Polyculture: The Better Way to Get an Earth-friendly Lawn

close-up of grasses - polyculture lawns

Lawns didn’t become popular because they were easy to grow or good for the Earth. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Wealthy landowners in the 16th century began to cultivate lawns on their properties to flaunt their fortunes — they had so much money that they didn’t have to devote every square inch of their land to profitable crops. Instead, they could afford to maintain some of their land as a space for lazy recreation or ornamentation.

Slowly, lawns became a symbol of prestige and power, and as the middle class grew, many wanted that symbol on their own properties. This created a huge lawn industry filled with monoculture grass seeds, fertilizers and tools that homeowners could use to to maintain their green grass.

Today, keeping lawns green isn’t green; in fact, lawns can consume plenty of resources without producing much in return. Fortunately, you don’t need to eradicate your lawn to ensure that your yard is eco-friendly. Here are a few ways to make your lawn care more sustainable — without wasting your time, energy or money.

Polyculture Lawns

green grass with daisies - polyculture lawns

As mentioned above, modern lawns are monocultures — meaning they include only one type of plant: a particular variety of grass or fescue. Most homeowners take pains to ensure that no other plant grows in their lawn; any plant that interrupts the uniform lawn surface is seen as a nuisance and warrants warfare with herbicides and trowels. Unfortunately, it seems that monocultures aren’t a particularly sustainable way to grow anything, let alone lawns.

Initially, those wealthy landowners who created the concept of lawns didn’t have access to a single type of grass seed. They were more flexible in their ground cover; most often, thyme and chamomile grew happily as lawns, but early lawns were a delightful mixture of grassy herbs, clovers and fescues. It wasn’t uncommon to see a lawn covered in what you might term broadleaf weeds. This mélange of plants growing in one space is what biologists call a polyculture, and it tends to be an exceedingly effective way to grow a healthy lawn.

Polycultures tend to be more efficient because different plants bring different characteristics to the environment. Thus, they work together to balance their ecosystem so that everything can grow with greater success. Other plants do so much good for your lawn and garden that you don’t have to pollute your lawn with chemicals or put forth substantial effort to care for it. For example:

  • Traditional grasses tend to strip the soil of nutrients, especially nitrogen, but clover is effective at pumping nitrogen back into the soil.
  • Grass isn’t particularly good at managing in moist soil, but pennywort and ground ivy soak up moisture and help shade grass in sunny spots.
  • Grass doesn’t repel pests like aphids or mosquitoes, but scented plants like neem and chamomile do.
  • Grass doesn’t encourage biodiversity — it doesn’t attract bees, butterflies or birds — but flowering plants like yarrow and dandelion do.

There are few pre-mixed polyculture seeds available for lawns, but you can easily make your own by mixing all sorts of ground cover seeds together. You should consider your lawn’s conditions — the high and low temperatures, the air and soil moisture, the use by humans and pets — before developing your polyculture lawn, and it might be worthwhile to speak to a lawn care expert to better understand what other ground covers would benefit your lawn.

Lawn Services

Speaking of lawn care experts, it is in your best, greenest interest to contract professional lawn care services. Believe it or not, the pros know more about proper lawn maintenance than you do. They know how to administer care, especially for a complex polyculture lawn, to keep all your lawn as beautiful as possible while preserving its health. Though polyculture lawns require less attention than their weaker, monoculture counterparts, you will still need to add fertilizer and seed, aerate, dethatch and perform other lawn care tasks. The professionals have access to the best tools for lawn care, so they have the best chance at ensuring that your polyculture project is a success.

Having a sustainable, earth-friendly lawn isn’t easy — but that’s only if you unreasonably expect your soil to maintain one type of plant for the foreseeable future. In nature, plants work symbiotically to create an ecosystem that benefits everything living in that space. By growing a polyculture lawn, you can create a gorgeous and functional space for your family and a happy, environmentally friendly garden.

Feature image: Johannes Plenio; Image 1: Karol D

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