A Lawn on the Front Range or Colorado Native Plants?

| Colorado Native Plants, Native Landscape Planning & Design, Turf Conversion

By: Deborah Lebow Aal

Despite their standardized curb appeal, are lawns really all they’re cracked up to be? With all of their harmful impacts on the environment from carbon emissions to over fertilization, pesticide treatments, and water consumption, the answer is likely, not so much!!! You might be able to get away with a lawn in a wet northeastern state, but not so much on the Front Range of Colorado. Yet, if you look around my Denver neighborhood, that’s pretty much what everyone has, except me. What is it about an expanse of green that we love? Well, many of us are transplants from the east, where lawns are lush and fed our sense of what’s beautiful. We grew up with them, and we like the look.

Pipevine Swallowtail. Photo by John S. Barr

But, beyond that, historically, people only had a lawn if they were wealthy. In England, a huge expanse of non-productive land was for wealthy people only. Lawns were for those who could afford help maintaining them, because even in rainy England, lawns are high maintenance.

Lawns are expensive. They require watering (on the Front Range), mowing, fertilizing, applying chemicals if you want it to be pristine, watering and mowing again. And they are our largest crop. The EPA has estimated there are 63,000 square miles of lawns in the U.S. That is an area eight times the size of New Jersey.* That is three times the area of irrigated corn. And, we can’t eat it.

I have heard, many a time, people saying that their property is not going to make a difference – it’s too small, it’s very urban, or suburban, and there’s “lots of nature out there.” Yes, I heard those exact words. Well, we need every square foot of nature we can get back. If you look at the photos taken from space by the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite program (DMSP) from the mid 1990’s, most of the US has been developed. The swaths of “open, natural” areas are gone. That 63,000 square miles of lawn, about a third as large as our national park square mileage, is just a piece of the non-productive land. You’d have to add in roads and rooftops square footage to get the rest.

Now, I know you need your lawn for dogs and children. I know, I’ve had them both. But what about reducing the size of your lawn, or better yet, finding alternatives to lawns that are better for the ecosystem? Here are four reasons that might convince you to give up or reduce the size of your lawn:

  1. Lawns are ecological dead zones

Not much – with the exception of Japanese beetle larvae – uses your lawn for food or shelter. I repeat – lawns are breeding grounds for Japanese beetles. Is there anyone out there who wants more Japanese beetles? Your lawn is an ecological dead zone. That’s assuming your lawn is Kentucky blue grass, or some other exotic grass. If your lawn is made up of native grasses, then maybe there are some living things making use of it. Buffalo grass, for example, is a nice alternative. But most of us want that green Kentucky blue grass look.

  1. The environmental cost of lawns

The EPA estimates that approximately 80 million pounds of pesticides are applied to the 40 million acres of lawns in the US. And 800 million gallons of gas are used to mow lawns annually.** In all, we spend $45 billion each year on lawn care (Holmes, H 2006. Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn). Converting lawn to natives would save money and create much needed food and habitat for wildlife. Now, admittedly, lawns could possibly be better than bare ground. Lawns can provide erosion control and surface cooling to counteract the heat of asphalt, concrete and rooftops, but that pales in comparison to what natives can do for the ecosystem. They can provide erosion control and cooling in addition to other benefits.

  1. The water and dollar cost of lawns

In Denver, an estimated 55% of residential water goes to maintaining our landscapes, which are mostly thirsty lawns. When I lived in a duplex (two side-by-side attached houses), we took out the lawn. My neighbors were skeptical, but they gamely went along with the plan, and low and behold, they saved thousands of gallons of water a month! They were shocked. They also were very happy with the way it looked. We often had people strolling by telling us we had the most beautiful yard in the neighborhood. It was the size of a postage stamp, but we did a lot with a small space. So, even in small spaces, you will save many gallons of water, which of course translates into dollars. I wish I had a picture of the before, which was a very tired looking lawn, but here’s a picture of what it looks like now.

  1. Native plants will provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife

Each patch of native plants planted, instead of lawn, will provide more choices for food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. Now, you could take out your lawn, and plant shrubs, trees and flowers that are not natives (also known as exotics), but that will not be as beneficial. Here are four more reasons to plant natives rather than your favorite exotic plant:

  1. Natives are suited to our harsh climate.*** It’s just easier to keep your plants alive.
  2. Natives are suited to our soil, which means you do not have to amend the soil, or use fertilizer, and some say you don’t even need mulch.
  3. Birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds will be attracted to your yard. I can’t tell you how good that is for your mental health! I can only speak for my own mental health, I suppose, but when I saw that first butterfly this year, I danced – out in public for all to see!
  4. There are around 4,000 native species in Colorado, the state with the highest number of native species so there are lots and lots of choices. You are not limited to a bland palette of plants.

So, think about taking out, or reducing the size of, your lawn. It’s a particularly beneficial thing you can do for the ecosystem, with the added benefit of easier gardening, and potentially lower costs.

*From Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy, who referenced Milesi et al 2005. These estimates are from 2005, so they may be low. I have seen estimates as high as the size of the state of Texas, but those numbers are unverified.

** I am a big proponent of the push lawnmower if you have to have grass. You’re getting some wonderful exercise and not polluting as you mow. I know if you have an acre of grass, that’s going to take a heck of a long time to mow. More incentive to make that grass area smaller?

***The Front Range is in what we call a steppe ecosystem. Similar to parts of Mongolia, Argentina and South Africa, it is characterized by low precipitation, cold, harsh winters, and dry, very hot summers, in the shadow of mountain ranges.

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