Monday, December 13, 2010

The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer

Bee in Creeping Charlie
During a recent conservation/climate change seminar, I happened to comment about the relationship of home gardens to natural areas; how we need to cease thinking of nature as being something over there, while our private yards and gardens are treated as separate; and how our gardens can help sequester carbon. Afterward, a woman came up to me, someone who had spoken knowledgeably about habitats, biodiversity of prairies, and the difference between C4 and C3 plant species. “Without using herbicides,” she said, “What am I to do about the creeping Charlie in my lawn? I just hate it.”

A fellow gardener and I tried to explain: a polyculture lawn is ok—herbiciding creeping Charlie not worth the environmental cost (besides which it’s nearly indestructible)—it’s easy to pull up—it mostly grows in shady areas where grass has difficulty—bees like the flowers—looks nice in spring—don’t fight it…Well, she wasn’t going to hand weed it, thought she was allergic to it and lawns shouldn’t have flowers in them. We gave up; we had encountered another urban/suburban dweller who hadn’t yet realized that one of the best ways to do something about conservation and climate change is to change how you take care of your own land.

Now, as we transition towards a less oil soaked, lower carbon way of life, many of us will realize, possibly of necessity, that of course there are all kinds of things we could do with our valuable urban and suburban land instead of having a lawn. However, until the day that there are chicken coops, beehives and clotheslines in every backyard, vegetable and pollinator gardens out front and bioswales along the side, I’m assuming most people will have a lawn of some sort. The thing is, as I’ve ranted here, there are conventional lawns and then there are post conventional, ecological lawns. After reading that post, a number of people asked, “Ok, so what is an ecological lawn and how do you make one?”

My answer is that an ecological lawn is, above all, intentional and mindful. The ideal ecological lawn is appropriately sized for its purpose, thoughtfully placed, polycultural, and cared for by organic means according to natural seasonal cycles and time frames with inputs furnished from the property. A polyculture lawn, which some call a clover lawn, provides ecological services, increases biodiversity, helps manage and conserve water, and stores carbon. Not only that, it looks good, it’s safe for children and animals, and it’s cheap. All you have to do is move beyond the idea that a lawn should comprise grass and grass alone.


The Process
Decide where you need and want a lawn. In general, a lawn should not be the major element in the landscape unless you are planning to pasture animals. Some small properties may not require a lawn. Where a lawn would be extraneous, make plans—why I’m writing this in winter—for a food garden, or for areas planted with native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses. Resolve to cease all chemical, fossil-fuel-based inputs: synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides.

Polyculture Lawn
In spring, rake the lawn with a metal rake to expose some bare soil. Next, top-dress with compost put through a screen to break up large bits. If you don’t have compost, you can use composted manure or other composted organic materials, available at garden centers. You can also buy organic fertilizer to use until you have a good supply of homemade compost, though it’s more expensive and not necessary. If at all possible, start a compost system, beginning with the debris you’ve raked up. Compost is a major player in the ecosystem services, carbon storage part. Then, overseed the lawn with a low maintenance grass seed mix that includes turf fescues and white Dutch clover (at this point I can imagine pasture farmers such as Gene Logsdon chuckling at us city folks). If the mix doesn’t include clover, get a small amount and sow it evenly over the area—it is a vitally important component of the polyculture lawn. Water regularly until the clover establishes itself. If you live in a neighborhood full of chemical lawns, you may wish to put out a small sign that says something like “healthy lawn in progress” for your neighbors’ benefit.

