A lawn can be much more than grass!
By Edith Smeesters, biologist and author
What’s Your Definition of a Beautiful Lawn?
We often compare a beautiful lawn to a golf green. But what if we changed that reference point?
What if we saw the ideal lawn as one that smells like a spring morning with all those delightful fragrances that remind us of our childhood?
Or a flowery, colorful lawn that attracts a wide range of useful organisms to control outbreaks: birds, predatory insects and more?
Or an original and sensual lawn that you can walk barefoot on without fear of absorbing toxic pesticides?
Or a lawn where your children can roll around and play without danger and that your cat can chew on without getting sick?
Wouldn’t you be proud of such a lawn?
Biodiversity Is the Key to a Natural Balance
In a meadow or a wild forest, there are always several species living in association. Plants that appear spontaneously like that are always the most suitable for the habitat. They germinate and thrive because the environment suits them. They help each other, stabilize the soil and prepare the ground for other more demanding or more delicate varieties. In addition, wild plants live in close association with other living soil organisms: insects, nematodes, bacteria, earthworms, etc. If a pest destroys a plant, or even an entire species, there will always be other species present to fill in the gaps and take over.
The “Perfect” Lawn
The concept of the ideal lawn, a perfect lawn that looks just like a golf green, that lawn care companies have been promoting for over 70 years now, is practically the opposite of such natural mechanisms. The so-called “perfect” lawn is an extremely poor environment from an ecological point of view. It consists only of grasses often installed hastily on poor, compacted soil. To survive under such artificial conditions, a lawn needs chemical fertilizers and pesticides and a whole lot of care.
Learning to Accept Nature
To have a dense, natural lawn in a healthy environment, you can improve the soil to make it more suited to lawn grasses. However, it just isn’t possible to grow only grasses. When you try, you find yourself waging a constant war against other plants that withstand regular mowing. In addition, a golf green, grasses-only lawn is a monoculture and monocultures have always been a source of constant problems insects and disease problems as well. Wouldn’t it be simpler and above all more natural to accept biodiversity in your lawn?
Food for thought!
About the Author
Edith Smeesters is the author of several French-language books on ecological horticulture such as the Guide du jardinage écologique, Éditions Broquet, 2013.
Photos by Edith Smeesters
Yeah I like clover and I don’t mind dandelions.
Biodiversity is at its best. Thank you ??
Well put Marian. We are on an acreage that for the most part is left to be ‘natural’ (as in we found it this way). In the years we have been here dandelions, Canada thistle and smooth brome grass have moved in and are trying very hard to take over. The thistles and dandelions can be somewhat controlled but the smooth brome is very aggressive and almost impossible to eliminate. Hence, many of the native plants that were here when we moved in are disappearing faster than I can propagate them. At this time of year there seems to be a plethora of people encouraging us to ’embrace’ dandelions. Think if I hear this one more time might have to scream.
Thank you…I feel the same way as I spend more time every year trying to protect the native plant species I have. The “dandelion war” is a signal to me of how few people look very deeply into the issue…even scientists tend so make recommendations based on benefiting the species they study to the exclusion of other areas of study. I would so love to know all of the species for each plant I plant that are either benefitted or harmed, which plants crowd out my native species, and how introduced plants can change soil chemistry to their own benefit. For example, the first thing the introduced hawkweeds in my area do is kill the grasses and mosses around them, which makes the ground hotter and dryer. When I dig them out and wait a year, these plants start to recover. Then I would like to know if multiple species from the same part of the world potentiate the changes in their new environment. We already know in a number of species, that, freed of the need to defend against the insects that normally eat them, some species re-direct the energy they might have spent keeping themselves free of insects towards greater reproductive capacity and offensive battles against existing species in underground root battles. They even know their own kin, and grow aggressively towards the native species…that are frantically trying to defend against a full complement of insects AND this new threat to their survival. It is a jungle in your lawn…you can learn all you need to know about what is happening to the ecology of the world, and why you should be concerned right there. I have started compiling a file of photos where I can see the attacks going on above ground…it is harder to prove experimentally underground, but the scientists are studying it deeply. If you start to list the threats to native plants (I have 36 now), you start to realize it is time to circle the wagons to protect them…they have no voice for themselves, and humans are too much about their own interest until some species becomes super rare…the problem is, saving an animal does not happen without its habitat. Habitat starts with plants.
