I just finished cutting our lawn and having a look around the yard. This year has been tough on a lot of the landscape - trees all around the city are showing signs of stress, lawns are browning in areas, crabgrass is running rampant, among other things. As much as I like the look of a freshly cut lawn, I know the impact maintaining it has on the environment. I've had some passionate discussions about this with friends and associates also in the landscaping industry - I'd like to thank them for all they do and contribute to making our little corner of the world a better place to live in.
I shared a little math exercise a few posts back and I'd like to add a few more things to that equation. Not only do our lawns require water to stay green, we also have other inputs to keeping our lawns looking good. For most of us, that means getting out the lawn mower every week and giving it a nice even trim. Each weekend, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year. That might have an impact on the economy and environment, don't you think? The EPA has put into effect stricter requirements for small engine emissions, but the average walk-behind mower produces 11 times more pollutants per hour than an automobile. Seems like we shoud be a bit more environmentally friendly with our lawn care, shouldn't we?
The single hour you use your lawn mower each weekend sends more toxic emissions into the atmosphere than taking a 10-hour road trip. What can you do to lower your impact on the air your neighbors, your children and your grandchildren will breath? There are quite a few options available, actually, none of which will mean you have to have the worst looking lawn in the neighborhood.
Cut down on the amount of lawn
This seems pretty obvious, but not everyone thinks of it. Everyone also probably has those problem areas where they have a difficult time getting grass to grow - high traffic areas, heavily shaded areas, soggy areas, or the soil just may not have enough organic material. Instead of trying to extend the carpet of turf lush every where, create pathways, planting beds, outdoor sitting areas - anything that is better suited to that location.
If you're having to trim around the edges of your lawn, consider installing a mowing strip or edging. You'll save time and energy not having to trim before (or after) you mow.
Evaluate the layout of your yard for mowing. Nice smooth curves are best; reduce the number of turns and tight corners.
How many of you cut your lawn twice, so you get that pretty diamond pattern? Double the amount of emissions, right? Is your lawn any shorter afterwards?
Check out different types of grasses and groundcovers. There are a lot of low-mow and no-mow grasses available. Maybe not for your entire yard, but add buffer zones in different areas that require no mowing, or only monthly mowing, to reduce the amount of turf grasses to maintain.
Adjust your mowing schedule
Cutting less frequently definitely reduces the emissions from your mower. During dry spells, your grass doesn't grow as much and you may even skip a mowing. Raising your mower height also reduces the need for mowing more frequently. In addition to helping the grass stay cooler around its roots and retain moisture, higher cutting heights help reduce the amount of weeds in the lawn. Grasses vary in the heights where they look best, but you should have your mower set between 2.5 - 3.5". Experiment with a few different heights to see what works for your lawn.
Once the height is set - leave it! There is no need to cut your lawn shorter in the fall. In fact, scalping the yard before winter can stress it and reduce the natural insulation it gets from the space between the blades of grass. Just keep it cut to the same height all year long.
Oh - cut earlier in the day. Sunlight helps to break down the compounds in the emissions, reducing the damaging effects on the ozone layer.
Pick up the pace
Instead of strolling around your yard behind the mower, increase the pace to a brisk walk. You'll get the lawn cut in less time and you'll get a little more exercise, too. There was a story a few years ago about a man whose weight loss plan was to run while he was mowing lawns, offering his services to people who had difficulty maintaining it themselves. Pretty cool idea and he did lose weight!
Use the right tools
Not every yard needs a riding mower and they emit 3 times more pollutants than walk-behind mowers! I grew up cutting our family's yard with a reel mower. Reel mowers can give you a much nicer cut while using no gas and emitting no pollutants. And they are much quieter! Some even say you'll need to water less because the grass is less damaged by a reel mower than a rotary mower.
If you aren't ready to convert back to a reel mower, you can also choose from electric or battery powered mowers. Quieter, no emissions from the mowers themselves and the power plants producing the electricity are definitely doing a better job of removing emissions from their plants than your small engine does. Your local electrical company is also probably turning to alternative sources themselves. Instead of coal or fossil fuel, they may be using wind energy or solar energy.
Take care of your tools
A properly maintained tool is more efficient, even if it does burn fuel. Keep your blades sharpened and have the engine tuned each season. Change the oil each season, or have someone do it for you. Clean the air filters or replace them. Put in a new spark plug and don't store gas in your mower over the winter.
Feed your lawn properly
Water and fertilizer make your lawn thicker and greener and reduce the amount of other plants (weeds) in the lawn. But, they also make your grass grow quicker and require more cutting. Don't starve your lawn, but don't overfeed it either. Think of it - you spend time and money to get your grass to grow more, only to cut it more often (taking more time and money) and have to dispose of the clippings (still more time and money), if you don't mulch like you should. Why don't you just cut out the middle man and throw your money away instead of the clippings?
It all adds up
At the end of the summer, you may not have reduced the total global emissions noticeably, but you will have had an impact. You will be setting an example for your children, your neighbors and community. And you'll still have a nice lawn, along with a cleaner conscience.
For some additional ideas, you can check out the Sustainable Lawncare Information Series from the University of Minnesota.