by Brigitte Mars
Lawn grass is the number one water intensive crop in the U.S. Americans currently spend billions of dollars, millions of gallons of gasoline, and countless hours to maintain the dream of the well kept lawn. Three million tons of fertilizers are applied to lawns annually and over thirty thousand tons of synthetic pesticides. Americans are also using up to 30% of the nation’s water supply to water lawns! Manicured lawns have become an opportunity for rivalry between neighbors and an example of human’s domination over nature. My neighbor, a couple of blocks away, who recently lost all his hair due to his chemotherapy treatments is mowing his lawn. The noise is deafening and the mower is spewing a blue-grey cloud of gas scented smoke in his face and throughout the neighborhood. I watch as lawn clippings are piled into plastic bags, stuffed into a dumpster to be taken to an overcrowded landfill. Next he applies fertilizer from a plastic bag, and sets the sprinklers to water daily. Bizarre customs, are they not?
A century ago, people would actually pull the grass out of their lawns to make room for the more useful weeds that were often incorporated into the family salad or herbal tea. If one simply stops mowing and frequent watering, many useful, edible and healthful plants may crop up. The grass would grow higher or lower depending on weather conditions. One could make a salad or juice of weeds daily from early spring to late fall. In the winter mineral rich teas can be made from dried rich leaves preserved the previous season. Wait at least two years before eating from lawns treated with commercial pesticides.
Should you take the time to cultivate, many (but not all) beautiful flowers such as roses, hollyhocks, marigolds, and nasturtium are edible (if organic). After all, flowers are designed to attract pollinators with their vibrant colors and sensuous scents. Imagine the time, money, water, and gas one could save! Imagine the people of Earth growing green goodness everywhere, improving oxygen content in the air we breathe. Wake up and smell the Violets! (They are good to eat as well.)
1.Improve the soil. The word human comes from the same root as the humus, meaning “earth.” Compost contains beneficial microorganisms that infuse the soil with life. Collect vegetable waste material from your kitchen in a bucket, add to a compost bin, turn occasionally and use the decomposed material to give back to the earth. Use organic fertilizers such as manure, rock dust, and wood ash. Do a soil test and find out what your land requires.
2.Choose the correct plants for your habitat. Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent. The most common lawn grasses in North America are Bermuda grass, aka couch grass, (Cynodon dactylon) and Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis), which require the most water and fertilizer. Better alternatives requiring less resources include Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne), Fescue (Festuca species), Centipede Grass (Eremochloa ophiuroides) and Seashore Paspalum (Paspalum vaginatum). Research what are the xeriscape plants or your area. Planting native species to your area usually requires no more water than the rains provide. Look for wildflower seed packets for the type of terrain you have, such as full sun, shady, dry, or moist.
3.Grow plants that thrive in your area as lawn cover. Select plants that are not water demanding, low growing and might even provide salad fare or herbal teas. Turn your lawn into a wildflower sanctuary specializing in sunny well-drained dry areas. Consider Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla species), Clover (Trifolium pratense or T. repens), English Daisies (Bellis perennis), Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), Penstemon (Penstemon species), Pineapple Weed (Matricaria matricarioides), Plantain (Plantago major), Pussy Toes (Antennaria neglecta), Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetelosa), Strawberries (Fragaria species), Thyme (creeping, lemon and wooly) (Thymus species) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Periwinkle (Vinca species), Speedwell (Veronica officinalis), Uva Ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Violet (Viola odorata), grow well in dry shade. Cultivating Oats (Avena sativa) and Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) are traditional crops to squeeze out undesirable weeds by shading them out, as well as their roots benefiting the soil. Good semi permanent ground covers include clover, cinquefoil, Corsican Mint, Crocus, Purslane, Violet, Strawberries, Self-Heal, Uva Ursi, Spilanthes, Gotu Kola, and Thyme. If your yard offers mostly shade; Spinach, Collards, Mints, Raspberries, Beets and most salad greens will thrive.
