Rethinking the lawn, with ecological horticulturist dan wilder

THE LECTURE that he’s been giving for a number of years is not-so-subtly called “Kill Your Lawn.”

Ecological horticulturist Dan Jaffe Wilder knows that starting over and creating an entire native habitat instead of a lawn isn’t for everyone. But Dan just wants to grab our attention and get us to start to make some changes at least in the way we care for the turfgrass we do want in our landscapes. And maybe give up a little square footage of it to some other kind of more diverse planting, too, like the wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), above.

Alternative, more eco-focused styles of lawn care, along with some lawn alternatives is our topic today. Dan is Director of Applied Ecology at Norcross Wildlife Foundation in Wales, Massachusetts, and its 8,000-acre sanctuary. He’s also co-author with Mark Richardson of the book “Native Plants for New England Gardens.”

Read along as you listen to the June 27, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Margaret Roach: Well, Dan, so you win the prize. The recent article we did together on smarter lawn care and lawn alternative ideas for my garden column in “The New York Times,” last time I checked had close to 1,200 comments from readers. So apparently this is a hot button, which is interesting to me. You probably already know that it’s a hot button.

Dan Jaffe Wilder: Well, I’ve always been a little bit of a troublemaker, and this is one of those troubles that I really like to embrace. It’s a complicated topic and there’s plenty of people who are in it because that’s where they … they don’t know where else to be in terms of, “I’ve got this space, I think it’s supposed to be a lawn, I might as well make it a lawn.” Or maybe, “I inherited a lawn,” how many of us have. And then there’s lots of people who are starting to question that right now. And with these questions comes controversy and confusion and passion, and a touch of ecology hopefully as well.

Margaret: Yeah. So I mean, I guess, the elevator pitch for why one would want to reconsider either how we care for it or what we plant instead of our lawn is because the lawn is this monoculture of non-native grasses, that’s not diverse and doesn’t really serve the ecology. Is that the short pitch?

Dan: I think that’s definitely an important part of it. What I often tell people is that lawns are a whole lot of work, and they don’t give us anything in return. And when I say us, I mean the entire ecosystem, humans being a very important part of it. But the lawns from an ecological point of view are at the very least a waste of space, and in some cases are truly a detriment to the ecological function.

And in many cases they are a lot of work. When I’m willing to put a lot of work into a garden space or really any outdoor space, I want to either know that it’s doing a lot for the ecosystem, or maybe I’m directly benefiting from it. And I find that in most cases, lawns really just don’t fit that anymore.

Margaret: Right. So in the lecture you do [laughter], which is called “Kill Your Lawn,” and in the story we did together, you explained that you have what you call gradients of ecology, by which you rank various shifts, either in the way we care for our lawns or changes instead of lawns that we can make. So it did seem like a no-brainer that almost anyone could do the first gradient level. So tell us what that is, the intro to a more ecological situation.

Dan: Yeah. The gradients of ecology allow us to really look at this on a step-by-step process. And as much as I’ve really enjoyed the kill your lawn campaign–it’s really an eye-catcher–the base message is that you don’t have to go full swing into it if you’re not ready for it. And most people aren’t. And you can start very, very small.

If you simply look at the lawn you’ve got and say, “I’m going to treat this with more ecological sense in mind,” you can go so far as to mow it a bit less, let it get a little bit taller, cut off any fertilizer or irrigation that you might be adding to it. And even that tiny little step is a step in the right direction.

And then the gradients go from there into full scale, wild native ecosystem. With a lot of steps in between that really hopefully makes this something that anybody can tackle. It’s not something where you need to put in 10,000 hours worth of work. If you want to just actually frankly do less, that’s a really good first step.

Margaret: So, doing less… So lawns notoriously use a lot of water, and water’s a precious resource more and more, as we know on the planet. And people use chemicals of various kinds, including as you just mentioned fertilizers on them. So we could back off from watering, let it go dormant in the hot season of the year, things like that. We could just back off from watering.

We could say no to the pre-emergence herbicides, all the chemicals and the fertilizer, and we could mow less. But you’re not saying, just let my lawn grow if I’m in a traditional, suburban lot, because, I mean, that isn’t necessarily going to yield a great thing, is it? I mean, it’s tricky, “unmowing” as I call it [laughter].

Dan: There are a few very, very rare instances where if you simply stop mowing a lawn and stop caring for it, it will turn into something better. But in most cases, and I’m talking 99 percent of the cases out there, if you stop mowing your lawn, what you’re going to end up with is a tall lawn, likely with a few extra weeds mixed in. [Above, native violets, a desirable lawn “weed” to encourage.]

I jokingly call it the plight of the turfgrass in America, in that we’ve got a species or a mix of species that frankly are not well adapted to our environment. And so in order to get these to grow well, we need to water them because they’re used to a higher level of water than we naturally get here. And we get a lot of water. And they’re used to a different level of nutrients than our soils typically have.

So we water them, we fertilize them, we take care of them. And then the odd part is, if God forbid it actually works and the thing starts growing, we immediately break out the mowers and cut it down to size. And when we do that, it restricts the plant’s ability to produce a good root system, because there’s always going to be some balance between the amount of foliage and the amount of root space. And if you’ve got a nice deep root system, the plant can take care of itself. But with our constant mowing, it’s pretty much a plant on life support.

And that’s a whole lot of work, and it’s a whole lot of wasted time as far as I’m concerned.

Margaret: Yeah. So, if I’m going to back off on the water, back off on the chemicals and mow less, 4-inch mowing height, mow every two or three weeks, any ideas on that? And I guess it depends on where you live and the season of the year as well. But we’re talking about higher, not 2 feet high, but we’re talking about raising that deck and shifting that frequency, yes?

Dan: Yes. And I think going by the height is a really good way to go about it.

Margaret: O.K.

Dan: Because depending on where you are and your season and so forth, the height is a consistent thing that’s always going to, it might mean mowing every three weeks for me here this time of year and two weeks for you there, but we’re always aiming for that higher height.

I tell people, whenever possible, at least 3-1/2 inches, 4 is better, but getting up past that, we tend to start losing the benefits of it. And it’s an easy first step because frankly all it requires is doing less work. And that’s not a hard thing for most people to take on.

Margaret: O.K. And say I’m ready to go to the next step, if I’ve accomplished that, and I’m fascinated and getting seduced by this idea–not necessarily ready to kill my lawn completely, but on to the next step. What would be some next steps I could take in those gradients of ecology you described?

Dan: Sure. So you’ve got a few different options, but I think that the standard next step is to look at some of the ecologically sensitive lawn alternatives that are out there. Some of the common ones are things like white clover, or there’s a variety of different products that go under the name, eco-lawn, eco-grass, low-mow, or no-mow grass. You’ll find a variety of different options out there. And these are usually a mix of slow-growing fescues. There’s probably a few natives mixed in, but for the most part, these are non-native mixes.

And what these can provide for us is a lawn that can reduce that maintenance significantly more. To the point where once they’re established, you’re usually mowing this once, maybe twice a season. They do not need rich soil. So standard lawn practices, at least 6 inches of good top soil. In the case of all these low-mows or no-mows, you really just seed it into whatever your soils are, and it’ll be fine.

And then again, once established, there’s no need to fertilize ever, and mowing is very minimal. So it greatly reduces the in