Balancing Aesthetics, Energy and Emissions
What about that green grass? Which plants, shrubs, & trees will work best in our climate and require the least amount of energy, damaging chemicals & water? Which should we avoid? What are some time and energy efficient strategies for maintaining the yard?
Our obsession with smooth, green carpets of lawn around our homes, long a tradition in our culture and infused with pride and satisfaction, is its own environmental disaster.
The mowers we ride or walk behind to trim our grass are powered by small motors that actually spew more pollutants into the air than our cars do. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution (over its useful life I'm guessing though my source is not clear on that) as 43 new automobiles driven 12,000 miles each.
Your typical 3.5 horsepower lawnmower engine coughs out as many smog-producing emissions in an hour as a new car driven 340 miles! And that doesn't even account for the noise pollution.
Apparently, about 54 million of us Americans crank up the mowers each weekend to trim our little green heavens. I'm there. I grew up in suburban New Jersey in a neighborhood where the lawn was the thing. My first paying job was mowing acres of lawns for my neighbors. My dad let me drive his 12 horse tractor all over the neighborhood while I earned some cash and kept the hood all prim and trim. Some of my best daydreams occured to the thunderous thrum of that engine while I steered around maple trees and garden borders. As a 12-year-old, I felt the money I made was fairly remarkable, and the satisfaction and customer kudos I got from a job well done was every bit as valuable to me.
It's not much different here in northern Michigan. Everyone seems to love that smooth grass, but now that I know what I'm really doing when I crank up the mower, I'm making some changes.
I'm eliminitaing the gas-powered mower from my life. Granted, I live on a small town city lot now, so this is much easier for me to accomplish.
Even if you don't feel you can completely eliminate the gas mower from your own living situation, the idea is to mow less.
Here's what we've done for starters.
1. Get a reel push mower. I picked up a Brill (also looked at Scotts, both looked good but got the Brill because it is lighter). It's suprisingly easy to push. I remember trying to push these old beasts my grandfather had when I was eight or nine years old and not being able to make them budge. That colored my opinion of reel mowers until the Brill. I've had plenty of neighbors stop by to try it, and most people are surprised at how easy it is. My seven-year-old can struggle through a pass on our tiny front lawn, but she's not about to do the whole job; it's not that easy.
2. Get rid of some of the lawn. With some "alternative" landscaping and aesthetic advice from one of our neighbors who is a landscape architect, we're converting a third of our lawn into a pine-mulched garden area. It's been hard to keep the grass watered and healthy there anyway. Good riddance.
The pine mulch (just what we happened to choose - lots of alternatives) looks good, smells good, and is inexpensive. The nursery where we bought it told us to expect to freshen it up by adding some every three years or so. Within the new mulched area of the backyard we've built six four by four foot garden boxes to grow vegetables (more about those in the food section of this project). By mulching that area we eliminate the need to trim around the raised beds and mow the aisles. Even if you like mowing lawn, that would have been a pain.
What if you have a bigger yard and can't take care of it with a reel mower? You can also consider an electric mower as an alternative to gas. One option is a Neuton electric mower. If you have a third of an acre or less, this mower might be the answer. In fact, some smog-plagued cities such as Los Angelas have Neuton exchange programs to encourage residents to turn in their gas mowers for a zero emission Neuton.
Read a review of the Neuton by a guy who runs a lawn care web site.
Here's a collection of positive and negative reviews by consumers.
Remington and Craftsman have cordless electric models too.
Here's an interesting one called Epic.
Of course you'll find both positive and negative opinions of electric mowers, and you have a battery to contend with vs. a gas engine, but on balance, if you can use an electric (even though your electricity may come from a smog-belching coal plant) instead of a gas mower, you will be contributing far less air and noise pollution to the environment. Your neighbors will appreciate the quiet too.
What about the grass itself?
Here's something curious to explore:
A type of grass that requires less water and less frequent mowing.
Zoysia is a type of grass that is supposed to thrive in hot, dry conditions without requiring as much watering as other types, and can choke out weeds and crabgrass without chemicals. Sounds pretty good!
It apparently does better in southern climates of the U. S., and I found one review that recommends that you don't plant it in northern climes (such as Minnesota), but the company that distributes it as plugs shows a growing and shipping schedule that includes the northern states.
Take a look at Zoysia Grass here.
Here is a fuller, more scientific explanation of the Zoysia variety.