4.Mulch to retain moisture. When rain falls on bare ground, about 75% is lost to evaporation or run off. Mulch around plants, using grass clippings, shredded hardwood, dry leaves, Pine needles, wood, or even plants that you are pulling up as “weeds.” Leaving lawn clippings on the ground adds nitrogen to the soil and could reduce the application of nitrogen fertilizer by almost 50%. Lawn clippings are put into plastic bags and have been estimated to comprise between twenty to fifty percent of our country’s overcrowded landfills.
5.Water wisely. Group together plants that require similar amounts of water. Use a drip system or soaker hose that waters a plant’s roots, rather than sprinkles the air. Frequent watering encourages shallow roots. One good watering a week, or at the most two should be adequate. Water in the early morning before the sun is hot, to give the plants the most benefits. It is best if grass plants are dry by dusk, to reduce the risk of disease. Watering during the heat of the day is wasteful, as the water quickly dries. Collect water from washing vegetables. Collect and recycle rainwater if that is permitted in your area. Attach gutters to roof edges and direct downpours into storage tanks. Keep gutters clean and use their debris for mulch. An ancient proverb says, “If you have water to throw away, throw it on a plant.”
6.Let the wild things grow and learn to use them. Learn to eat Dandelion, Malva, Purslane and Violet. If you want to grow grass, make it a smaller area, perhaps near a deck or patio for accessibility to play ball with the kids or dog and edge the surrounding areas with wildflowers or just let it go wild.
7.Mow less, grow more. If you do mow, wait until the grass is four inches high. Keep the mower’s height around three inches, or the highest setting. Leaves of grass plants are where food for the plant is made. Cutting the lawn too short, impairs its ability to produce its own food. The taller the lawn, the more drought resistant it will be. Tall grass shades the soil and helps keep it moist. The taller the grass is, the deeper the roots and the more drought resistant your lawn will be. Running a power mower for one half hour produces as much smog as driving a car 172 miles according to Hydrocarbon Processing magazine. Have sharp blades. Human powered lawnmowers are quieter, use no gas to run and provide an opportunity for exercise.
8.Use an organic landscape service. Support the companies in your community who are making a difference for our planet and your yard. Find out what products they are using and tell them you want to look at the labels. Help green companies flourish.
9.Put your money where your mouth is. Boycott places of business that use lawn pesticides. Write them a letter and tell them why you are no longer giving them your business unless they stop spraying.
10.Focus more on weeds education and less on eradication. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ““What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” The “dreaded” dandelions look like rays of sunshine and have edible leaves and roots. The common Lambs Quarter is really wild spinach and far more nutritious than its cultivated cousin. Malva and Violet leaves are refreshing additions to the salad bowl. Purslane is one of the richest sources of heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Get a book or take a class to identify weeds that come up in your yard. Taking plant samples to a local nursery can be another way to identify them. If you feel the need to get rid of weeds, use a dandelion digger or hand pull. See weeds as messengers that might really be saying, “I’m here, free, fresh, available and able to improve your health and that of the planet.”
11.Raise community consciousness. How your neighbors care for their lawns can affect your health. Those that live in condominiums and apartments can organize the neighborhood to create edible landscaping and community gardens. Let the maintenance managers know you would rather have a few weeds than be subjected to sprays. Attend meetings, speak out, and get petitions going to create a greener habitat. Share this information with your neighbors in a friendly way with kindness and compassion. Participate in plant and seed exchanges. Photocopy this information. Take an herb walk with a local herbalist. Invite a speaker to garden clubs. Have a neighborhood potluck and talk with your local folks.
12.Set an example. A healthier environment begins with you. Make all your actions conscious of conserving, nurturing and honoring the earth. Resist conformity and allow your ecological lawn to flourish, and flower, celebrating life and diversity. You might even declare your lawn a wildflower, bee or wild bird sanctuary!
For over 4 decades, Brigitte has served as a respected Colorado herbalist and nutritionist. She teaches at many events including the 2017 Good Medicine Confluence coming this June, Naropa University, and Heilseimestraskollin in Iceland. Brigitte has authored many instructional books and videos, which you can find out about at:. brigittemars.com
Original article published in the February 2017 issue of Herbaria vol7#4. For more entertaining and educational articles and artwork from the publishers of Herbaria, check out Plant Healer Magazine, a quarterly publication for herbalists and the emerging grassroots herbal and traditional medicine revival.
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