The low-impact but still lush lawn

How to get a gorgeous yard with less water and fewer chemicals

Published: April 02, 2015 06:00 AM

Grass greener on the other side of the fence? That might not be such a bad thing, now that the best yard on the block probably isn’t the one pumped full of chemicals and water.

“After World War II, a uniform, emerald-green lawn was marketed as a sign of success, but it’s becoming an outdated look as we understand the costs entailed,” says Diane Lewis, a physician and founder of the Great Healthy Yard Project, which teaches homeowners how to get beautiful yards without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. “It’s much more appealing to have a more varied and less perfect lawn that’s nurturing for your children, pollinators, and wildlife.”

Instead of wall-to-wall coverage, more homeowners are going for the area-rug effect, for example, buffering a smaller patch of lawn with native plants that attract bees and butterflies. Others are using the yard to create an edible garden. Water-smart landscaping is also gaining traction, especially in drought-stricken regions where some municipalities pay residents hundreds of dollars to replace thirsty turfgrass with gravel or mulch.

John Marzluff, author of “Welcome to Subirdia” (Yale University Press, 2014), calls it the Freedom Lawn. “Spending less time and money on lawn maintenance may allow homeowners to relax and enjoy nature in other ways, such as bird feeding,” he writes, noting that a shaggy lawn can attract goldfinches to dandelion seeds and even harbor frogs and turtles.

Consider this: Homeowners apply up to 10 times more pesticides per acre to their lawns than farmers do to crops, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Exposure to those toxins carries potential health risks, from skin rashes to cancer. And after they leave your yard, “the chemicals don’t just disappear,” Lewis says. “They wind up in rivers and streams and eventually get into our drinking water.”

Then there’s the economics. Maintaining a trophy lawn can be expensive, especially with water costs up 25 percent since 2010, according to the American Water Works Association. In parts of the Southwest, where tiered pricing applies, monthly bills can top $300. If the expense doesn’t cause homeowners to rethink their thirsty yard, being branded a water hog might. California’s State Water Resources Control Board website has even started ranking communities by their per capita water use.

Whatever your motivation, creating a healthy yard that looks great doesn’t have to be a lot of work. In addition to being more fuel-efficient, the latest mowers, tractors, and string trimmers are easier to operate and maintain. The electric starter in the $500 Cub Cadet SC500EZ uses a lithium-ion battery you can charge indoors, where the temperature is right for charging. And the Briggs & Stratton EXi engine, found in the Toro 20353 and Snapper SP80, never needs an oil change.

7 steps to sustainable lawn care

Photo: Gallery Stock

Let it grow. A scalped lawn means weak, shallow roots, so let your grass grow to about 4½ inches before mowing it to about 3 inches.

Mulch those clippings. They’ll deposit nutrients back into the soil, which could reduce your fertilizer needs by 25 to 40 percent, says Van Cline, Ph.D., senior agronomist for Toro.

Water less often. An established lawn needs only about 1 inch of water per week, including rainfall (use an empty tuna can to keep track). Rather than a daily sip, give the lawn a good, long drink once per week or so.

Air it out. Heavily compacted soil denies your lawn much-needed oxygen. Aerating the lawn with a core aerator will help the soil breathe. Fall is the ideal time for this project because spring aeration can kick up weed seeds.

Embrace certain weeds. Clover takes nitrogen from the air and feeds it to the soil. With their deep taproots, dandelions can provide natural aeration. Mow them as you do grass.

Do a soil test. That will tell you which nutrients are missing. Applying lime can control acidity and reduce fertilizer needs. Though do-it-yourself kits are available, your local cooperative extension will do a more accurate soil test.

Look for low-maintenance ground cover. “Sedge is a grasslike plant that’s getting a lot of attention,” says Pam Penick, author of “Lawn Gone!” (Ten Speed Press, 2013). It can take occasional light foot traffic. For higher-traffic areas, she likes No Mow Lawn Seed Mix from Prairie Nursery, a fine-fescue mix suitable for cooler climates. In hot, arid regions, consider Habiturf, a mix of short prairie grasses.

You’re probably using too much fertilizer

Most turfgrass needs some kind of supplemental nutrition. But the four- and five-step programs marketed by manufacturers are overkill, plus they can unleash harsh chemicals into the ecosystem. A single fall application is often sufficient, especially if you follow our other lawn-care advice. Always read the instructions on the label, and keep fertilizers off sidewalks and other areas where they can be swept into storm drains.

