Native plants better, cheaper than lawns

Kai Hagen

December 4, 2003

I like a big patch of grass as much as the next guy ... for tossing a Frisbee, playing ball, big picnics and outdoor festivals and so on. But, at the risk of tilting at windmills, I'd like to suggest we ratchet back on our love affair with lawns. Especially "perfect" lawns.

I know I'm treading on sacred ground here. So, for the moment, I won't dig deeply into the lawns people work so hard to perfect and maintain around their house. Even government has stayed away from hitting that close to home, and most such laws are considered impracticable and unenforceable.

So, unless and until we change the way we think about lawns, many of our lawns will continue to put children at risk, poison wildlife and contaminate groundwater and waterways ... and pollute our air, since running a lawn mower for an hour emits the same amount of air pollutants as driving a car a few hundred miles.

Perhaps it is better to start elsewhere, such as the big, sweeping expanses of lawn that surround so many government buildings and corporate offices and senior housing facilities and more in Frederick County. Land may be expensive, and people might be concerned about sprawl and the loss of woods and wildlife habitat, but driving around the county makes it clear we have plenty of room for expensive, labor-intensive, environmentally unfriendly, and, most notably perhaps, empty and unused acres and acres of closely cropped grass.

We must really love looking at them, because we don't actually use most of them as anything more than pedestals for our bigger buildings, even the most ordinary and unexceptional of structures. They serve simply as squeaky-clean frames for a picture of manicured suburban life.

We need to frame the subject in a different way, and consider a different picture.

First of all, it should be noted that these 2-inch high, outdoor carpets are not the option we choose because they are more efficient or economical. Quite the contrary. Maintaining big healthy areas of uncooperative grass around so many commercial and other properties requires a considerable investment of money, time and other resources.

We need some private corporations and institutions or local government agencies to step up and model another, more creative alternative. Fortunately, there is a growing number of institutions and corporations and municipalities elsewhere that have experimented with a variety of options. They provide working models of aesthetically pleasing and less expensive solutions. There are too many alternatives to detail here, but even a basic choice, with native trees or wildflower meadows would provide a long list of benefits and savings.

For example, native plants can provide an attractive, hardy, drought-resistant and low-maintenance landscape. Modern lawns require tremendous amounts of water, and never more than when it is already scarce. Native plants also increase the soil's ability to store water and significantly reduce runoff.

Once established, native plants eliminate or significantly reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, so what does run off is not a threat to local groundwater, streams and rivers.

Because more natural landscapes do not require much or any mowing, the alternatives to maintaining lawns reduce air pollution. And, in addition, native tree and plants actually help clean the air.

Unlike sterile lawnscapes, most of the alternatives also provide shelter and food for variety of wildlife. Some people think less manicured areas attract rats and other pests, but that's an unfounded fear. Native plants attract butterflies and dragonflies; birds such as purple martins, hummingbirds, songbirds and hawks; amphibians such as frogs and salamanders; mammals such as chipmunks and squirrels and woodchucks. Big lawns, on the other hand, attract so many Canada geese that they are now considered pests in some areas, and money is spent to keep their numbers in check.

Anyone, anywhere, can grow grass. And they do, if only with the help of a river of water, an endless stream of fertilizers and pesticides, an armada of lawn maintenance companies and modern machinery ... and a lot of money. All to keep at bay a rich and diverse array of native plants and animals. In the United States, more than 20 million acres of lawn are scrupulously maintained, covering an area more than three times the size of Maryland.

Native plants provide so many benefits because they fit. This is their home, and they are a part of our natural heritage. Natural landscaping is an opportunity to re-establish diverse and attractive native landscapes, and invite flowers and birds and butterflies back home.

As you drive around our home, look at things a little differently. Imagine a more varied and colorful landscape that doesn't look exactly the same every day of the year. Imagine a landscape that blooms in the spring and summer, and blows in the wind. Is it really worth all the effort and all the money and all the side effects to reduce it to living Astroturf?

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at