How to Transform Your Lawn into an Eco-Lawn
When you start trying to work with nature, one piece of feedback you often get is to get rid of your lawn. That’s because the average lawn is pretty awful for the environment. But what if there was another way? Luckily, you can transform your lawn into an eco-lawn. That lets you keep your lawn in an environmentally-friendly way. Plus, an eco-lawn will save you time and money. Let’s dive into eco-lawns and how to make them work for you!
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So what is an eco-lawn? There are quite a few different opinions on what constitutes an eco-lawn and what to grow in it. But at its most basic, an eco-lawn needs to do the following.
- Minimize inputs. such as watering and fertilizer.
- Minimize mowing.
- Eliminate all chemical weed and pest control.
The reason traditional lawns are such a problem is that they require so much time, energy, money, and fossil fuels to manage. An eco-lawn has to address these issues in order to live up to its purpose.
Eco-lawns can achieve this in part by having a diversity of plant life growing in the space, including nitrogen-fixing plants and plants that are more drought-tolerant than grass. The other part of the equation is changing up the way you maintain your lawn. (More on that later.)
If you want to transform your lawn into an eco-lawn, there are 2 main ways to do it:
- Fully replace your lawn with an eco-lawn seed mix.
- Transform your lawn into an eco-lawn through changes in how you manage your lawn.
Let’s dive into these 2 methods for transforming your lawn into an eco-lawn. While this will take some initial work, the results are well worth it—saving you time, energy, and money while also helping the environment.
But before you keep reading, make sure to grab the free and easy-to-print checklist which walks you through the basic steps to manage your lawn as an eco-lawn. You’ll want to follow these steps to care for your eco-lawn whether it’s a brand new eco-lawn or an existing lawn that you’re transforming into an eco-lawn.
Why Keep a lawn at All? Even an Eco-lawn?
Before we dive into the 2 ways to transform your lawn into an eco-lawn, you might be asking, why not just get rid of the lawn altogether? What good is a lawn?
I fully understand this viewpoint. The lawn has become a symbol of waste in the United States. So much time, money, and fossil fuels are spent just to maintain a lawn.
If you don’t feel a need to have a lawn, then please, by all means, get rid of yours.
If you live in a dry climate like parts of California, then a lawn may just not be a good idea for your climate. But there are alternatives that you can use in these dry climates.
But a lawn can also be a nice place to have on your property.
As adults, it can be easy to take the benefits of a lawn for granted.
But anyone who has spent a carefree summer afternoon as a child relaxing on the soft greenery with the scent of fresh grass in the air, or who has felt the chill of evening dew on their bare feet in a game of tag, can appreciate why a lawn might have at least some benefit.
For my family and I, the lawn is part of a series of elements we’ve created to make the outdoors a more welcoming place to be. It’s an outdoor living space in the fullest sense.
Nature trails and outdoor sit spots make it easy to walk around our property and enjoy the living world around us. But our eco-lawn is a part of it, too, along with a nature-based play area.
Our eco-lawn provides an open area where my kids and I can do log-rolls down a hill. It’s a place for star gazing and cloud-watching and picnics.
It’s a place where kids can run and play, and it’s also a place for us to simply sit and enjoy being outside.
Are there other options? Sure. I’m always installing new outdoor sit spots to make it easy for people to explore nature and be part of it.
But an eco-lawn adds something different. It can be a special part of building a natural life.
And it doesn’t have to be huge.
Our eco-lawn is only 1,300 square feet—a tiny fraction of the area that made up the lawn when we bought this land.
Bit by bit, I’ve been getting rid of the rest of the old lawn, sheet-mulching it away to turn it into new growing areas.
But even a small eco-lawn can be a really nice addition to your property.
So if an eco-lawn sounds like a good fit for you, keep reading to learn how you can transform your lawn into an eco-lawn.
Fully Replacing Your Lawn
This option is the most intensive way to transform your lawn into an eco-lawn, but it’s also the quickest method. At my own place, I decided to use this method to replace a section of the existing lawn with an eco-lawn.
The first step is to decide how big of an area your new eco-lawn should be. Here is a basic rule of thumb—if you are physically healthy and you need a riding lawnmower, then your lawn is too big.
Once you decide on the area, then your next step is to remove the existing vegetation.
This can be done by rototilling the existing grass and/or by covering the area with material, like cardboard and new topsoil, to smoother the grass. This is similar to the process of sheet-mulching, but instead of covering the cardboard with wood chips, you use topsoil or compost.
Rototilling alone won’t kill all the grass, but it will loosen the soil. My soils are too heavy for this to be done easily, so I used a technique called solarizing to kill the grass. I then covered the solarized grass with paper and topsoil to finish the job.
Once the existing grass is dead and you have a nice bed of soil, the next step is to spread the seeds for your new lawn. Make sure you don’t use regular lawn seed—look for an eco-lawn mix. There are a number of different companies selling eco-lawn seed mixes, but make sure you find one that includes micro-clovers (or other clovers).
Micro-clovers are a key part of an eco-lawn mix. These clovers stay short and provide a regular supply of nitrogen to your new lawn. That’s another key feature about an eco-lawn—it’s not just grass.
To spread the seed and help it get established, make sure to follow the instructions included with the seeds.
Congratulations! You’re now the proud owner of an eco-lawn! The next section is all about how to manage your new lawn as an eco-lawn. This is also how you can transform an existing lawn into an eco-lawn without first removing the old lawn.
Transform Your Lawn into an Eco-lawn
So what do you do if you have an existing lawn and you really don’t want to rip it out and replace it as described in the last section? Well, luckily, there are some basic steps you can take to transform your lawn into an eco-lawn.
It will take time—likely a couple years to get the full benefits—but you will see changes before that.
First, stop trying to get rid of all the weeds, and don’t use any herbicides or pesticides on your lawn.
A lot of the things we think of as “weeds” actually serve a useful purpose in an ecosystem.
“Weeds” like clover, for example, are a really important part of an eco-lawn. Clovers fix nitrogen into the soil, which will actually help your lawn grow and eliminate the need for fertilizers.
Other weeds like dandelions and other wildflowers should also be left in most cases.
My own exception to this rule is the weeds with prickly leaves. (Those are no fun for a barefoot child to step on!) and an invasive plant called stinky Bob that I don’t want to get established on my property.
You might have your own rules for your situation. But in general, if it wants to grow, let it go.
The next steps will help keep the weeds from causing any problems.
If your lawn does not already have clover growing in it I would purchase some micro-clovers and broadcast the seeds into your lawn!
Second, stop mowing your lawn short. When you mow your lawn, set your mower as high as possible—ideally 3-4 inches (7.6-10.2 cm). Mowing higher will help your grass grow and minimize the amount of light reaching the soil, which will prevent a lot of weeds from germinating. This will also help keep your soil from drying out.
Third, stop bagging your lawn clippings—at least some of them—and leave them in place. Now, I get that lawn clippings can be used for mulching or added to the compost. But when you leave the cuttings on your lawn, they will help improve the soil in your lawn.
Improving the soil of your lawn will help your grass grow and reduce the amount of watering you need to do.
Keeping your clippings on your lawn can even turn your lawn from a carbon source to a carbon sink. Your lawn can actually help to address climate change! If all lawns in the United States were managed this way, it could store up to 18.5 million tons of carbon each year!
True, this would only offset a small part of the country’s carbon emissions. But given the fact that most lawns are big carbon contributors, it’s pretty remarkable. It would help, and it’s something you can do right now.
Fourth, only water in the mornings or evenings, and start cutting back on watering as you implement the other methods. Watering in the morning and evenings will reduce evaporation and save water.
As your soil improves and you let your grass grow longer, your lawn will need less water. But your lawn will need some time to adjust, so cut back slowly and let your grasses’ roots go deeper in search of groundwater.
You can also consider letting your lawn go dormant in the summer. Here in western Washington, it’s fairly normal for lawns to go dormant and brown in the summer. But all that clover growing in your lawn will actually help keep the lawn looking green longer, even if the grass goes dormant.
If you are looking for a quick win, then stop mowing your grass short.
This change alone will start improving your lawn. But the other steps are needed to fully transform your lawn into an eco-lawn.
With these 4 basic steps, you will save money, time, and energy, and you’ll be helping the environment.
The basic steps to transform your lawn into an eco-lawn:
- Stop trying to get rid of all the weeds, and don’t use any herbicides or pesticides. Establish clover if you don’t have any in your lawn, so you can eliminate the need for fertilizers.
- Mow your lawn to a height of 3 to 4 inches (7.6 to 10.2 cm).
- Leave the clippings on the lawn to improve the soil.
- Water only in the mornings or evenings, and cut back on watering over time.
Taking Time to Enjoy Your Eco-lawn
Now that you have an eco-lawn make sure you’re actually getting out and enjoying it! There really is no reason to have even an eco-lawn if you don’t use it (unless you live in an area where lawns are mandated by a neighborhood covenant).
While an eco-lawn can eliminate most of the environmental impacts of having a lawn and can even be a carbon sink, it’s still not as good for the environment as a food forest, a garden, or a natural meadow. So if you’re going to have a lawn, be sure to use it!
An eco-lawn is a place for you and your friends and family to gather and enjoy being outside. It can be part of building a natural life.
If you have a lawn, but not an eco-lawn, now is the time to start transforming your lawn into an eco-lawn. Leave a comment to let us know what you will do!
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