re not as bad as the American southwest, yet. Some drought-prone areas there have been paying people for every square foot of turf they turf. Then there’s fertilizer use. The stuff gets washed into our rivers, lakes and streams, increasing the growth of aquatic plants and algae. 

Lawns also do nothing for our insects and the birds that eat them. In North America we’ve lost 45 per cent of our insects over four decades. And about three billion birds have disappeared since 1970. Since half of Canada is farmed, and much of the rest is urbanized, these creatures struggle to find a natural, pesticide-free place to call home.  

Why should we care? Insects pollinate most of our flowering plants and more than one-third of our food crops. Losing them means destroying the food web and all the creatures it supports — including us. As a solution, Tallamy suggests we let at least half our lawns go back to a natural state.

But how do you turf the turf?

  1. Plant more native trees and shrubs, then grow native ground covers under them. The operative word here is “native.” A northern red oak can support hundreds more varieties of insects than a Norway maple.
  2. Replace areas of lawn with gardens, at least half of which contain native plants like purple coneflower and bee balm. Note that many hybrid varieties of natives do not provide the same nutrition to our insects. Last summer no bees or butterflies were attracted to that orange coneflower in my yard.

And don’t be afraid that a big garden will be more work. Native plant experts tell me once established, a native garden should require less water and no fertilizer stronger than compost. And the insects it attracts should keep each other in check. 

Still can’t imagine going grassless? Conservation authorities, among others, recommend trying fescue mixes because they grow slower and require less water, less fertilizer and less frequent mowing than the usual mix of lawn grass seed. Other options are Dutch white clover or native ground covers.

To see examples of grassless yards, stay tuned for the local Pollinator Action Committee’s garden tour at the end of July.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more, Tallamy’s book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation in Your Yard, is a great place to start.  Or look for Lorraine Johnson’s new release, Creating a Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee, all about designing habitat for native pollinators.

1 Comment

  1. Pat Warren says:

    Time to Turf the Turf! Great article

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