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It's too easy being green

Harsh chemicals and polluting mowers can ensure a lush, emerald yard... BUT AT WHAT COST TO THE ENVIRONMENT?

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/7/2012 (1863 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Not so long ago, the notion of a traditional lawn seemed like it might be falling from favour.

In the thick of a thriving environmental movement, turf alternatives were sprouting up left, right and centre, and the once virtuously promoted expanse of manicured greenery was starting to get a bad rap.

boris minkevich / winnipeg free press
Winston Madray with his special grass-seed blend called Eco Lawn.


boris minkevich / winnipeg free press Winston Madray with his special grass-seed blend called Eco Lawn.

Although alternatives to a standard Kentucky bluegrass lawn have gained in popularity and availability in recent years, the vision on any given residential street is still likely to be a wide expanse of green, respectably trimmed and, as often as not, sparkling with a steady spray from the sprinkler. Yards replete with prairie wildflowers and native grasses look likely to remain the domain of certain pockets of the city -- Wolseley, we're looking at you -- and the social pressure toward well-tended turf shows few signs of abating.

But amid the neighbourhood scrutiny over a less-than-lush lawn, you might be wondering -- how bad is grass, really? After all, how much of a villain can green space be when we're talking about the environment?

The answer, it turns out, is not so cut and dried.

"They're not bad at all," said Kristina Hunter, an environmental science and studies instructor at the University of Manitoba. "It's what we do with them that's bad."

A yard full of bluegrass -- one of the dominant varieties in most of our front yards -- isn't inherently unfriendly to the environment. The issues stem from how we care for (and, sometimes, coddle) that lawn, and the resources it often needs to survive.

You can start with the obvious: gas-powered mowers, often disproportionally bad emitters for their size. Statistics Canada has reported that, depending on make and model, a gas-powered mower can pump out as much pollution in an hour as a car driven between 20 and 200 miles. Most homes with lawns have mowers, a separate Stats Can report said, and seven out of 10 of those were gas-powered.

Besides the high water consumption of a shallow-rooted lawn, there are the synthetic fertilizers often used to keep it thriving, runoff from which can contribute to nutrient loading in water bodies such as Lake Winnipeg. That's not to mention the footprint of the fertilizer itself, derived from fossil fuels and resource-intensive to mine and transport, Hunter said.

Cosmetic pesticides are still widely used on local lawns, though the dandelion-free days could be waning. Legislation that might include an outright ban for residential lawns is expected in Manitoba this year or next.

Concerns about the use cosmetic pesticides stem in part from potential health effects: A group of Hunter's students summarized hundreds of existing peer-reviewed studies as part of a broader project, documenting suggested links to illnesses ranging from leukemia and non Hodgkin's lymphoma to Parkinson's.

Factor in the human tendency to err on the side of more, just in case, or to buy combined "weed and feed" when straight-up fertilizer would do the trick. "What we've got now is excessive use of these products," said Hunter.

There's an argument to be made for the benefits of your average lawn in terms of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, as some research has found. But critics have argued that those carbon-storing benefits are lost when you factor in the emissions of lawn equipment, and question the rapid cycle of carbon back into the atmosphere when the lawns are cut.


Other options


It's one thing to talk about converting a lawn into something more sustainable, but challenging neighbourhood norms for a full garden of native plants can be quite another.

"People love their lawns," said Amanda Kinden, who organizes workshops on organic lawn-care practices for the Manitoba Eco-Network.

"There's a lot of kickback, if you will, from the neighbours and the neighbourhood and lots of pressure about keeping up appearance for the sake of the neighbourhood."

For those who'd rather their lawn blend in than stand out, some alternatives offer uniform-looking greenery of a different variety. Eco-Lawn, for one, is a blend of fescues that looks similar to regular lawn grass and needs half as much watering.

"It really is dramatically less needy in terms of water requirements, fertilizer requirements and pesticide requirements," said Dave Hanson, co-owner of Sage Garden Herbs, which sells the mix. Seed for about 95 square metres of coverage is about $35, he said.

"We've found this eco mix to be more drought resistant," said Sandra Madray, who, with her husband Winston, started over-seeding the original, over-thirsty lawn of their St. Vital home with the mix a few years ago.

"It took a little while, but it's basically taken over from the original grass that was there," said Winston.

Another variation touted is Buffalo grass, a hardier grass better suited to the Manitoba climate. One local source is Pickseed, a large-scale North American seed producer that also sells to individuals out of its Winnipeg location.

"We certainly see a lot more people looking at native grasses for around their yards or down by waterfronts or just a whole range of different areas," said Terry Scott, director of western sales.

But there's a caveat: most people who buy native grasses from Pickseed use them as decorative elements, rather than as a turf replacement, said Scott.

And there's the small issue of sticker shock. Buffalo grass costs about $37.66 a kilogram. A regular grass mix? $4.36 a kilogram. Native grasses tend to be cultivated in small quantities which leads to a higher price, said Scott.

Shirley Froehlich, owner of the Prairie Originals plant nursery, said they sell small quantities of Buffalo grass, but by the pot. She said she wasn't sure it would hold up well to foot traffic.

That's not to say all bluegrass alternatives have such a wide-ranging price point. A lawn covered in clover -- a low-maintenance ground cover that adds nutrients back to the soil, and is popular in cottage country -- will run you $8.80 a kg at Pickseed, said Scott.

A few more unusual alternatives to typical turf might take more work, but come with a wow factor, said Hanson, who suggested Irish moss or creeping thyme.

Above all, said Hunter, don't bite off more than you can chew when it comes to greening your lawn. If converting your yard into a productive garden isn't plausible, switching to a self-powered lawn mower might be a simpler first step.

"It just depends on the situation," she said. "It's got to be sustainable, in the sense that you've got to be able to live with it."


Updated on Saturday, July 14, 2012 at 12:52 PM CDT: adds fact box

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