Why is it that we pay more for organic produce at the grocery store, but then slather our lawns and vegetable gardens in pesticides and chemical fertilizers? The environmental movement has never been stronger or more mainstream in the U.S., but the average suburban lawn uses more pesticides per acre than land used for commercial agriculture. We hear in the news about decades-long droughts and water-table levels dropping dangerously low, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly one third of all residential water in the U.S. is used to water yards — which certainly aren’t as essential as drinking water.
These contradictions have inspired me and my husband to rethink how we approach our yard. A “perfect” green lawn is fleeting while the pesticides and water needed to cultivate it have real consequences for the future of our individual property and our collective planet. We have taken steps to grow an “organic yard,” making environmentally sound choices for the plants, animals, people, water supply, and future. Here are a few tips for starting your own organic yard.
The low-mow movement
We have a neighbor whose yard is patchy and often brown and dried up even though he is constantly watering and spraying weed killers. Our lawn, however, is full and never brown — even in the middle of summer — and we’ve never watered it or put down pesticides. What’s our secret?
Although the “No Mow May” movement has gained a lot of popularity in some areas, we have found that a “Low-Mow” approach works better for us. We mow approximately every other week (as opposed to every week like most of our neighbors). The grass is an inch or two taller than the standard suburban lawn, but it doesn’t get out of control.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but mowing your lawn less will actually keep it greener and healthier. All grasses naturally retain water when left to grow, which allows them to stay green and healthy during dry spells. Suburban lawns, however, are rarely left unmown, thus requiring a lot of water and attention.
If you want to try a “No Mow” or “rewilding” approach, it may be better to select a portion of your yard, instead of the entire thing. Leaving your whole yard unmown may lead to conflicts with neighbors or homeowner associations, invasive weeds, the growth of trees, or unwanted pests. Instead, choose a section of lawn that is unused or out of sight from the road. We leave a two-foot strip by the detached garage unmown. There are tall grasses and wildflowers, weeds and a variety of plants. Birds come to eat the seeds of the sprouted grasses. A bunny made a burrow there and lots of pollinators buzz around.
“Perfect” lawns are so difficult to maintain and require constant fertilizer and pesticides because homeowners are essentially monocropping, or trying to plant exclusively one type of plant in an area. As anyone who has tried to control a flowerbed or grow a vegetable garden knows, cultivating only one type of plant is extremely challenging, requiring constant weeding and often pesticides and weed killers. Nature demands diversity. Take a look around a forest or naturally occurring field: many different plants live in harmony, often forming symbiotic or complementary relationships, and use soil nutrients from their neighbors.
An organic yard questions what a lawn’s purpose is. Do you maintain your lawn to impress the neighbors? What do you actually want to do on your lawn? Is your lawn purely ornamental or is it functional? What really is a “weed” anyway?
For me, the lawn provides a soft play surface for my family. It prevents soil erosion and mud puddles. I want to be able to walk barefoot over the surface. None of these requirements demand a single type of grass. My lawn is a natural mix of grasses and local flowers. Clover, buttercups, and Creeping Charlie are all welcome in my yard. They are soft and provide spots of color. The best part about an organic yard: you don’t have to keep fighting nature.
If you are moving from a traditional monocrop lawn to something more organic, a few seasons without weed killers will allow nature to take its course. Native plants and a diversity of greens will start growing naturally. If you get crab grass or some other thorny plant, dig it up with a hand trowel and re-seed. A seed mix that is chosen for your climate will thrive the best.
Is there a section of your yard that you don’t walk on? Consider replacing the grass with a flower bed, vegetable garden, or ground cover. We have a neighbor who replaced the strip of grass next to her house with a variety of ferns, which thrive in the shade. Our neighborhood has lots of hills and many people have replaced the hard-to-mow areas with wild flowers, ornamental grass, hostas, bushes, creeping phlox, or hardy ground covers. These plants require little water and maintenance.
Grow your own fruits and veggies
Locally grown organic produce is expensive at the grocery store, but you can grow your own very inexpensively with just a little bit of effort. My family grows raspberries, blackberries, and a variety of vegetables in our yard, all without pesticides or fertilizer. There’s something truly delightful about growing your own food, and without artificial chemicals, you can rest assured that the produce is safe to eat. How can you successfully grow produce in your yard without pesticides or fertilizer?
Basically, you need to match the plant to your growing space, not the other way around.
First, choose crops that will thrive in your climate. The USDA provides a Plant Hardiness Zone Map that categorizes the climate into 26 subsections. Whether you shop at a local nursery or at a big home and garden center, a plant’s information tag or a seed packet will list the best climate to grow it in. It’s also important to follow the directions on the label to plant at the correct time. If you plant too early, you may lose your garden to frost.
Second, you need to consider the amount of sunlight. Our raspberry bush thrives in full sunlight and easily produces a dozen cups of berries over the growing season, but our neighbor’s bush is in the shade and she barely gets more than a few handfuls of berries. Before you leave for the store, survey your growing spaces. Then choose plants based on the sunlight available in the space.
Finally, instead of spraying fertilizer, choose a good potting soil or use compost. These provide the nutrients that the plant needs throughout the growing season.
If you have a small yard, you can make flower beds into vegetable gardens. Even apartment owners with no yard can grow herbs or a few veggies in individual pots set out on a porch or window sill.
When I see neighbors spraying Round-Up, I often think of my great-aunt who lives about a mile away. At 97, she has lived in the same house for over 70 years and used to be able to drink the well water on her property. Since the 1990s, the well — and presumably the water table that it draws from — has become so polluted with pesticides that it is toxic to drink. She now has to pipe in municipal water.
Our yard choices have consequences. We need to reevaluate our priorities. Is a “perfect” lawn worth poisoning our water supply? How long do the toxic chemicals that we spray today stay in the soil? Can we really embrace the global environmental movement if we don’t make changes closest to home?
Small changes today can have either positive or negative rippling consequences for our planet.