When the new growth reaches about 4 inches, mow, using a push reel mower if possible. Mow to 3 inches, no shorter, to allow the grass enough length for good photosynthesis. Whenever you mow, let the clippings fall to decompose and add nutrients back to the soil. After the clover has come in, don’t water—the clover will help keep the lawn green. Hand dig any broadleaf weeds such as dandelion, plantain, and especially thistle, that get too far out of hand. May and again in September are good times for this. Don’t worry about creeping Charlie and violets. They'll blend in. In summer, mow often enough to keep the grass at 3 inches. In fall, top dress again with screened compost and rake up fallen leaves—by hand please, no leaf blowers allowed—to go in the compost bin. Alternatively, you can run the lawn mower over the leaves so they are chopped up and will nourish the soil over the winter. Fall is also a good time to plant small bulbs such as snow drops, scilla and chionodoxa, which finish blooming before the first spring mowing. Next spring, repeat. Overseed as necessary. Be patient, as it may take up to three years to convert over, and for the soil to regain health.

A Beautiful Lawn
The Results
As you follow these recommendations, the lawn will transition into a post-conventional polyculture lawn, healthier in every way. In spring it will be full of small flowers, along with bees, butterflies and birds. A plain green lawn will come to seem boring.

This works because grass and clover co-evolved to grow together. Clover, as pasture farmers know, but many lawn-owners don’t, nourishes the grass by fixing nitrogen, and helps with water management. Its roots, two feet deep, also help store carbon and bring nutrients up to the surface where the grass’s shallower roots can access them. The whole lawn stays greener all through the summer. Rain soaks in and helps sustain the water table, instead of running off as with conventional lawns.

The soil will improve, gradually developing a higher percentage of organic material, thus storing more carbon. As it does so, what was literally dead soil will become alive with earthworms, microorganisms, fungi, arthropods and other tiny critters, who, amazingly, by living their lives and doing their work, will help keep the soil ecosystem balanced and help reduce problems with grubs and ants that can become pests if populations get too large. In addition, thatch will no longer be a problem, in part because of the earthworms.

Animals and beneficial insects will also benefit. Bees, both native and honey, love clover, and with populations declining, they need as much extra habitat they can get. Clover also serves as a larval food host for several species of sulfur butterflies. Butterflies also respond well to polyculture lawns where creeping Charlie and native violets bloom in spring. In fact, fritillary butterflies’ main larval food is the common violet. As the lawn ecosystem improves, more bird species will show up, flickers for the ants, robins for the earthworms, grackles for the grubs—they’ll help keep the insect population in check. The insects they feed their young won’t be full of toxic pesticides, so hatchlings will be healthier too. Rabbits like to eat broadleaf weeds and will help keep them in proportion. And of course, there are the children and dogs whom we love.

Converting a conventional lawn to a post conventional polyculture lawn will also help the larger ecosystem, preventing chemical and nitrate runoff and helping provide the green corridors that other species need. Whether a dwelling sits on a suburban quarter–acre or a 25’x125’ city lot, the inhabitants are responsible for that land, and are, by default, its stewards. With the right care, we have the opportunity to sequester carbon, improve ecosystem health and contribute to the biotic community. A polyculture lawn is beautiful in the spring, naturally greener in the summer and healthier all year. And if you ever do decide to turn it into a vegetable garden, the soil will be much more fertile, and more suitable for organic gardening.

Related Posts: 
Spring Dispatches from the Backyard
An Historical Precedent for the Polyculture Lawn 
Once in a Lifetime: This is Not My Beautiful Lawn 
Strengthening the Biotic Community
Power Down!
Compost by Any Other Name

Update: Cross posted at Energy Bulletin. 
Tree man Dave Coulter, who blogs at Oak Park Community Blogs has very nicely linked to this post. He also blogs at Osage + Orange, where you can see his beautiful photos of the Midwestern countryside.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I have always loved the look of little violets running through lawns, and your supporting information on bees, etc., certainly makes them even more welcome in my eyes. Thanks for the clear explanations--indeed a valuable primer.
MRG

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi MRG,

Thanks. I think they're pretty, too.

Don Plummer said...

My lawn has lots of things growing in it. In addition to clover, we have all the "weeds" people pay the chemical companies to get rid of, like dandelion and plantain. I've found asters growing in the lawn, and we have a little chamomile patch in the back. Oh, yes, we also have grass, too.

