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Chemical-Free Yards are Stunning—and More Important than Ever.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of the Dirt, our member newsletter.

Tag football. Hide and seek. Corn hole. Grilling out with neighbors. These are just a few of the funtastic activities that take place every weekend on that most American plot of green: our lawns.

Lush, green grass is as much of a status symbol in many neighborhoods as cars and job titles. But there’s a cost to that expanse of monochromatic monoculture, and there’s a dirty little secret hiding in plain sight in our yards.

According to the National Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers. “These pesticides are going from our lawns and gardens into our drinking water and into our bodies,” wrote physician Diane Lewis in a recent op-ed for the New York Times.

Luckily, there are myriad ways to make your lawn an attractive—even productive!—backdrop without resorting to expensive chemical and fuel-intensive practices. Some of Georgia’s most respected farms, like Phoenix Gardens in Lawrenceville, the Global Growers Network in Dekalb County, and the Funny Farm in Stone Mountain, are literally in the yards of suburban homes.

When the grass isn’t greener

“Prior to the 1950s there really weren’t ‘lawns,’ just natural areas that filtered water runoff or grass and gardens around houses,” said Danna Cain of Home and Garden Design in Atlanta. “Veggie gardens were a big part of that and they were called ‘Victory Gardens’ during World War II. In the post atomic age, the ‘lawn’ was created as the ideal for a suburban homeowner.” Read an interview with Cain on our blog.

That ideal comes at a cost: About 100 million pounds of pesticides are used by homeowners in homes and gardens each year, according to watchdog group Beyond Pesticides. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogens, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system.

And these chemicals frequently make their way indoors due to pesticide drift: according to a Beyond Pesticides report, “pesticides in our home can concentrate to the point where they expose children to levels 10 times higher than pre-application levels.”

Maintenance on traditional lawns also requires fossil fuel-emitting push lawn mowers that, depending on who you listen to (either the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Union of Concerned Scientists, or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality), emit the same amount of air pollution as operating eight, 11, or 25 cars for an hour. Riding mowers are worse, emitting the pollution equivalent of up to 34 cars per hour.

Making the Transition

“OK!” you might be thinking, “Conventional lawn care is bad! But how can I transition my yard into something more natural? Where should I start?”

First, what do you want to get out of your new lawn? Food? A habitat for pollinators? (If you’re thinking about the first one, you should be thinking about the second one.) A place for your family to relax on a nice afternoon?

“If people want open space, there are lots of organic solutions to the lawn,” said Lindsey Mann, founder of edible landscape design firm Sustenance Design. “There’re mixes of fine fescue, there are mixes of different grasses, that are more drought-tolerant and are shade-tolerant.” Read an interview with Mann on our blog.

Clover is a great first step. It’s a tough, lovely ground cover with flowers that make pollinators happy and roots that fix nitrogen in the soil.

Upkeep is also less intensive for lawns that embrace natural processes.

“Personally, I would rather weed and cut back perennials several times a year rather than be obligated to mow once a week,” said Cain.

Farm yard

Duane Marcus of the Funny Farm is a grower and an experienced landscaper, and he knows firsthand that food production need not cut into aesthetic appeal. (Don’t take our word for it—check out the photo of his yard on the cover.) Fruit trees and berry bushes make productive and stunning additions to any yard, and many ornamental herbs like rosemary, lavender, and thyme also have culinary and medicinal uses.
And as the rise of square foot gardening indicates, even small yards contain a world of food-production possibilities.

“A very small space can produce food for four people, easily, all year round,” Marcus says. He estimates he grows the food he sells at markets on less than 1/8th of an acre.

If you’re going to be growing food, you should also be thinking about how to create habitats for pollinators and other beneficial wildlife. It’s surprisingly attainable, says Benjamin Portwood of Edible Yard and Garden in Decatur.

“Landscapes can be improved and enhanced by using species that serve more functions than just beauty,” Portwood says. “Modern lawns tend to be a monoculture maintained using strong chemicals that reduce biodiversity and contaminate groundwater and stormwater runoff. At the same time, they only feed one function.”

One lawn at a time

But how much change can one yard really make? More than you’d think. According to safelawns.org,  U.S. lawns cover between 30 and 50 million acres.

“Combined, our individual plots add up to much more space than wild space exists today,” said Mann.  “In the end it’s so worthwhile because of the environmental benefits and the health benefits.”

Food, not lawns. Beets, not Bermuda grass. “If you invite it, it will come,” says Cain. “We’ve even witnessed butterflies and hummingbirds arriving on the very day that we install herbs and flowering plants.”

The lawn is already a habitat for so much—neighborhood gatherings, sun tanning, reading a good book on a Sunday afternoon. Chemical-free lawns can be just as stunning as the sea of grass we’ve regarded as ideal for far too long, and they cost far less both financially and environmentally.

If yards are status symbols, wouldn’t it be great for the new ideal to be verdant swathes of culinary, medicinal, and ornamental plantlife grown in cooperation with Mother Nature?

Marcus’ yard is a feat of permaculture, and at first some of his neighbors weren’t as enthusiastic as he was about the changes he was making to his subdivision’s flora fabric. But a curious thing has happened in the seven years he’s lived there—more and more, his yard has become an entry point for neighbors and passersby to talk to him about horticulture and growing methods.

It’s how he met a fellow herbalist who talked to him about comfrey—and then brought him some. It’s why he got a handmade card from an elderly neighbor, thanking him for planting the beautiful flowers she loves to walk by.

Yards like Marcus’ make an impact on the environment in more ways than one. Yes, they’re reducing chemical inputs. Yes, they’re creating habitats for wildlife and space to grow pure food. But they’re also an opportunity for a beautiful outward expression of personal values, and an opportunity to share that value with your neighbors. And that’s more beautiful than any chemical-drenched monoculture.

Additional reporting by Kait Gray