For the most part, Americans are still cultivating the same grasses in the same way they did 60 years ago -- with disastrous environmental effects. For example, typical homeowners apply pesticides to their turf at 10 times the rate per acre farmers use to treat their crops; this backyard dousing totals some 80 million pounds of toxins a year. Likewise, Americans burn 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually just for mowing; when you include the energy bill for manufacturing turf fertilizers, lawn maintenance emerges as a major source of greenhouse gases. And then there’s the water usage: A one-third-acre lot can squander more than 36,000 gallons of drinking water every month in the summer.
Fortunately, specialists across the country are proving that, contrary to the old saw, the grass can be greener on your side of the fence. Turf researchers have been developing blends of tough, self-sufficient grasses, producing lawns that flourish pesticide-free at a fraction of the previous irrigation and fertilization requirements. Best of all from the owner’s perspective, these sustainable lawns generally need only infrequent mowing. In the Northeast, for example, a blend of fine-fescue grasses (delicately textured turf grass) can provide a lush, neat cover with just two mowings annually. In the West, Habiturf -- a mixture of naturally short-growing native grasses developed by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center -- can, once rooted, withstand a four-week drought with a single watering and needs no more than one mowing a month.
You can hire a turf specialist to convert your current lawn to a sustainable grass mixture, but the process is easy enough to do yourself. In temperate zones (from the upper South to southern Canada), start by getting rid of your existing grass, either with a couple of applications of 8 percent acetic acid (concentrated vinegar) in midsummer, or by “scalping” it (mowing it back to the roots repeatedly). Then, as the weather cools in early fall, sow a seed mixture of regionally adapted sustainable grasses with a slit seeder -- a self-propelled tool that cuts shallow grooves through the old, dead turf and drops in fresh seeds. Irrigate briefly in the morning and afternoon for three weeks and your new lawn will soon appear. In the subtropical South, the planting schedule and recommended grass species are different (consult a local sustainable-turf specialist for advice), but the basic techniques are the same.
As a group, sustainable turfs are slower-growing (that’s why they need less mowing) and as a result they require some weed protection during the first winter and spring after planting. Once mature, however, they are, as a group, remarkably weed-resistant.