Try to Practice More Sustainable Yard and Lawn Care

With the arrival of spring, property owners are turning again to the annual task of caring for the grass, gardens, plantings and grounds on their land. Many of us take pride in the beauty and orderliness of our yards, and some people expend a great deal of effort or money to maintain them in peak condition.

There are, of course, more and less environmentally friendly ways to do this. A generation or two ago, few people thought much about the environmental impact, and we welcomed whatever aids, chemical or mechanical, that came along to make our work easier. We learned to apply petrochemicals and poisons to boost growth and kill pests and weeds. We motorized all sorts of equipment, from mowers to weed whackers to leaf blowers, using refined petroleum for fuel.

However, as the ecological costs of industrial civilization become more severe, we need to adopt less aggressive strategies for managing our artificial landscapes. One of the important strands in the sustainability movement is the land-use philosophy called “permaculture,” a term that suggests permanent (i.e. sustainable) agriculture. Permaculturists seek to understand how natural landscapes work—how water flows, how different species coexist and even collaborate in an ecosystem, and how nutrients are distributed. They then show how, using these principles, farms, gardens, and household yards can be managed sensibly and sustainably.

Many of our conventional landscaping practices can hardly be called sensible or sustainable. A Yale University study estimated that the U.S. uses more than 600 million gallons of gas to mow and trim lawns each year, while the Environmental Protection Agency has  suggested that a lawnmower operating for one hour emits as much pollution as an average car driven for approximately 45 miles. Lawn fertilizers are made from natural gas. We pollute our water with pesticide and fertilizer runoff (homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than do farmers), diminish populations of birds and beneficial insects (such as bees), and isolate ourselves from nature’s sounds with the incessant rasp of motorized tools.

The leaf blower could be a poster child for our obsessive need to over-manage nature. Granted, it saves time and effort compared to raking and sweeping—but at what cost? Is moving leaves and dust around a sensible use of the planet’s finite supply of petroleum? Is it wise to add to the atmosphere’s carbon load just to have pristine-looking lawns and sidewalks? Do we not care about shattering the peacefulness of a lovely spring day with the harsh droning noise of machines?

We’re not going to ban leaf blowers (that’s been tried in many communities and usually causes bitter controversy), but we can consider them as a signal of what we value. Do fallen leaves violate our desire to control the environment completely?  Will we continue to practice a damaging  industrial-age attitude toward our landscape, or can we learn to live more in harmony with its natural processes?

Permaculture encourages us to replace manicured lawns, at least partially, with diverse, food-bearing ecosystems. Sustainability groups around the country are establishing programs to plant fruit and nut trees and wild gardens in private yards and public spaces. Here in Woodstock, a group is considering such a project on land at the UU church.

If eliminating lawns entirely sounds too radical, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s “certified wildlife habitat” program at Or see the Great Healthy Yard Project at There are many things we can do differently when we begin to think in a more balanced, ecological way about our managed landscapes.

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