At some point in modern history, well-manicured lawns became a ubiquitous part of home ownership. But as we realize the resource consumptive nature and other negative aspects of turf grass, there is a movement toward natural lawns that could be a factor in slowing the effects of climate change.

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Negatives of grass

Grass lawns require more maintenance than many homeowners realize. First, there is the removal of the natural habitat, preparation of the ground and seeding of new grass. To maintain it requires aerating, fertilizing, watering, mowing and dethatching.

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Each of these steps contributes to a devolving ecosystem. Biodiversity is erased. Reduced natural habitat affects wildlife. Fertilizing adds toxins to the soil and water, as well as contributing to air pollution and issues with human health.

Even the act of mowing the lawn burns fossil fuels and contributes to emissions. Then, of course, there is the hundreds of gallons of water that is required annually to maintain a standard lawn. Even outside drought and wildfire-stricken regions, it’s irresponsible land stewardship to have a turf lawn.

Daisies growing in natural grass

What are the options?

So if you’re convinced to yank the turf lawn, you’re probably wondering what to put in its place, and you’re not alone. It’s a bit of a debate at the moment.

Xeric landscapes

Xeric landscapes consist of mostly desert plants. Think cacti and sagebrush. These plants require minimal water and in the right setting, need little care at all. However, there are two potential issues with the xeric landscaping option. The first is that it just doesn’t appeal to some people. The second is that it can contribute to warming the planet. 

Besides the feel of soft grass underfoot, one advantage of a grass lawn is its ability to cool the air. When grass is removed in favor of dry dirt, that advantage is removed as well.

Oasis profile

Another option is more of an oasis profile, which is a combination of plants that require varying amounts of water. While this combination requires more water than a strictly xeric landscape, that amount is substantially less than a standard lawn.

Succulents of different varieties

A recent study by teams from DRI, Arizona State University, University of Nevada and University of Las Vegas published in Hydrology examined the irrigation water requirements of xeric, oasis and standard landscapes. Their findings were that the oasis environment offered the best balance of water savings and temperature moderation. 

“The simple take-home message from what we learned was that xeric (desert) landscaping is not the best long-term solution and neither is mesic (tree-turf),” said the study’s lead author Rubab Saher, Ph.D., Maki postdoctoral research associate at DRI. “An ‘oasis’ style landscape, which contains trees like Acacia or ghost gum, and shrubs like dwarf poinciana, requiring light irrigation, are the best solution, because it conserves water but also contributes to cooling through the evapotranspiration of the plants.”

Saher further summarized by saying, “Removing turf grass from the landscape is an excellent approach for saving water, but if we remove all the turf grass, the temperature will go up. For every acre of turf grass removed, we also need to plant native and/or rainfed trees to make arid cities livable in the long run.”

Other considerations

Looking beyond water use and temperature moderation, which are both factors to consider, there are some other things to know before we pull the lawn.

Grass is an excellent photosynthesizer, meaning it pulls carbon from the air, releases oxygen and stores carbon underground. Grass is also good for soil stability and actually increases the amount of usable soil. That soil is then able to hold excess rainwater, fight erosion, and help protect homes from droughts and floods.

However, the fertilizer used on lawns more than negates those positives. So the goal is to find something that offers soil stability, water and carbon retention, and photosynthesis without requiring loads of water and chemical applications. 

Plants in front of a farm house

The natural lawn balance

Enter what is known as a natural lawn. This is simply a lawn of growing materials that don’t require chemicals or copious amounts of water. While it can be grass if that’s what grows well in your area, a natural lawn is often a blanket of other greenery, such as creeping thyme or clover. It can also be a mixture of native plants or even a vegetable garden

These materials offer the same benefits of a green lush lawn, with carbon sequestration, a cooling effect and a visual appeal. They also provide a better biodiversity, which is important for balance in the plant and animal ecosystem. In addition, they attract pollinators, which is great for the environment and our food supply. 

This, of course, is in contrast to fertilizer that is currently decimating our pollinator population.

A combination of plants in a natural lawn means healthy soil, higher nutrient content and a food source for birds that won’t poison them. 

The traditional natural lawn

If you do stick with a turf lawn, choose a variety that requires little water, switch to an all-natural fertilizer, set your mower on a higher setting, mow less frequently, leave grass clippings on the lawn, get a manual or battery-powered mower, and allow some flowers to grow that benefit the bees and other pollinators.


Images via Pexels