Good: Slow-release fertilizers

These contain nitrogen and other chemicals, but they’re in a water-insoluble form, so they’re less likely than fast-release fertilizers to leach into the soil and eventually into waterways. Plus they won’t damage the lawn the way fast-release products can if you use too much. Using the recommended type of drop spreader will ensure even dispersal.

Better: Organic fertilizers

Derived from plant, animal, and mineral sources, organic fertilizers are broken down by microorganisms in the soil. If you have pets, avoid those that contain bone, blood, and fish meal because they might try to eat them, which can cause vomiting and diarrhea. The Organic Materials Review Institute website lists products that adhere to strict standards.

Best: Compost

Applying a quarter-inch top dressing of compost a couple of times per year will add healthy organic matter to the soil, reducing or even eliminating the need for fertilizer. Composting right after you’ve aerated will help mix the organic matter into the soil. A backyard compost bin is the most cost-effective approach, or you can purchase compost from the local garden center.

Cut your water bill by 50 percent?

With forecasts changing like, well, the weather, it can be tough to properly water at the right time. But the makers of these smart products—Blossom Smart Watering Controller ($150), Rachio Iro Smart Sprinkler Controller ($250), and Skydrop Sprinkler Controller ($300)—claim to save up to half of the water your sprinklers use new.

The three products work similarly: A hardware device taps into weather-forecasting systems, customized to where you live, and either replaces or manages your existing controller and sprinklers.

The low-profile Toro Precision Soil Sensor ($115) relies on your soil’s moisture level at a given spot to judgewhen the grass needs water. A sensor probe, inserted into the soil, communicates with a receiver connected to your irrigation controller.

3 smart garden treatments

Photo: Angela Jobe/Earth Mama Landscape Design

The yard-to-table garden

It takes some effort and irrigation, but an edible garden qualifies as sustainable by providing food for your family. “We started to see an increase in food gardening in 2009, after the recession, and it remains popular today,” says Bruce Butterfield, market research director at the National Gardening Association.

Nutrient-rich soil is key, so it’s worth investing in raised garden beds or going the container-garden route (a low-commitment option for beginners). Full sun is also required, so choose an exposed section of the yard. And consider drip irrigation, available in do-it-yourself kits at most home centers, because it will put water directly onto the root systems. As for what to grow, let your palate be your guide. “If you like strawberries, plant them,” Butterfield says. “Or you can grow a salad bar by planting tomatoes, cucumbers, and greens.” For additional suggestions, check out the website

Average cost: $50 for a 75-square-foot plot.

The wildlife-loving garden

The monarch butterfly, which had its lowest count on record in 2014, is disappearing. Bees are also dying off in droves. Planting native milkweed and honeysuckle will provide nectar and pollen to those and other pollinators. Or consider “birdscaping,” by adding nourishing berry plants or thorny trees that offer protective cover for nests.

“If you can only count five species of plants, including the lawn, you’ve got an overly homogenized landscape,” says Damon Waitt, senior director and botanist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas. “You want to see five times that number.” The center’s website has a database of more than 8,000 plants that can be searched by region, size, and sun requirements. You can also search for plants that are loved by bees and butterflies but not deer and other pests.

Average cost: $50 to $150 for a 75-square-foot plot when using plants; $10 if starting from seed.

The water-smart garden

With roughly half of the U.S. experiencing abnormally dry conditions, water-smart landscaping is going from niche to necessity. But it’s not all cactuses and concrete. “A responsible garden that takes less water can have the same appeal as a traditional garden,” says Bob Brackman, executive director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Go for native species that are adapted to local rainfall conditions. A layer of mulch will help retain moisture and slow weed growth.

For patios or pathways, a permeable material such as pea gravel or crushed granite will prevent runoff when it does rain. Use a rain barrel or other catchment system to collect water from the roof or your home’s air conditioning unit. Make sure in-ground irrigation is equipped with a soil sensor so that the yard gets water only when it needs it. The WaterSense section of the EPA’s website has additional tips.

Average cost: $9 to $12 per square foot, including plants, materials, and high-efficiency irrigation, according the California Landscape Contractors Association.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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