I used to be an anti-lawn crusader. Everywhere I went, the lawn went, too. So when we moved in to our current place, the first thing I did was dig out lawn, sheet mulch large areas, and put in veggies and fruit trees wherever I could. While we didn't end up meeting all our needs with this approach, the soil is much improved and our fruit trees and shrubs are now starting to produce!
There are all sorts of reasons not to have a lawn. If we're talking about a standard suburban lawn maintained the standard way, lawn is a major resource hog.
- Most people use gas mowers. New gas mowers use the same amount of energy as 11 new cars running for the same amount of time. Older two-cycle mower engines release 25-30% of their oil and gas unburned into the air. Gas powered mowing accounts for 5% of the USA's air pollution.
- Most people overwater their lawns. Some people water too often, which destroys the turfs ability to cope with drought. Others give the lawn more than can be infiltrated by the soil at one time. Excess water can run off the lawn, deplete the natural resource, and carry excess fertilizers and chemicals into the local watershed.
- Most people use industrially manufactured synthetic fertilizers to keep their lawn green, in the wrong amounts. Not only does the production of these fertilizers pollute the environment, using excess product pollutes the local watershed.
- Most people control weeds, insects, and fungal problems with herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. These products destroy the balance of soil life and pollute the watershed. They can also pose health hazards to anyone who uses the lawn, including children and pets.
So, with all this stacked against lawns and my permaculture sensibilities, why would I consider putting one in?
While going through the process of developing a complete design for our lot (post coming soon!), we realized that we really wanted to be able to relax in the sun with our family and friends on a soft, green, living carpet. We wanted to have room to make and eat meals outdoors, and we wanted to be able to get from place to place in the yard without going through an obstacle course. We determined that the mixed sun & shade area between the carport, grape arbors, vegetable garden, and maple trees is perfect for that kind of activity. We'd tried to grow summer annuals there, but found the only crop that did well was potatoes, due to the shade and the high traffic. With 6 months of neglect after harvest, it turned into a thriving patch of weeds. On top of this, we don't eat potatoes any more!
We thought about putting in a perennial food forest, but the permanence of shrubs and trees didn't work for us, since we walk though the area several times a day in order to care for our animals and hang the laundry. Plus, the kids are always running through to the back to play. No matter how well behaved they are, packs of 10 to 12 year old kids just don't control where their feet land with much accuracy. This high traffic area is also close to the house and the grill in the carport. Additionally, we have seating under the arbors - along with blankets on the lawn we could entertain larger groups of people.
Lawn is the obvious choice for a high traffic, comfortable ground cover. With the right maintenance practices and species selection, it doesn't need to be an environmental disaster.
In the next installment we look at the ground cover options we considered before making our decision.