A Greener Lawn for the deKoven House

Contributed by Tom Christopher

Lawns are a dilemma for the environmentally-minded gardener. On one hand, they are the most economical, pedestrian-proof groundcover for large expanses of landscape, and invaluable playspace for families with children. On the other hand, as presently constituted, lawns are labor-intensive and greedy consumers of fertilizers, pesticides, and water.

There is a solution, and that’s to adopt a different model of lawn. Instead of the traditional lawn, descended from the intentionally high-maintenance turf of English aristocrats, look to an example closer to home. Look to the landscape of the shortgrass prairie of the American West. In contrast with the conventional lawn, which is needy and biologically impoverished, the turf of the western prairies is not only tough but also naturally short and biologically diverse, supporting on of the most complicated and diverse ecosystems in the world.

We can’t simply transplant shortgrass prairie from the semi-arid west to the much moister northeast, but we can use it as inspiration. We can, for example, mix more adapted short-growing grasses in varied combinations with wildflowers. We can make use of plants naturally adapted to our soils and climate, that don’t demand the crutches of chemical fertilization, irrigation, and constant mowing.

We conducted an experiment a few years ago in front of the deKoven House, replacing the conventional lawn in the central area with a mixture of three types of fine fescues, a blend of one part hard fescue, one part creeping red fescue, and one part chewings fescue.  Of these, only hard fescue is considered a North American native, but the other two have long been naturalized in our area.  Because these grasses are slow growing, the need for mowing in this area was reduced to a few times each summer.  These grasses are also naturally drought tolerant, flourish in conditions of lower fertility, and are naturally weed resistant; a recent inspection revealed that they continue to make a nearly weed-free turf around the deKoven House.  When planting, I selected seed that had been inoculated with endophytes, a beneficial group of fungi that live within the grass plants, feeding on their nutrients but in return make them unattractive to most insect pests and many diseases.

Whereas conventional lawn grasses typically grow in a carpet of interlocked shoots, these fine fescues grow as a complex of individual tufts and so may be interplanted with low-growing wildflowers for pollinators.  In fact, such fine fescue blends commonly serve as the basis of the “bee-friendly” flowering lawns that are becoming popular in many parts of the country.

If you are interested in learning more about such environmentally friendly lawns, click to check out the “No Mow Lawns” episode of my Growing Greener podcast.  

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