Replacing the Green Desert: Why Native Plant Alternatives to Turf?

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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Aster and Bee

Replacing the Green Desert: Why Native Plant Alternatives to Turf?

The great American love affair with lawns has a long tradition.  The funny thing is, it’s not even our tradition – we adopted the idea from Europe where turf grasses are native.  And that’s where the ecological problem starts.  Our native flora and fauna species did not co-evolve with European turf grasses and are not supported by these exotic grass species.

Turf demonstrates its incompatibility with our local ecosystems by demanding enormous amounts of inputs in order to grow well – copious amounts of water, fertilizer and labor.  Turf is like a demanding child – always hungry, always needy, incapable of being left alone.  The average American lawn uses 20,000 gallons of water per year for irrigation and homeowners use ten times more synthetic pesticides on their lawns than farmers use on crops.

Exotic grass lawns are virtual wastelands in our local ecosystems.  This was not such a huge problem when America had great expanses of “natural” areas and homeowners allowed parts of their landscapes to grow “naturally,” before intrusive, invasive exotic species became so common.  Now, many of our native species are seriously threatened and biodiversity is at an all time low in our landscapes.

Why does biodiversity matter so much? Research has shown that bio-diverse landscapes are more resilient over time to pests, diseases and climate change – the trifecta of environmental threats that seems to be growing daily.  Still not convinced?   Consider the fact that biodiversity is the key to healthy ecosystems, and healthy ecosystems deliver “ecosystem services” that we humans rely upon.  Purification of air and water, carbon sequestration, crop pollination, climate regulation, soil fertility, waste detoxification, prevention or moderation of flooding – these are just some of the ecosystem services that we cannot exist without.  Lawns just don’t deliver.

Homeowners and landscape professionals can “connect the ecological dots” and convert turf into bio-diverse landscapes filled with life – good for humans, good for the ecosystems that we are a part of.  Consider the difference between a lifeless monoculture of turf that supports almost no species vs. a native meadowscape (a true meadow or meadow-like garden) filled with a diversity of native plants, attracting a wide array of songbirds, butterflies, pollinating insects and so on.  Make this ecologically-rich landscape a welcoming place by mowing a wide path in the middle, so you can take a stroll and enjoy the show.  Or, you can stare at lifeless turf!

The functional aspect of meadows and native plant alternatives is also compelling.  Shallow-rooted turf is no match for the deep roots of many native plants that excel at keeping stormwater in place, enriching the soil as they grow in a complex matrix underground.  Many of our native plants are workhorses at sequestering carbon and trapping or remediating toxins in the soil.  Exotic turf?  Not even close.

Perhaps you are not ready to remove an entire lawn. In that case start with a smaller area and plant it with a compelling array of native plants, showcasing a beautiful succession of bloom from early spring through late fall.  Make sure to site the meadowscape or native planting in a central location where the birds, butterflies and pollinating insects are in full view.  You will enjoy the beauty of a landscape filled with life as you boost the local ecosystem around you.

Start Planning for the Spring from Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

Photo: Native Bee on Native Aster!

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