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Resolve to Lose a Little Lawn in 2020

There are many good reasons to have a lawn. A lawn can be used for overflow parking, a space for children and dogs to play, or as a stable surface for heavy foot traffic around buildings and houses. But about ten percent of the land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is lawn cover. Do we truly believe that all of these acres are maintained as lawn for good reasons? Or is the lawn just the modern default option for land in developed areas that isn’t covered in a road or building? While utterly ubiquitous, lawn cover is far from environmentally friendly. Do you want to reduce your environmental footprint in 2020? An easy way is to reduce your lawn cover!

What’s the fuss about a little lawn?

Anyone who has had the responsibility of maintaining a lawn knows that while it may be simple, it takes a lot of work. At the very minimum it requires regular mowing. While denizens of small city lots can use reel mowers, most lawns are maintained by gas-powered machines. According to the US Department of Energy, Americans use 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline for lawn mowing annually.1 And speaking of chemical inputs, we apply 70 million pounds of fertilizers and 90 million pounds of pesticides annually.2 There is a common misconception that lawns are sequestering carbon, thereby absolving guilt about using so much fossil fuel. The truth however is that American lawns, especially highly treated ones, are culprits in greenhouse gas emissions, with the potential to add up to one tonne of CO2 each year per acre.3

Speaking of those fertilizers and pesticides, we all know what happens to chemicals that don’t get incorporated into the soil: they run off, making their way into streams. This is exacerbated by the fact that the typical lawn can only infiltrate one inch of rainwater per hour (compared to a forest, which can infiltrate 16 inches).4 This means that when we get over an inch of rain, your lawn will be a source of stormwater runoff. That water will pick up pollutants not just from your yard (including animal waste), but also from the street, carrying them into your local stream. Stormwater travels fast, and with high volumes, may erode streambanks rapidly.  

And let’s not forget the terrestrial toll of a lawn. There is no turf grass native to the eastern US, meaning that very few native insects can digest the species we plant. That may not seem like a problem, but remember that insects are massively important members of our ecosystems, between pollinating plants and feeding larger fauna. If a neighborhood is composed of nothing but lawns, roads, houses, and some ornamental trees, there is essentially nothing for insects to eat in that entire neighborhood (with the notable exception of Japanese beetles, which are actually lawn obligates). And keep in mind that there are typically very few native plants on modern farms, and that our forests are increasingly overrun by non-native invasive plants as well, leaving us with a landscape that can support less and less insects every year. In case you missed it, we are seeing global population crashes of insects and birds. The high amount of lawn cover is of course not the predominant reason why, but is certainly not helping. 

Every decision we make involves a calculation. Between climate change, polluted streams, and plunging wildlife populations, are our lawns worth it?

Photograph of a backyard full of native platns in the foreground and a small patch of grass.

I didn’t have much lawn to convert, but planted a bed of native perennials with plugs and seed. It’s a daily delight to check out what’s blooming, to hear the bees buzzing, and to enjoy the pollinator-assisted bounty from my veggie beds. Beagle for scale. Photo by Ryan Davis.

What can you do?

There are three eco-friendly alternatives to a lawn in the Mid-Atlantic: conservation landscaping, forest cover, and meadow cover. Conservation landscaping is precisely what it sounds like: a manipulation of the land and flora around a home or business, but with the goal of a minimal environmental impact. Practices like rain gardens, beds of native grasses and wildflowers, and planting a few native trees and shrubs are great ways to benefit pollinators, improve water quality, and sequester carbon while still meeting neighbors’ expectations of what the area around a home should look like. Conservation landscaping is an excellent option for homeowners with small properties, restrictive Homeowners Associations, or neighbors/spouses who value the status quo landscaped aesthetic. Be sure to visit the Chesapeake Bay Native Plant Center website if you’d like help selecting species.

How about larger areas? Many homeowners have several acres of lawn, and innumerable churches, schools, and businesses pay landscaping companies to mow gargantuan swaths of turfgrass. Spaces that are only ever touched by a mower could be converted to patches of woods or meadow to maximize ecological benefits while minimizing maintenance, and that of course means saving money! 

A close up of the flower, rudbeckia

A former several-acre lawn now enjoys a second life as a meadow in a Baltimore County, Maryland backyard. Photo by Pascale Meraldi, the landowner.

Converting a lawn to a native meadow can be very challenging, but if successful, very rewarding. For a fantastic guide on doing this yourself, dive into the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation’s guide on Establishing Pollinator Meadows from Seed

A less-complicated approach to converting lawn cover to a native ecosystem is by simply planting trees. Maintenance in the form of mowing between the trees will be necessary for a few years, but eventually the canopy will close and provide sufficient shade and leaf litter to kill the turfgrass and begin to rebuild forest soil (an unsung hero for both carbon sequestration and water infiltration). It is strongly recommended to use 5-foot tall tree shelters to protect seedlings from deer, and a good idea to plant in a grid to improve the ease of maintenance. To avoid an artificial look of a grid planting, you can follow contours or add curves to rows, which will still allow for establishment mowing but won’t look as artificial. If you are planting trees yourself be sure to use native species to your area, and try to select a species mix that is as diverse as possible. When choosing a nursery to buy from, be very careful to find one that specializes in native species. If you’re having trouble locating good stock, reach out to your local Conservation District; most have native seedling sales each spring.

Photograph of a backyard facing towards the house. In the gaps between mature trees are newly planted seedlings growing in tree tubes.


A backyard reforestation project in Harford County, Maryland. The landowner looks forward to the point in a few more years, when he can stop mowing and instead spend that time watching birds from his back porch. Photo by Ryan Davis.

If this seems to be a bit much for you to do on your own and you live in priority areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania, you’re in luck! The Alliance can fund lawn conversions over 0.5 acres (to both forest and meadow) in Lancaster, York, Adams, and Franklin Counties thanks to grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. We are also working with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and a robust community of conservation professionals to launch a commonwealth-wide technical and financial assistance program for lawn conversions. In Maryland, we are soliciting projects for our Healthy Forest Healthy Waters program.  

If are ready to take on this new resolution to reduce your lawn and increase the natural areas on your property you may want to check out Penn State Extension’s upcoming nine part webinar series, The Woods in Your Backyard, starting on January 29th. Each webinar is one hour, and guides participants through the process of developing and implementing projects to enhance their land’s natural resources without having to leave home. More information can be found on their website: https://extension.psu.edu/woods-in-your-backyard-webinar-series

To learn more, check our resource repository at forestsforthebay.org, or email me at rdavis@allianceforthebay.org.

  1. U.S. Department of Energy. 2014. Alternative Fuel and Advanced Technology Commercial Lawn Equipment. DOE/GO-102014-4514. https://afdc.energy.gov/files/u/publication/lawn_equip_2014.pdf
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2004. Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 2000 and 2001 Market Estimates. EPA-733-R-04-001.
  3. Gu, C., Crane, J., Hornberger, G., & Carrico, A. (2015). The effects of household management practices on the global warming potential of urban lawns. Journal of Environmental Management, 151, 233–242. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2015.01.008
  4. Bryan Swistock, Penn State Extension Water Resource Specialist
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Ryan Davis Chesapeake Forests Program Manager, Pennsylvania Office

Ryan is the Alliance's Program Manager for our Chesapeake Forests program. He focuses on forest conservation and restoration within the watershed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York.

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