Rethinking the Lawn!
A recent article published by Modern Farmer discussed the trend in rethinking our “lawns.” In southern California, the trend has been a push to convert monocrop grass stands to Native and drought tolerant, low water plant pallets. Decomposed granite, rocks and gravel highlight many of these pseudo-habitat installations. Although I love California’s native landscapes and the diversity of plants that make it up, and believe many of these installations are exceptionally beautiful, I think it is time to consider the importance of grass in home landscapes from a Natural History and Ecological-Agriculture perspective.
I can feel the faces of my Native Plant enthusiast friends and water managers all over turning red and getting hotter than the boulders in a new drought tolerant garden in August. But sit back and hear me out, please. Grasslands in California are a critically endangered habitat. When the plow or bulldozer isn’t turning them over, and fires are suppressed, scrub and chaparral habitats often encroach onto fertile grasslands.
I have a front “lawn” that totals about 7000 square feet. For years, I pleaded with my wife to let me convert it to flower and vegetable production space. She has always stood her ground and protected her lawn. However, I still have to care for and maintain it, so I have been approaching it from a slightly different perspective. I view it not as lawn, but as pasture and more accurately grassland. For the past 3 plus years, I have been conducting some informal research on the natural history of my front lawn with particular focus on biodiversity and forage capacity.
When we moved onto the property almost 12 years ago, the entire 1-acre land mas had been scraped clean of any vegetation except for the three century old Olive trees in the backyard, a gravel driveway and some tiny privet bushes that were planted to someday form a hedge. But as soon as some rain fell a few sprigs of Bermuda and foxtail began to appear.
We watered the area a couple times a week, as my wife began to find therapeutic value in wielding a hose with her thumb over the end. We also own and operate a floral business on the property and our leftover water from storing flowers would be dumped onto the Lawn. It took about 5 years to fill in the entire area with vegetative cover. And every week or two depending on the season, I would mow the patches of green and gold. The collected cuttings were either added to the compost pile or fed to the cattle we had at the time.
If I let the mower rest for a week or two longer than my wife would like, I would begin to see other plants sprout. Erodium, also known as Heron’s Bill, Bi-colored lupine, wild oats and other grass species would appear, but always gave way to the mulching blades of my Honda mower. On occasion, when the mower wouldn’t cooperate, I would take the weed whacker or string trimmer to the taller plants and larger clumps of grass.
During one such season, I noticed something different about the outcomes of using a weed whacker instead of a mower. The cut had less uniformity over the spread of our lawn. In fact it dawned on me that using the string trimmer to cut my lawn, had an outcome much more like that of a grazing animal than that of a sharp even-bladed mower.
Over time more new species were discovered and the diversity increased. Wild Brodea, Needle grasses, Silverleaf Nightshade and milkweeds began to show up. In all, my lawn contains at least 13 species of grasses and herbaceous plants. Some native and some not. Some are drought tolerant, others grow only where the water is more prevalent.
Gophers have also increased over time, though i have a couple barn cats, Western Screach Owls, Red-tailed hawks and other predators that keep them mostly in check. With the addition of living plants, and a little water, organic matter has increased and my soil has improved significantly over the past 5 years. My “lawn” is now sequestering carbon and feeding a soil ecosystem that further adds to the biodiversity of our little flower ranch.
So I agree with the idea that it is time to rethink our lawns. But that doesn’t mean taking them out in favor of a few drought tolerant perennials or succulents. Instead, lets turn our lawns into grasslands, meadows and pastures. Lets turn our lawns into carbon sinks. We can increase biodiversity, make hay and reverse climate change and save water. Yah! Lets rethink our lawns.