According to a 2005 study by the NASA Earth Observatory, lawns are among the most prominent features of the American landscape. So proud are we of our lawns that we have planted more land with green turf than with irrigated corn. The same study found that maintaining all these lawns, if they were optimally watered, would use about 200 gallons of water per day per person in the lower 48 states.
But owning a piece of America doesn’t necessarily have to be environmentally disastrous, according to experts in sustainable landscaping. Although they use water, lawns do provide some ecological benefits. If grass clippings are left on the lawn to decompose, or if they are piled up and composted, they can actually absorb greenhouse-effect-causing carbon. Lawns also prevent erosion and are good at absorbing heat, keeping homes cooler than if they were surrounded by bare dirt.
Experts at the D&R Greenway will present a seminar on sustainable landscaping for the home garden on Tuesday, June 21, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at One Preservation Place in Princeton. The free event will include presentations from Pepper DeTuro, president of Kingston-based landscaping company Woodwinds; Judith Robinson, a certified organic landscape designer and D&R Greenway education and outreach manager; and Emily Blackman, manager of the D&R Greenway native plant nursery.
De Turo, who now runs Woodwinds, has been in the family business since 1994, shortly after graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in plant science. His father, Sam, founded the business in 1967 and has since retired.
DeTuro says that generally speaking, the more your lawn looks like a putting green, the worse it is for the environment. Like an athlete with a too-perfect body, it is impossible to attain the platonic green lawn with no weeds without using artificial enhancements. Where bodybuilders use steroids, lawn perfectionists must pile on herbicides and fertilizer, both of which are bad for the environment because they run off of property and ultimately get into ecologically sensitive waterways.
However, DeTuro says it is possible to strike a balance between having a nice-looking landscape and using excessive amounts of chemicals. “Mother nature maintains itself as long as you are providing the proper growing environment,” he says. “Of course you can put a band-aid on something by pumping it full of chemicals, but that’s not what we choose to do.”
DeTuro says one of the keys to enjoying a lawn that is more on the natural side is managing expectations. Without heavy applications of herbicides, there are bound to be a few weeds. And without heavy pesticide use, there is bound to be some insect damage on shrubs. But if you can relax enough to tolerate some clover and dandelions mixed in with your turf, then a nice looking and earth-friendly lawn is an attainable goal.
There is a further “green” option, which may ultimately be the most attainable of all: completely ignoring a lawn. What if you just let your property grow wild, and let nature decide what will grow there and what will not? DeTuro does not endorse this supremely lazy approach. “How are your neighbors going to react to that?” he says. Besides the un-neighborliness of a policy of benign neglect, the homeowner who follows that course could harvest a bumper crop of fines from municipalities or homeowners’ associations that are empowered to enforce basic standards of groundskeeping.
“In the Princeton area everyone wants their lawn to be perfect,” he said. “And in a lot of areas, everyone wants their yard to look better than their next door neighbor’s yard. It’s also part of property value, too. I suppose the perfect definition of a sustainable lawn is to let it grow wild, but I don’t think that’s going to fly in this type of community.”
Instead, DeTuro recommends taking eco-friendly steps to keep grass, shrubs, and trees growing nicely without resorting to bags of chemicals:
Don’t take your yard waste and grass clippings away. “We use a mulching mower so you recycle that food,” DeTuro says. “Also don’t take your leaves and sticks and throw them all away. Use leaf compost in your flowerbeds as well as branches. I have clients who don’t take dead branches away; they break them up smaller and throw them in their beds. I’m sure their neighbors don’t like that, but oh well.”
An alternative to leaving yard waste in place is to compost it and spread it on your lawn the next spring. “I recommend that to people all the time, especially on a newly seeded area of lawn,” DeTuro says. “Have your landscaper spread compost over your whole lawn.”
Manual weed control: Not using herbicides will result in a certain amount of weeds, but the most problematic ones can simply be pulled by hand (as long as poison ivy is not present.) Alternatively, organic herbicides with salt or other ingredients can be used to spot-treat weeds. As for clover and dandelions, two of the most common lawn weeds, DeTuro recommends just letting them grow. They’re good for the soil, he says.
Liquid lunch: DeTuro recommends using liquid compost to shore up the soil. Woodwinds worm tea is an organic plant food and soil conditioner that he says is “idiot proof,” but other brands are available at garden centers in the area.
Lastly, another key to sustainable landscaping is using the right plant for the right spot. Rather than plunking down what looks nice, DeTuro says it’s crucial to pick plants that will thrive in the environment and in the amount of light and shade that an area gets. Naturally, species native to the area will do better than imports. Good native trees, available at the D&R Greenway, are the Blackgum and Virginia Pine species. There are dozens of native perennials and shrubs, ranging from the Blue Flag Iris to common milkweed, to the winterberry bush.
But whatever you plant, it’s best not to get overly attached to it. Any garden in the Princeton area has to contend with another ecological reality. “If anything is deer-accessible, they’re going to find it,” DeTuro says.