When it comes to landscaping, most of us make decisions based on plants and aesthetic landscaping with little regard for ecosystem function and wildlife habitat. The status quo in an American residential landscape is represented by a large area of grass, a tree in the front yard, and a few shrubs along the front of the house. Sound familiar?
And the lawn should be green all season long, well trimmed and free of dandelions or other weeds. Many Americans also rely on lawn care services to manage their landscapes. We have all seen the little white flags placed on lawns that have been chemically treated. While most of us learn early in life that a white flag signals surrender, it is doubtful that anyone actually places these white flags on lawns to communicate surrender.
Still, the question is worth considering: are we giving up something important when we choose to chemically treat our lawns?
A matter of scale
If you look at the growing body of research, you’ll soon learn that we give up a lot when we choose to chemically treat our lawns. First of all, we have a lot of grass in the United States. NASA-supported research estimates that we have approximately 30 million acres of grass, making our lawns the single largest irrigated crop grown in the United States!
The grasses that make up our lawns are not native to North America. From bluegrass to Zoysia, our lawns are composed of plants imported from Europe or Asia. Non-native plants generally require more chemical inputs to function, as well as native plants that have co-evolved with our soils and climate. This is certainly the case when it comes to grass.
Averaged over a year, Americans use nearly 8 billion gallons of water a day to maintain their green lawns. Water, from rainfall or sprinklers, that falls on our artificially lush green grass is quickly polluted by the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers we have used to maintain these lawns.
This polluted water is carried through storm drains and ditches and eventually ends up in our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. Once there, these chemicals disrupt the ecosystems they enter.
Recent large-scale algal blooms fueled by the increased presence of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in Lake Erie and other waterways are the cumulative effect of many different sources. These sources include farmland runoff, sewage overflows, sewage system leaks, and the 80 million tons of synthetic fertilizers Americans apply to our lawns each year.
Besides algal blooms, our aquatic ecosystems are altered in many other ways by the impact of sediments and pollutants. Many aquatic plants and animals that help keep our water clean are unable to live in these chemically altered ecosystems. As we lose these species, we give up the benefits they provide to keep our water healthy.
In addition to the destruction of healthy aquatic habitats caused by water pollution, we further compromise ecosystem function with our commitment to other non-native landscape ornamental plants in addition to turf.
Remember that our urban and suburban landscapes cover approximately 30 million acres. When you consider that most American landscapes also include non-native shrubs such as taxus, boxwood, and firebrush, also add that our dominant landscape tree of choice over the past few decades has been Callery or Bradford pears – a species native to China, you can quickly calculate that our residential landscapes are composed mostly of non-native species.
We give up wildlife habitat when we choose to plant non-native species. Many insects native to Ohio are unable to use these non-native plants as food sources. Insects are the bottom of the food chain, and biologists report a continued decline in Ohio’s bird populations.
The good news is that there is a better way to manage our landscape to improve soil quality, keep our water healthy, and make it more habitable for wildlife. If we all made the choice to reduce the amount of space we use to grow grass and reduce the chemical inputs used to grow grass, this would in turn reduce the amount of chemicals entering our yards. ‘water.
By ceding these areas to allow a native species to thrive, we could create wildlife habitat. Planting a native oak tree is one of the easiest ways to increase ecosystem function in your garden. If you don’t have room for an oak tree, there are many small trees, shrubs and perennials native to Ohio to choose from!
Most Soil and Water Conservation Districts hold a Native Plant Sale each spring – be sure to contact your local Conservation District to see what help they can provide you with helping you plant native plants.
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