GENTLEMEN, lay down your lawnmowers. There’s a new school of thought taking root—an idea that would scrap the Saturday afternoon-killing mow and end the merry-go-round of chemical applications. How? Tear out the grass and replant all or part of your yard with native flora, which requires less water and less maintenance in the long run, and can foster a more functional ecosystem, to boot.
Residential lawns—which we have 40 million acres of—are thirstier than any agricultural crop. Nationwide, we use 9 billion gallons of water for landscape irrigation each day (and as much as half of that amount is lost to inefficiencies). Many homeowners also spray with broad-spectrum insecticides, which, in addition to their health risks, can kill off the insects responsible for pollinating 90 percent of all flowering plants.
Beyond all that, the cultural relevance of the “all-American” lawn is an artifact anyway. As pop-historian Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, sprawling, labor-intensive lawns were essentially a “flex” by Middle Age aristocrats, who used them as function-free status symbols.
New lawns require new thinking. Douglas Tallamy champions the concept well in Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press). Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, argues that beyond protected public lands, we’ve overlooked the importance of our own private lands, where residential yards play a key role in supporting a functioning ecosystem.
“Our human footprint is so gigantic,” Tallamy explains, “that we can’t say, ‘Well, we’re going to have a functional ecosystem someplace else’—there is no someplace else.”
That doesn’t mean ripping out the entire lawn. Tallamy just suggests you avoid planting invasive species that do little to support insect life, the birds that eat those insects, and your local ecosystem.
It may seem cheaper to plant a patch of thirsty sod and to stock your yard with popular plants from the local box store, but, in the long run, a native landscape can actually be less expensive than a highly maintained and traditional lawn. Jack Pizzo, a Chicago landscape architect renowned for planting wildflower meadows in both corporate and residential settings, says that, “During the first two, three, four years, it’s roughly the same cost. After that, your desired plants tend to reproduce, crowding the weeds out—it looks good and doesn’t require the labor.”
To reduce water consumption, municipalities nationwide have rolled out “cash for grass” programs; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently increased its rebate to $2 per square foot of grass removed. Las Vegas’ turf rebate has been credited for annually saving 10 billion gallons of water, playing a part in the unlikely rise of Lake Mead, the West’s largest reservoir. Online seminars offering to “Convert Your Lawn to Prairie” are selling out. “Rewilding” has become a buzzword in landscaping circles.
Where to start? Look to state and local chapters of Master Naturalists and Native Plant Societies for help and local intel. Check to see if your municipality has incentivized renovations to promote water conservation. And start shopping from sustainable-minded retailers like Native American Seed, a Texas outfit that ships alternatives like buffalo grass and wildflower-and-grass seed mixes.
“We’re still in the earlier stages of a mass shift, but we’ve gone beyond the early adopters,” says Native American Seed’s Bill Neiman about the growth of native and wildlife-centric landscaping. “People are awakening to something that we’ve gone numb on, which is our total interconnectedness to all things.”
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