Lawns Are a Sustainability Problem: Here’s How to Fix Them within Regulations

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Decades from now, we can look back on these times and see that sustainability was the era’s defining concern. It has certainly felt that way in recent years.

We go to great lengths to make our homes more sustainable. New builds are designed with passive solar principles in mind. You upgrade energy-intensive appliances to more efficient versions and clean your pool with a natural organic pH system from Poolsmith Technologies. Perhaps you’ve even investigated what it will take to bring your home closer to net-zero energy consumption.

But amid all those efforts to be environmentally responsible, we can often overlook the actual green spaces on our property as a potential problem. Our lawns might be the first thing that needs to be fixed to live each day sustainably.

The problems of modern lawns

Most homes across the country have lawns that are largely covered by one of a few varieties of turf grass. Often, these lawns must also be maintained in accordance with local codes.

These factors alone make the typical lawn a much more resource-intensive and unsustainable feature than its green appearance would suggest. Turf grass requires a lot of water to thrive. Lawn irrigation accounts for 30% of water use on the east coast and up to 60% on the west.

Lawns must also be mowed, a practice that consumes gasoline and adds to emissions. They require fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to thrive in sub-optimal conditions. And as monocultures, they support little to no biological diversity while draining the soil of nutrients and being prone to disease and invasive species.

Overall, lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, which is ironic when you consider that they don’t yield any useful produce. In fact, there’s no benefit to maintaining a lawn besides holding some arbitrary aesthetic value. And for that purpose alone, one can hardly argue that no alternative would do less harm to the environment.


Running against the rules

Just as our awareness of sustainability issues, in general, has risen, many homeowners have also come to a sort of enlightenment regarding better lawns. They understand that monocultures are harmful and make room for native plants to grow while adopting a ‘no-mow’ approach. 

This encourages the presence of pollinators, improves soil quality, and reduces the overall cost of maintenance. But in many areas, such corrective measures encounter an unexpected challenge in the form of local laws and regulations.

Local ordinances and homeowner association rules vary. They range from sensible, such as a responsibility to eliminate invasive weeds, difficult but understandable, like not being permitted to grow hedges. The problems lie in requirements to maintain a certain length of growth and forbidding beneficial practices such as composting.

Such regulations typically arise out of concerns over fire safety or the spread of vermin and invasive species. But in many areas, they are outdated and downright head-scratching in the light of sustainability concerns. This is a problem for modern homeowners, who are essentially faced with paying a fine for doing something that can help save the environment.

Finding solutions and workarounds

What options are on the table if you want to get serious about improving your lawn in the face of local laws that tell you to do otherwise?

The first is simple and the most impactful in the long haul. Work with your community of like-minded homeowners and gardeners. Raise awareness and present the issue to municipal authorities. Make a case for why natural lawns are beneficial and not a nuisance.

Such policy changes don’t happen overnight, however. In that case, you also need to turn to the second option. Find an alternative lawn cover that can be sustainable while also managing to keep in line with local regulations.

Creeping herbs like thyme, oregano, or Corsican mint make for excellent landscaping substitutes. They don’t grow tall enough to worry about height limits and are always useful in home cooking. Thyme’s purple flowers aren’t just attractive to humans but also pollinators. They are also hardy, resistant to light foot traffic as well as roadside salting measures.

Clover lawns might be the perfect eco-friendly response to the common turf grass variety. Clover requires little or no watering after the early stages. It stifles weed growth and replenishes soil nutrients, especially nitrogen.

Finally, don’t overlook the unorthodox but beautiful option of evergreen moss. It will never give you a reason to worry about overgrowth and always offers a fresh, springy turf feeling. It’s almost no-maintenance and thrives in the shade, while different varieties can give you an interesting selection of greens for your lawn.

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