Rethinking Lawns

Exploring Lawn Alternatives for Biodiversity Support, Climate Change Resilience, and infrastructure improvement

The Experiment

What could the lawn be?

The Control

Lawns aren’t always monocultures! Depending on where a lawn is and what people do to it, you end up with a whole assortment of different weeds (non-native and native!). To give the lawns we’re comparing to our treatments a fair shake, we have saved blocks of the original lawn to see what’s going on there.

Options on the Market:

White Clover

So if your lawn is gonna have weeds anyway, why not intentionally add a weed that has benefits? That’s the theory behind dutch white clover/microclover, commercial seed mixes of Trifolium repens. White clover is a European weed that was intentionally introduced into the United States. While the roots are shallow, they improve soil by collecting nitrogen underground. The flowers tend to bloom in late spring, frequented by European honeybees & other generalists.

Downsides: dies back in the winter & hates shade.

Fine Fescue

Called by names like “ecograss” “low-grow” “no-mow”, there’s a growing trend of Eurasian fine fescue grass mixes sold as eco-conscious alternatives to standard grasses like Kentucky Bluegrass. They tend to be mixes of different fescues like Festuca ovina, F. rubra, F. logifolia. Like the name suggests, they’re very tiny & grow slowly, so less mowing is needed. While small, they can form very short, dense mats above and below ground.

Downsides: really doesn’t stand up to much traffic & needs a blank, weed-free canvas to succeed.

Alternative Lawns:

Sedge Lawn

Maybe the best native grassy lawn?

Sedges (Carex spp) are a wide range of graminoid (grass-like) species, with nearly 500 species native to North America. There’s a huge variety of these cool-season-growing plants, but they’ve only just made the jump from rare, restoration-only, obscure plant to garden nursery shelves. Compared to lawn grasses, sedges are really fussy to start from seed, which also means they’re quite expensive. However, once they get going, they can form some really lush lawns.

In this experiment, we are trying out ten sedges, eight grasses, and two rushes to see how they grow, interact, and look as “lawn.”

Native Mini Meadows

Can we make a lawn with native wildflowers?

There are so many plants that are used to the extreme highs and lows of midwestern climate. What if we could plant just the species that stay short?

This is the theory behind our project. We know in theory that our native plants are:

  • Adapted to the extreme highs and lows of midwestern climate
  • Provide resources for pollinators
  • Grow deep roots for soil health & stormwater drainage

Mown kentucky bluegrass, for example, dies in both flood and drought, can offer little shelter nor food for pollinators, and has roots only within the first two inches of soil. