Redefining Lawns

by Kristie Keith
June 2001

Having problems with dandelions? Just keep mowing. Mow daily if you have to, until they would have set seed. Dandelions can be grazed and can come back a couple of times, but after that, it's over. Of course they'll be back next year, but I have a plan for that, too. Encourage the clover. 

Clover is a better lawn than grass is. It requires less water, requires less mowing, and it requires no fertilization; ever. It fixes nitrogen in the soil and is beautiful. It also aerates and enriches heavy soils. It will not urine scald when dogs urinate on it. A heavy over planting of a clover suitable for your area will gradually choke out any and all weeds. You can mow your clover lawn, or let it bloom. Mowing will favor the clover over grass, as it encourages it to spread out instead of up. In the deepest drought, a clover lawn will be fresh and cool and green, while all around, the grass is brown and parched. Clover is NOT a weed. Most American lawns used to be full of, or even primarily, clover. The only reason we now consider it a "weed" is that so-called "weed and feed" products require the narrow blade of a grass plant to function. 

In their book Redesigning the American Lawn, the authors challenge  gardeners to abandon what they call the “Industrial Lawn,” with its enormous chemical dependency and its water-hogging ways. They stress the development of the mixed-species lawn, which includes low, blooming plants, clovers, and mixed grasses. Lawns such as this, formulated for an arid climate, can stay green longer and with less water than the golf-course-perfect sweep of fescue or bluegrass. Mixed-species lawns don't need feeding, as the species themselves help maintain a level of nutrients in the soil. Clover in particular, when seeded into a new or existing lawn, will help fix nitrogen in the soil and eliminate the need for most fertilization. 

The simple act of cutting a bit more often, but cutting less of the plant, and leaving the mulched clippings on the lawn, can literally supply all the food your lawn needs. This is a valuable consideration, as home lawn care accounts for more pesticide and herbicide use than all agricultural and golf course use in this country. 

The Wild Lawn Handbook by Stevie Daniels lists a number of lawn mixes for different parts of the country. Daniels describes different types of "lawn," including the moss lawn, the meadow, and the prairie. The book includes a listing of where to obtain seeds and seed mixes for "wild" lawns, as well as instructions for planting a wild lawn from scratch, or converting your current lawn into a flowering meadow, straight out of a medieval tapestry. 

Lawn lovers can wean their gardens off their chemical dependency with the tips found in Warren Schultz's The Chemical-Free Lawn. Echoing the pleas of the other authors for species diversity in the American lawn and landscape, Schultz also spells out clear steps for cultivating lawns without the 67 million pounds of pesticides used annually on lawns in this country. He also demonstrates how to reduce much of the 10,000 gallons of water consumed in keeping the average home lawn green. Schultz gives specific mowing schedules for different species of grass and different climates, and stresses that more frequent mowing, with the mulched clippings left on the lawn, can supply most or all of a lawn's nitrogen needs. He gives simple directions for combating common pests and diseases, and more importantly, tells you how to avoid them through proper gardening practices. 

The key to a happy lawn is species diversity, both of flora and of fauna. A rich array of species will ensure both predator and prey species will flourish, minimizing pesticide use. The American lawn industry has encouraged us to think of clover as a weed, and sells millions of pounds of "Weed-n-feed" and broadleaf weed killer every year to prevent its incursions into our grass gardens. But clover is a beautiful plant, flowering in the spring and staying green when the grass around it is parched and dying. It opens up and aerates the soil, especially heavy adobe soils, and fixes nitrogen as well. It attracts beneficial insects, and is extremely attractive both mowed and unmowed. Clover lawns used to be part of the American landscape; maybe it's time they made a comeback. 

The key to lawn care is the holistic approach. Plant appropriate species, encourage diversity, and try to create a self-feeding, self-sustaining ecology in your lawn and garden. Invest in a mulching mower; it's much easier to let the mulched clippings rest on the grass than gather them up, mulch or compost them, and re-apply as fertilizer. (And no, clippings don't cause thatch, a myth debunked in every one of the three books.) Create a backyard ecology that stays green and healthy with less water, fewer chemicals, and less work. Your back, the planet, and your own aesthetic senses will thank you for it. 

The solution to dog urine-scalded lawn is here! For dog owners who are tired of splotches of urine-killed grass, there is help at hand! Nothing will destroy the look of a lawn faster than letting your dog urinate on it, but many dog owners have little alternative to sharing their backyard with their pets. Many people understandably want to change their dog's urine so that it no longer scalds the grass. 

There are additives you can give your dog that will make the urine more alkaline, and for some this solves the problem. The catch is that carnivore urine is meant to be acidic, and this acidity prevents bacterial infections of the urinary tract (cystitis, etc.) and other possible health problems, including some kinds of urinary tract calculii. By making the urine less acid, you do preserve your lawn, but you also put your dog's health at risk. (Note: Other kinds of urinary tract stones thrive in an acid urine, so if your dog has been diagnosed with a condition for which an alkaline urine is recommended, be sure to follow your vet's advice.) What is the caring dog owner who also loves the lawn to do? 

I have one word of advice: Clover. Over-seed your existing turf with clover suited for your climate and soil type. Clover has many, many benefits. It stays green with far less water than grass. It needs less mowing. It shades out weeds. It fixes nitrogen in the soil and needs no fertilizing, ever. Isn't it better to use a lawn plant like clover that is in every way superior to turf, including in its tolerance for dogs using it for a toilet? 

Some people find the lovely little flowers a plus. Others object to them because they attract bees. However, they are attracting honeybees, and honeybees rarely sting away from the hive. If you object to them, just mow more frequently during the blooming season. Clover is a better environmental choice, is extremely beautiful, is less expensive and easier to maintain than grass. I can't think of one reason to use turf when clover is so much better! Clover is helpful with erosion and is somewhat deeper-rooted than turf (turf is actually pretty deep rooted naturally, but every time you mow, you kill the exact same amount of root that you cut off the blades above ground, so it never has a chance). 

There are clovers that specifically do very, very well under trees, better than turf grass does. I use a blend that was made for orchards. It might not be the right one for your yard, but you can check with the helpful folks at Peaceful Valley Farms. (http://www.groworganic.com); they have been extremely helpful to me over the years. 

For more information:

Redesigning the American Lawn by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, Gordon T. Geballe, and Lisa Vernegaard; this book came out in 1995 and a revision is due out in 2001;

The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the traditional front lawn by Stevie Daniels

Requiem for a Lawnmower by Sally Wasowski

The Natural Lawn & Alternatives by Janet Marinelli and Margaret Roach (Editors)

The Chemical-Free Lawn by Warren Schultz

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply - Free catalogue. Sells clover and lawn mixes designed for your specific needs and growing conditions

Nichols Garden Nursery - Reading this catalogue makes me want to move to Oregon, just so I can shop there. I originally ordered this catalogue to buy one of their flowering lawn mixes, but found that was only a tiny fraction of the wonderful selection of herb, vegetable, and lawn seed they sell. Talk about armchair gardening! They sell specialized turf mixes for every part of the United States, as well as flowering lawn mixes.