Why I’m Killing My Lawn And Turning My Yard Into Wildlife Habitat
As I was lost in the peaceful hum of my John Deere tractor, cutting clean lines across my lawn, I had a revelation. Or maybe call it an existential crisis. I, like most other hunters, consider myself a conservationist. I write to legislators about conservation legislation, pick up trash on public lands, and buy hunting licenses in multiple states, happily knowing my money will go toward wildlife habitat. However, I have a glaring contradiction in my identity as a conservationist: my own front yard.
Although my front yard is lush and green, it is a biological wasteland. I have bombarded the soil killing bacterial and fungal life as well as all other living things that are not tall fescue. If the impacts were localized to my piece of lawn, I wouldn’t feel so bad, but unfortunately the herbicide, pesticide, watering, and bulk fertilizer I use twice a year have far-reaching effects.
Why do I need to do something with my lawn?
Those effects hit one of my favorite outdoor playgrounds, the chesapeake bay. Not all of the fertilizer I apply reaches the soil. Much of it runs off and eventually reaches ecosystems like the bay. nitrogen and phosphorus runoff in particular contributes to algae blooms that create dead zones in waterways. I spend a lot of time fishing in the bay and it’s crazy that while I’m fishing my grass is polluting the very water. Yes, I realize that the little phosphorus in my garden is not creating mass extinction events. But when you consider that we have over 40 million acres of grass in the country, which makes it the increased irrigated cultivation In the United States, there is great potential for fertilizer runoff to cause problems. Add in the gas consumption from the lawn mower, the exhaust fumes, and the noise pollution from mowing those 40 million acres each week and you can see the negatives start to add up.
Not only am I contributing to water pollution, I’m also using a ton of water to keep my lawn looking good when it’s dry at 90 degrees. According to the EPA, one-third of residential water use goes onto the lawn, which is 9 billion gallons per day.
What am I doing with my lawn?
I have decided that I need to change something in my lawn care practices in order to sleep at night. Last year, I gave up trying to force grass growth in my backyard. Not for any moral reason, but because about half of my backyard is dedicated to growing organic fruits and vegetables, and I didn’t want any chemicals from the pasture ending up in my food. Since I let clover, dandelions and chickweed back, that little diversity has invited native honey bees and more birds. It also brought in insects like parasitic wasps, ladybugs, and lacewings, which are all beneficial to my garden. After seeing those benefits, I decided to create more habitat and planted some native prairie plants, like coneflowers.
The concept that a diverse habitat attracts more wildlife is familiar to all hunters and fishermen. A featureless lake is not going to support a large population of fish and an all tree type property does not have the edges that all wild animals enjoy. Other benefits are that I no longer have to water or fertilize the “lawn” in the back and I have learned that weeds actually work for improve the soil extracting minerals with its deep tap roots. Lion teeth for example, bringing calcium from deep in the topsoil. Once they have done their job, they stop being prolific.
Watching my backyard transform into a diverse, life-sustaining habitat that is also relatively carefree brings my eyes back to my front yard, where beautiful and destructive grass still grows. Curb appeal is hard to put down, and I take great pride in having a good lawn. But obviously I can’t continue what I’ve been doing. My solution is to stop irrigation, the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In the meantime, I’m looking into lawn alternatives like a mix of perennial clovers. Clover is a great compromise because it has a similar look and utility to grass, but requires far fewer inputs.
It’s easy to get stuck doing what we’ve always done. Growing grass seemed such a natural part of owning an American home that I never stopped to think about its effects. Now that I have it, I vow to make a change. As a public land hunter, I spend much of my time searching for diverse and productive land. But now is the time to farm some of that land at home.