Independent TribuneColumns Eco-friendly lawns

Eco-friendly lawns

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David Goforth
N.C. Cooperative extension

How much would you pay for gas? I know a guy who recently paid $64 a gallon for gas. He was on the back side of an African desert. 

According to some people energy will be more expensive in our future. I believe it will. We are burning fossil fuel faster than it is being replenished. As an old country preacher said, “If you outgo is more than your income, your upkeep will be your down fall.” He was talking about financial budgets but it applies to energy budgets as well. Eventually, fossil fuels will be more expensive. 

Other people say don’t worry, we will switch to alternative energy sources the same way we did when whale oil ran short or wood fired steam boilers fell out of favor. I believe these people also. We will switch, but until some unforeseen technological breakthrough comes along, we will also use less energy. 

That is because switching isn’t going to be easy or cost free. Right now you can’t build a windmill without using fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are used to produce solar cells. Our current system uses fossil fuel to create corn based ethanol. 

Along with the cost there are limits on alternative energy. For example, if we convert all the corn currently grown in the United States to ethanol, it would still only replace 12 percent of our fossil fuel. There is only so much land that will grow corn. Even if we converted all crop land to corn based ethanol (a scenario possible only if we stop eating) it wouldn’t produce as much energy as we import in fossil fuels. 

At every step between where the price of energy is now and the price where it is going, some people will look around for a place to reduce energy use. One place to look is the lawn. Lawns do a lot for us, but energy is required to mow, spray, and fertilize the typical lawn. 

From an energy standpoint we can consider lawn size, plant diversity, fertilizing, mowing and aerating. 

Size. Every once in awhile you hear people suggest not having lawns. Some of their concepts would require 200,000 more gardeners in the state of North Carolina, while other concepts would raise a zillion cotton rats. Lawns are too useful to abandon. They provide us erosion control, aesthetics and a place to play. Yet I have seen those goals accomplished in 2,000 square feet. 

We need to ask ourselves exactly what we want from our lawn and how much lawn it would take to meet those goals.

If you decide to reduce the size of your lawn, there are a couple of options. If you have the time and inclination, you can covert it to a garden (vegetable, flower, small fruit, tree fruit or a combination). If time and inclination are a premium in your life, converting the lawn to a forest makes more sense. Use tree seedling packets from the North Carolina Forestry Service and take care of them for a few years.

Over the years I have chipped away at my lawn with fruit trees, blueberry bushes, grapevines, pecan trees, ornamental plantings and gardens but it is still bigger than I need. I can’t plant trees because Duke Energy has three right of ways intersecting the front side of my property. I plan to convert most of the rest of my lawn to a garden in the future. 

Plant Diversity. The grass monoculture that so many people strive to obtain doesn’t make sense. There are literally hundreds of plants that can grow under a three-inch mowing regime. My lawn is mostly grass, but I have plants that can be used for beauty, for food, for nectar and for medicine all growing in the mowed part of my lawn. Other than clover and crocuses, I haven’t planted these plants. Typically, all you need to do is quit using herbicides. Biltmore Estate has clover in their lawn and that is a fairly classy house, at least by my standards. 

Fertilizer. The clover provides nitrogen to the system. It is the only nitrogen my yard receives. The amount of phosphorus and potassium in my lawn was built up years ago. As long as I don’t rake or bag the clippings, these two elements will hang around. The pH is a little low, but the amount of organic matter that naturally builds up under a lawn allows the plants to tolerate a less than ideal pH. With a beginning yard you should add fertilizer and lime until the lawn becomes mature. A mature lawn would probably give you a minimum soil test reading of 0.3 percent humic matter, 50 P-I and 50 K-I.

It will take several years to get there. In a mature yard, there is no need for supplemental fertilizer, as long as you don’t kill the clover. I am not as sure about the need for lime in a mature yard. If you are not fertilizing, you won’t need as much lime because some of the lime just counteracts the fertilizer. I have seen lawns hold their pH fairly well over time without liming once the pH has been built up. I don’t lime my lawn because it might increase plant growth and mowing once a week is enough. 

Mowing. I suspect lawn mowing will continue in my lifetime. The alternatives are beating down grass with a mallet, swishing it with a scythe or cutting it with a sling blade. These methods are labor intensive and the results are not satisfactory compared to mowing. I have seen some solar powered mowers that look like they will work for smaller lawns. The cost is too high now, but could fall with increased production, better batteries and cheaper solar cells. These advances can be made incrementally without requiring a technological leap.

Somewhere along the way, the cost of solar powered mowers going down will meet the cost of gas going up. Meanwhile, make sure your blades are sharp and your motor is tuned. By the way, the hand pushed reel mowers don’t work very well for fescue.  Most of the old ones I have run across can’t be adjusted up to the three or four inch mowing height you need for fescue. They are a valid alternative for a small bermuda grass or zoysia lawn. 

Aerating.  Soil needs about 10 percent pore space for plant growth. After construction, soils typically won’t have this amount of pore space, so something has to be done to increase the pore space. Aerating for three or so years will increase pore space. Once a lawn matures, it will have adequate pore space for plant growth unless the soil is compacted for some reason. Rain will compact bare unprotected soil. Where plants are growing, it takes human activity to compact the soil enough to prevent plants from growing. Saturated soil will also compact the soil, however, this by itself will not create enough compaction to warrant aerating. Grass will grow in conditions that feel compacted to humans. 

Some people might consider these ideas a little different but change happens. For example, 100 years ago when there wasn’t as much energy available, corn was only allocated to certain farm animals. Now there is enough energy to feed corn to any farm animal any time of the year. The knowledge of which animal gets what, and when they have to get it, has fallen by the wayside. More energy created that change. Less energy will create changes just as surely as more energy did.

David Goforth is an extension agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Cabarrus County Center. He can be reached at [email protected]


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