feat Why Our Lawns Are Bad for the Environment and How to Change Them for the Better

Permaculture Lawns

I hate lawns…. Bill Mollison (‘Permaculture: A Quiet Revolution – An Interview with Bill Mollison by Scott London’)

Lawns, love them or hate them, they are one of those features of modern life that we take for granted, though we’ve long forgotten their origins. We have lawn because we’ve ‘always had lawns’, without questioning why….

Most permaculture practitioners loathe them frankly, seeing the space are valuable ground better utilised for growing food!

Now, imagine if we applied our permaculture design principles to lawns, what would be the result? Can we come up with a permaculture design rationale for the much maligned common lawn?

For the sake of perspective, we’ll look at the origins of lawns, and why we even have them, then I’ll step into highly controversial territory – the concept of a ‘permaculture lawn’!

The History of Lawns

The concept of having a ‘lawn’ come to us from Europe. Originally pastures of grass were used to graze livestock, which kept the grass short, resulting in large expanses of land covered with close-cut grass. Europe’s mild weather with plenty of rainfall ideally supports the growth of grass across large, open spaces.

In the 17th century in England, we first saw the deliberate growing of trimmed grass by the wealthy and the aristocracy as a show of affluence. During those times, land was a valuable resource, as it was used to grow food, which provided a source of nutrition and a source of income. For a wealthy landowner to simply grow grass was a show of extravagance, flaunting the fact that they had land to waste as they pleased.

The enormity of such a status symbol may not be immediately obvious to us in our current day and age until we realise that lawn mowers did not exist at the time! These lawns were cut by hand — by servants using scythes, sickles and shears. The amount of labour involved in maintaining a large lawn was considerable, and only the wealthiest in society could afford to pay people to carry out this work.

The first mechanical lawn mower was invented in 1827 and patented in 1830 by engineer, Edwin Beard Budding (1795-1846) from Stroud, Gloucestershire, England.

After the lawnmower was invented, having a lawn no longer remained the mark of wealth and status that it once was, but this status symbol now became accessible to the masses. From that time onward, we’ve just kept on growing lawns in our front yards, forgetting that they were once grown as a symbol of wealth. Just another one of those unquestioned traditions that people blindly follow without knowing why….

A Permaculture Lawn?

Permaculture’s design principles are universal, and can be applied to all manner of plant-growing systems. If they are universal, they must be applicable to lawns too. Right?

First, in a design, we need to justify the inclusion of each element, and if we include a lawn in our design (I can already hear Bill’s grumbles from here!), we need to explain what it’s doing there in the first place!

Then, we need to devise a method of applying sustainable growing principles to maintain the lawn in our design.

That, in a nutshell, is our two-part challenge in applying our permaculture design principles to something that is oh so not permaculture!!!

Lawn Rationale

In a design, we need a place to put our plants and trees, so we create garden beds for them.

It is critical to separate the garden areas from the paths and walking areas, because the garden beds are strict ‘no-stepping’ areas! Stepping in the garden beds compacts the soil, and this reduces both water and air penetration through the soil structure, which adversely affects plant growth.

People need to be accommodated in the design too, and since people clearly don’t belong in the garden beds, you need to put them somewhere too — a lawn perhaps?

Hopefully this is sound rationale for having a lawn in the back yard. Lawns in the front yard are a different matter entirely, in most cases they are rarely used, and are rarely justifiable, being vestiges of the old European status symbol.

Sustainable Lawns

The biggest problem with lawns is that they are commonly maintained in the most unsustainable ways:

  • Lawns are mowed very short, so the grass doesn’t get a chance to build a strong root structure, which means that it is not very water efficient.
  • When lawns are mowed, the lawn clippings are disposed of, which gradually depletes the minerals from the soil and removes organics matter from the system. The clippings are often full of grass seeds, and are therefore not cold-compostable.
  • To counteract the depletion caused by the disposal of the clippings, chemical fertilizers are used. These damage the soil, and also get washed away and contaminate waterways, causing eutrophication (a process where water bodies receive excess nutrients that stimulate excessive plant growth.)
  • Chemical herbicides are used to kill ‘weeds’ – contaminating the soil and surrounding ecosystems.

Lawns can be grown sustainably, by using some common sense organic gardening principles:

  • By not mowing grass too short (set the mower to the highest setting) and allowing the grass to grow a bit longer, the root system can grow stronger, making the lawn more water efficient. It also means less mowing!
  • Leave lawn clippings on the lawn after mowing (mow without a grass catcher). The clippings will break down to create a natural mulch. All minerals from the soil are retained, and there us a net positive gain in organic matter over time, so the lawn will be ‘soil building’. Any grass seeds present will self-sow, making the lawn thicker and filling out any bare patches.
  • Fertilizers won’t be required because the soil is not being depleted.
  • Any ‘weeds’ can be manually dug out if they must be, and having a thicker, taller grass will reduce the self-seeding of many ‘weeds’ in the first place.

So, there you go, from a design perspective, lawns can be justified, and furthermore, lawns can be grown sustainably without poisoning the soil and the surrounding ecosystem.

Further proof that you can apply permaculture principles to growing every plant under the sun, and even those we might dislike!

Further Reading: