Green lawns-yours, your neighbours’-are good for property values, and the pressure for upkeep can be intense. In some places, it’s nonnegotiable-as Betty Perry, a 70-year-old widow in Orem, Utah, found out. After refusing to provide her name to a police officer who had cited her for a less-than-lush yard, she was led to jail in handcuffs.
- Water. While the average American family uses about 30 percent of its water outdoors, that number spikes to 70 percent in the West, where water is especially scarce. Clark County, Nevada, for instance banned planting turf in the front yards of new homes. The EPA is now offering incentives to builders to design landscapes that use a “regionally appropriate” amount of water. Grass is probably the largest irrigated crop in this country, says Cristina Milesi, a NASA-funded researcher.
- Fertilizer overkill? Americans buy some 4.5 million tons of chemical fertilizer a year-mostly concentrated, water-soluble products that may dish out more nutrients than your lawn can use. Phosphorus and nitrogen can run off during rainstorms, contaminating drinking water and leaching into rivers and streams and turbo-feeding algae, which then dies and smothers fish. Another downside: It takes lots of fossil fuel to manufacture most synthetic fertilizers.
- Pesticides. Moms worried about the effects of pesticides on their kids’ health have led to a “quantum shift” in awareness of organic lawn care, says Paul Tukey, founder of safelawns.org. In Canada, more than 100 cities, including Toronto, restrict the use of pesticides. Nothing prevents U.S. cities from doing the same. But lobbyists have helped pass “preemption laws” in 41 states to make community pesticide bans illegal.
- Redefining a weed. What, exactly, is a lawn invader, and what needs to be eradicated? Some “weeds,” like white clover, cut down on grubs, and others, like yellow dock, ferry nutrients from deep in the soil to your grass.
- New seeds. Drought-tolerant grasses like sheep fescue, buffalo grass, and blue grama are all widely available from seed suppliers. This year, Scotts introduced Turf Builder EZ Seed, which uses coconut fiber to yield “50 percent thicker grass with half the water,” according to company claims. One of the most promising new grass seeds is Eco-Lawn, from Canada, which doesn’t require any fertilization and can be planted over existing grass.
- No grass-or faux grass Ground covers like blue carpet juniper, wildflowers, and sprinkle-on moss don’t require much water and need little tending. Another alternative is artificial turf, such as the recently introduced K9Grass, from Forever-Lawn in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which boasts a porous backing for rain (and dog urine). Despite health concerns over lead levels in fake turf made from recycled tires-and its tendency to retain heat (it can get up to 60 degrees hotter than real grass)-cities such as Scottsdale, Arizona, are encouraging homeowners to go faux.
- It’s the soil Manure was once the fertilizer of choice to beef up soil and feed grass. Today, organic landscapers advocate composting with lawn or kitchen scraps, mulching with grass clippings, or fertilizing with organic products that combine anything from llama manure to fish emulsion and alfalfa. Last year, Harvard eliminated chemical treatment on 25 acres of its greens; it now relies only on “basic soil health techniques,” using natural mulch and the “compost tea” brewed in giant vats on campus. In one year, by composting and recycling 500 tons of grass clippings, pruned branches, and leaves for mulch, the college saved two million gallons of water and $35,000 in disposal costs.
- Rebates. Some states, even cash-strapped California, are offering cash incentives to people who shrink their lawns, limit watering during peak usage times, or use “smart water meters” that let homeowners monitor how much water they’re using.
Tips for Building a Better Backyard
- Patios and pavers can reduce the 40 hours a year a typical homeowner spends on lawn maintenance.
- Beds of wildflowers or moss cost 68 percent less to maintain than grass.
- A simple rain barrel saves the average gardener 1,300 gallons of water a summer.
- Using homegrown fertilizer saves a typical homeowner some $50 a year.
- Push-mower users burn 408 calories an hour and spend only $5 a year on maintenance.