When it comes to landscaping, most of us make decisions based on aesthetically pleasing plants and landscape designs without much regard to ecosystem function and wildlife habitat. The status quo in a U.S. residential landscape is represented with a large area of turfgrass, a tree in the front yard and a few shrubs along the front of the house. Sound familiar?
And the lawn needs to be green all season, well-trimmed and free of dandelions or other weeds. Many Americans also rely on lawn care services to manage their landscapes. We’ve all seen the little, white flags placed on lawns that have been chemically treated. While most of us learn early in life that a white flag signals surrender, it is doubtful that anyone is actually placing these white flags on lawns to communicate surrender.
Nevertheless, the question is worth considering — are we surrendering something important when we choose to chemically treat our lawns?
A matter of scale
If you look at the mounting research, you will soon learn that much is surrendered when we choose to chemically treat our lawns. First of all, we have a lot of turf grass in the United States. NASA-backed research estimates that we have approximately 30 million acres of turf grass — making our home lawns the single, largest irrigated crop grown in the U.S.!
The grasses that make up our lawns are not plants native to North America. From bluegrass to Zoysia, our lawns are comprised of plants that were imported from Europe or Asia. Non-native plants typically require more chemical inputs to perform as well as native plants that have co-evolved with our soils and climate. That is certainly the case when it comes to turf grass.
Averaged over the course of a year, Americans use nearly 8 billion gallons of water per day to maintain their green lawns. Water, either from rainfall or sprinklers, that falls onto our artificially lush, green grass quickly becomes polluted by the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers we have used to maintain these lawns.
This polluted water is transported through storm sewers and ditches and eventually ends up in our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Once there, these chemicals disrupt the ecosystems they enter.
Recent large-scale algal blooms fed by the increased presence of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in Lake Erie and other waterways are the cumulative effect of many different sources. These sources include farmland runoff, wastewater overflows, leaking sewage systems and the 80 million tons of synthetic lawn fertilizers Americans apply each year to our lawns.
Our aquatic ecosystems are altered in many other ways besides algal blooms by the impact of sediment and pollutants. Many aquatic plants and animals that are integral in helping to keep our water clean are unable to live in these chemically altered ecosystems. As we lose these species, we surrender the benefits they provide for keeping our water healthy.
In addition to the destruction of healthy aquatic habitats caused by water pollution, we further undermine ecosystem function with our commitment to other non-native landscape ornamentals besides turfgrass.
Remember that our urban and suburban landscapes encompass about 30 million acres. When you consider that most American landscapes also include some non-native shrubs such as taxus, boxwood and burning bush, add too that our dominant landscape tree of choice for the past several decades has been Callery or Bradford pears — a species native to China, you can quickly calculate that our residential landscapes are comprised of mostly non-native species.
We surrender wildlife habitat when we choose to plant non-native species. Many native Ohio insects are unable to use these non-native plants as food sources. Insects are at the base of the food chain and biologists are reporting continual decreases in Ohio’s bird populations.
The good news is that there is a better way to manage our landscape to improve soil quality, preserve the health of our water and to make it more habitable to wildlife. If we would all make the choice to reduce the amount of space we are using to grow turfgrass and reduce the chemical inputs used to grow grass, that would, in turn, reduce the amount of chemicals entering our waterways.
By surrendering those areas to instead allow a native species to grow, we could create wildlife habitat. Planting a native oak tree is one of the simplest ways to increase ecosystem function in your yard. If you don’t have space for an oak tree, there are many smaller native Ohio trees, shrubs and perennial plants to choose from!
Most soil and water conservation districts hold native plant sale every spring — feel free to contact your local conservation district to see what assistance they can provide in helping you native plants.
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