Want to help the planet? Rethink your lawn

Erica Tharp weeds out her plant beds in front of her home in Framingham, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When Erica Tharp and her husband bought their home in Framingham four years ago, the lawn needed some work. Tharp looked at the scraggly grass with its dying tree, and decided she wanted something that was less work and more eco-friendly.

“That was the goal — minimal maintenance and as least harm as possible,” she said.

So Tharp, a yoga teacher, decided to rip out her front lawn and replace it with drought-resistant grass and native wildflowers. Now there’s waist-high goldenrod, orange butterfly weed and black-eyed Susans.

It’s not all free and easy; Tharp is fighting back some overly ambitious clover, and even the native plants are suffering from the summer drought. But it’s a lot less work than a traditional lawn, she says: No weekly mowing, no fertilizer, and lots of happy bees.

“My lawn is much more wild than I think the average lawn is,” said Tharp, who also posted signs reading “please excuse the weeds, we’re feeding the bees” in case the neighbors wondered what was up. “It’s not neat and tidy right now, not at all. But neat and tidy isn’t always good for us, right?”

Lawns may seem like a trivial place to focus your eco-energies, but they cover about 40 million acres of the United States — that’s about the same land area as wheat. (And that estimate is from 2012; researchers say the amount of lawn has almost certainly increased as the suburbs have sprawled ever outward.)

In 2012, scientists estimated that lawn covers about 2% of the continental U.S. (Courtesy)

To keep all this grass green, Americans use about 59 million pounds of pesticides on their lawns and gardens each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and an astonishing 9 billion gallons of water outdoors each day.

“It sucks up resources, whether it’s money, whether it’s gasoline, whether it’s fertilizer, whether it’s pesticides,” said Uli Lorimer, the director of horticulture at the Native Plant Trust. And when there’s a big rainstorm, all those extra chemicals wash into local waterways, prompting algae blooms and other hazards. “So there is real environmental harm that comes from the average stereotypical suburban house.”

While interest in alternative lawns has been growing for decades in the drought-stricken Southwest, it’s been slower to catch on in New England. But that’s starting to change.

“There is real environmental harm that comes from the average stereotypical suburban house.”


“In the beginning I was having to explain things a little bit more, now it’s people coming to us wanting what we’re offering,” said Andrew Whittaker, the owner of the eco-landscape company Green Abundance by Design, which did Tharp’s lawn. He started the business in 2016 and has seen sales increase 50 to 100% each year. He says greater Boston is primed for a “suburban reformation” — a rethinking of the traditional lawn.

‘What am I getting out of grass? Nothing.’

Whittaker says most of his clients are motivated by a desire to attract and support pollinators and other wildlife. Other lawn-watchers say the growing interest stems from several factors: the alarming decline of bees; the sudden popularity of No Mow May; and the extreme heat, drought and torrential downpours becoming more common with the changing climate.

Dorchester resident Estella Mabrey had another motive: she grew up in rural Alabama and longed for that proximity to nature. “My mother had flowers all the time. Big, beautiful flowers. And we always had the monarch butterflies coming and hummingbirds,” she said.

Estella Mabrey looks around her backyard which is full of vegetables and perennial flowers at her home in Dorchester, Mass.

Estella Mabrey looks around her backyard which is full of vegetables and perennial flowers at her home in Dorchester, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

So, over the 28 years she has lived in her house, she’s replaced her yard with a colorful array of flowers and vegetables. “It’s just a breath of fresh air,” she said. “You can sit out here and just enjoy the beauty of nature.”

Other people, like Racy Cardosa, just got fed up with lawn care.

I wasn’t getting anything out of it,” she said. “It was just a big waste of time. Like, what am I getting out of grass? Nothing.”

Her house in Dorchester had grassy yards on the front and side. They were small, but there was enough room for a vegetable bed. She installed one a couple years ago, and over time added another, then another. Then two pear trees, grapes, strawberries, flowers for the bees, and peppermint under the flowers.

“I just kinda went crazy with it,” she said.

Now instead of a time-sucking lawn that gives her nothing but grief, she has huge heads of broccoli, heaps of tomatoes, enough collard greens to last all winter and a beloved blueberry bush. Because she chose plants that thrive in our climate, she uses only a little organic fertilizer and no pesticides.

Cardosa said she gets a lot of positive remarks from the neighbors — especially when handing them free organic vegetables. “They always walk by and they go, ‘Oh, it looks great!’ ” she said. But so far none of them have followed suit.

Racy Cardosa picks a cherry tomato from her garden in Dorchester, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

‘How do we make things less bad?’

There is, of course, a place for lawns — it’s hard to have a family cookout or slip-n-slide without them. Lawns also suck up rainwater and store some carbon (though far less than deeper-rooted plants). And having a green lawn in New England is less disruptive than having one in the desert Southwest.

But most of the lawn around here is non-native turf, so it needs a lot of water, fertilizer and pesticides to stay green. And it doesn’t offer much food or habitat to native animals, especially when cut very short.

So scientists who study how people manage their lawns — yes, there are such people, many associated with the federally funded Yard Futures Project — are looking for ways to encourage alternative lawns, or at least alternative lawn care.

Uli Lorimer weeds an Oak Sedge lawn at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In other words, “how do we make things less bad?” asks research ecologist Susannah Lerman, who works for the U.S. Forest Service in Springfield, Massachusetts.

So far, social science research has found that most people want mainly two things from their lawn: They want it to look neat and they want it to be easy. Lerman’s most famous study is a case in point.

For the 2018 study, she convinced 16 families in Springfield to let researchers mow their lawns at different intervals — either every one, two or three weeks. She found that mowing every other week increased the number of bees and wildflowers in the yards. (A follow-up study found that the longer grass didn’t bring more ticks.)

“When you really let it go, it kind of looks messy. And so it’s really trying to find that sweet spot.”


But she also found that people kinda freak out if their lawn is a mess.

“The yards that were mowed every three weeks, they just did not look nice,” said Lerman. The homeowner would run out to the car to meet us and be like, ‘I am so glad you’re here! My neighbors were getting so upset with me!’ “

“That, to me, was an indication that … people aren’t ready for that three weeks,” she said. “When you really let it go, it kind of looks messy. And so it’s really trying to find that sweet spot.”

There are lots of small things people can do to make their lawns more eco-friendly. For instance, clover helps enrich soil with nitrogen, so maybe you don’t need to kill it with pesticides? That part of your lawn on a hill that’s really hard to mow, maybe don’t mow it. And if you get really ambitious, put in some native wildflowers.

If you’re worried about letting the lawn look too wacky, Katrina Crocker, lead horticulturist with Belmont’s Landscape Collaborative, suggests using “cues to care” — visual signals that your lawn “isn’t just a wild place of mayhem.” For instance, you can grow a patch of wildflowers, but mow a border to show you’re actually doing it on purpose.

As for No Mow May, experts I interviewed were unsure how much it actually helps pollinators who feed off spring flowers — it depends where you live and what’s growing in your lawn. But they all loved the idea of shaking up lawn care for a month, and getting people to see their lawns differently.

Framingham homeowner Erica Tharp feels the same way. “If we all did something little, we could maybe change future generations’ concept of what a housing tract could look like, what lawn care should be,” she said.

It starts with changing our idea of a lawn from something that takes and takes, to something that gives back.

This story was originally published by WBUR, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.