Lawn Care: What's In and What's Out

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(By Gina Gervase, Communications Assistant)

A verdant, lush lawn has become an American standard, but the conventional approach to maintaining these lawns can involve some environmentally harmful practices. It’s time for this American classic to get an update and NCAP is here to help you shepherd in a new era for the front yard.

Despite the recent intense droughts that hit states like California, Oregon and Washington, lawns are America’s most irrigated crop, with 50% of water wasted, turning into runoff [1]. Besides being wasteful, runoff can also present hazards to wildlife when pesticides are applied and drain with the excess water.  

Glyphosate (Roundup) is the most commonly applied lawn herbicide, used in direct contact with unwanted weeds. As glyphosate drains into streams it harms wildlife in its path and the humans who consume the water. When tadpoles were exposed to glyphosate, 10 to 25 percent were intersex, developing abnormal sex organs [2]. The herbicide also compromises the immune system of fish when exposed to glyphosate, upsetting already declining fish populations [2]. Humans haven’t escaped harm either. Glyphosate has been linked to cancer in humans and an increase in the risk of miscarriages [3].

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can reduce the amount of pesticides in our water and protect our wildlife and communities, all while growing healthy lawns. When we substitute conventional lawn care practices for a holistic approach, we can build a resilient lawn that doesn’t depend on pesticides to look healthy.


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Out: Synthetic fertilizers

Made from fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers run off into streams and waterways, often causing environmental problems like algae blooms and causing impairments in water life. Avoid "weed and feed" products, as these are usually a combination of fertilizers and pesticides.

In: Organic fertilizers

Organic fertilizers like compost focus on building a healthy soil. Compost can be applied 3 to 4 times a year. Releasing nutrients slowly, organic fertilizers are less likely to run off into streams. They build resiliency in soil by supporting microorganisms, increasing fertility and fighting lawn diseases.


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Out: Dandelion extermination

Eliminating weeds often means spraying pesticides like Monsanto’s Roundup. This herbicide becomes destructive when swept by runoff into streams and waterways and also kills off beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

In: Biodiverse lawns

Diversity of plant species in a yard increases the presence of beneficial insects and improves soil health. Dandelions attract beneficial insects by providing early spring pollen to fuel them. A study from the University of Wisconsin found that lawns with dandelions had more ladybugs and fewer pest aphids - the ladybug’s choice snack - when compared to lawns without dandelions [4]. Dandelions are also an early food source for pollinators when other flowers are scarce. Still want to eliminate some dandelions? Check out our recipe for vinegar weedkiller.


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Out: Perfectly manicured lawns

When grass is cut short it it becomes less able to fight off drought and weeds, as it lessens the grass’s ability to receive nutrients from photosynthesis that keep it healthy.

In: Mow High, Mow Often

Each species of grass has an optimal mowing height and mowing your lawn at the high end of this range allows the grass to develop a deeper root system and tolerate drought, heat, shade, disease and pests. The grass clippings will add more nutrients and organic matter back into the soil. Researchers estimate that grasscycling reduces fertilizer needs by 25 percent [5]. Try an electric lawn mower, or a manual mower for smaller lawns, to reduce your impact.


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Out: Plain ol' grass is so 20th century

Most grass species used in the United States are not native to this country and don't do anything for the biodiversity of a yard.

In: Lawn alternatives

One of the alternatives to your grass species is clover. It requires very little water, handles foot traffic well and provides habitat for pollinators. Micro clover (Trifolium repens L. var. Pirouette) grows low to the ground so little or no mowing is required. It also happens to introduce nitrogen very efficiently into the ground, making it a natural fertilizer. Various wildflowers and mosses can also provide good ground cover that do not require as much water, and no mowing. Planting anemone, lily of the valley, creeping Charlie, sweet woodruff and thyme will yield a lower-maintenance lawn and provide for your local pollinators.


[1] http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Lawn/lawn2.php

[2] Howe, C.M. et al. 2004. Toxicity of glyphosatebased pesticides to four North American frog species. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 23:1928-1938.

[3] http://www.pesticide.org/cancer_listing_for_glyphosate

[4] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s004420000476

[5] Harivandi, A. and V.A. Gibeault. 1999. Mowing your lawn and “grasscycling.” Univ. of Calif. Div. of Agriculture and Natural Resources. http:// anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu.

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