Dandelions are soil builders. Their taproots dig deep into the soil, thus helping loosen it, and when they die (a dandelion plant usually lives 3-5 years), those taproots turn into organic material and make the soil even richer and more friable. The only dandelions I pull are ones I want to eat or ones that are growing in the vegetable beds or other inappropriate places.

When I was a kid, lawns had to have clover: it was a sign of health for the lawn and prosperity for the homeowners. We young ones spent hours searching our lawns for four- (and five- and six-) leaf clovers. I don't know when people decided that lawns should have grass and nothing else.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for the added info about dandelions. I don't spend time pulling them, but I know they really bother some people and wished to sound "reasonable." I always think I'd like to make dandelion wine, but haven't tried it yet.

Clover became "bad" when herbicide companies developed and started selling broad-leafed herbicides, which of course killed it, so they pushed the cloverless lawn as the high-class, more socially-acceptable kind of lawn. The marketing worked!

Carol said...

I love this post and your statement about not thinking of nature as being something over there... outside of us and our gardens being separate. We could change the world by using our own niches of earth to counter global warming. We need to work towards being inside of nature to feel her pulse and hear her cries. Lawns of clover, dandelions, violets and other carpeting natives offer beauty and food for wildlife. This is truly a great post and so important. Thank you!

Dan said...

Our yard is a point of contention between me and my wife. I don't mind the creeping charlie (in fact, I enjoy the smell of blooming creeping charlie) and other "weeds" encroaching on our yard. My wife was raised a fescue puritan by her dad and won't have it. She did the nuclear option (mild herbicide) this fall on our side yard that buts up to our neighbor's yard to get rid of the creeping charlie coming from their yard. I am going to plant "no mow" grass seeds that supposedely grow sideways and may now add some clover seeds to the mix. Another selling point to my wife is clover doesn't get brown from dog urine like fescue.

In the irony department: my neighborhood is made up of early 20th century bungelows. I have a neighborhood friend in her early 70's who lived around here most of her life. She can remember when they sold creeping charlie to homeowners for yard landscaping.

Jan Steinman said...

Where are the animals?

A true "polyculture lawn" must include animals of all sizes, wild and domestic! I saw a photo of a bee, but there needs to be more.

Our front lawn has six Nubian goats on it at the moment. I'm about to make some zero-mile ice cream and feta cheese this evening!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Carol, thanks for stopping by and for the good words.

Dan, maybe she could read this post. :-) Good point about the clover. Don't have experience with no mow grass. Does it have ecosystem benefits?

Jan, I congratulate you on your goats, and the ice cream and cheese. Your point is well taken-- but six goats would cover my entire front lawn! We urbanites must do what we can.

Organic Gardening said...

The polyculture lawn can also include different types of crops, flowers or vegetables. My garden has lots of things cultivated in it. Thanks.

Mike said...

Lawn. Such a conflicting field for the American mind. I like your version better.

Adele said...

My boyfriend and I have been working on restoring a a log house in the middle of downtown Lexington and the yard has been untouched for decades. Last year I decided to give the property some "curb appeal" and being a federal period house, it sits on the sidewalk--not much to worry about up front. The back, however, has a long tree line to the alley--a lot of shade in the summer and mulch material in the fall. I've been using the leaf matter in beds of ferns, solomon's seal, etc.with great results and have not purchased any type of fertilizer. I've let the violets thrive, trimmed back a honeysuckle bush,and after reading your website have decided to overseed what grass there is with dutch clover. I'm thinking about becoming a beekeeper.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Adele,

Thanks for visiting. It sounds like you are doing a lot of good things on your property. Dutch clover (and grass) do best with some sun, so I hope it's not too shady where you're overseeding.

Diane said...

My children got bee stings all over their feet from a big patch of clover on our back lawn. There simply must be a safer way to go green with the lawn. I'll keep looking thanks.

Wendy York said...

well said! brilliant! makes complete sense! exciting! bye bye grass!