This is true with some additional thought…most weeds are very aggressive introduced plants that will not stay in your lawn. Most will not allow even native species to survive in your lawn. The species we should be supporting/developing/selling should be short height native plants suited to support the WHOLE ecology of each bioregion (not just the bees). But try growing them in a lawn and maintaining it the same old polluting mechanized way!
They will not survive. Even mowing less but controlling the introduced weeds that will spread and cause problems beyond your lawn if allowed to seed will help. Where I live we are planting violets, blue eyed grass, strawberry, small asters and goldenrods etc. These are season-long flower power for pollinators and lepidopterans, etc. But they cannot compete even “out there” with the aggressive and invasive plants we let escape from lawns! If you replace your lawn with concrete, the concrete does not grow and cause bigger problems over wider areas over time the way invasive and naturalized species of introduced plants do. Most of the photos above include such plants.
Heck, most lawn grass is not native, and some some species ARE invasive in natural areas. If you think about it lawn grasses have been bred to eliminate every plant for that “lovely” (boring) green carpet…so outside of the lawn they are still trying to make a lawn, choking out the few corners we have left in human settled areas where native plants might find a corner to grow. The fact is that there are native plants in your area struggling to survive and support the insects and then the birds they evolved to feed. There are native colonizer plants for disturbed grounds and sunny meadow plants that are under a LOT of pressure. When I see even wild strawberry, one our “once” aggressive native colonizers losing the battle to survive where lawn weeds are introduced, it is time to be very concerned…that one plant supports more than 60 species of animals. We should stick up for them!
I live on a dirt road near a natural area, and have a ditch that once hosted spring peeper frogs…I love their heralding of spring, and they would not be there except for that I try to maintain my property without modern chemistry. Now, that moisture is “sucked up” by an aggressive, round-up resistant golf course grass (Agrostis stolonifera)…no frogs…and every other creature that completed its life cycle there…dragonflies, damselflies, water striders, oars men, etc. etc. In fact, I have been trying to grow native grasses and the above native plants for my ecology for more than 10 years. The Agrostis has invaded those clump grasses and they are on the decline.
PLEASE think and dig deeper into ecology. A heavy “load” of introduced species can compromise biodiversity in a local area over the long term, replacing what was there with parts of the ecologies of Europe and Asia. Those plants can change the soil chemistry to suit themselves through a process called allelopathy. Plants can’t run away from predators, so they make chemical defenses…and attacks, allowing them to compete with other plants around them. They have a HUGE competitive advantage in that they are introduced without their co-evolved predators that would have kept their numbers in check in THEIR native habitat. The Japanese have recently discovered that the Dandelion has allelopathic pollen that can suppress the reproduction of other species of plants…carried by generalist pollinators…that is mind blowing to me…mainly at how little we know about what is actually going on between the plants!
The World Conservation Union has stated that invasive species are the second greatest threat to global biodiversity (to habitat loss)…for now..because this problem keeps…growing…with our support! Know your locally evolved ecology, plant native plants, and defend them before it is too late. Globally, greatest numbers of species will be supported by poorly understood, but unique local ecologies that make up the identity (and often beauty) of every area. They support the more charismatic species such as birds and butterflies that we love and need in our lives.
You only have to look at invasive species lists around the world to see that the same few species are adapting and overpowering the diversity of small plants everywhere. White clover, and dandelions, for example, are great plants that support the ecology where they are native. Clover works if we are trying to grow potatoes…because they suppress “weeds” (which can BE native plants). But where they are escaped (every trail in every “wild” area I see) or not supporting as full a complement of species as the native plants, this is a problem on a very large scale that we are ignoring because we think we can just pick and choose what survives and what does not. Whenever I hear someone say “dandelions are great!” We are choosing.
These plants have the ability to change pollinator networks meaning native plants that support more than bees disappear and the animals that relied on them with them. Many weeds can even alter soil chemistry to outcompete the plants that in many cases have taken millions of years to evolve where you might live. Some I am studying, such as Cardamine hirsuta outcompete most of the weeds and even that golf course grass is disappearing under it! The only “simple” answer is to understand why we need native plants and protect them…lawn or no lawn, and the need is urgent…the number of declining species is skyrocketing. You have control of what you grow in your yard…support your world right there in a practical way. To fully understand this, I highly recommend reading the data sheets produced by the Invasive Species Compendium (search the scientific name of the lawn weed or grass, and then add CABI). Know Thy Plants, support your local ecologies…they need you…yesterday. Look for lists of what is threatened in your area…you will be shocked. Please help. https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/52773#tosummaryOfInvasiveness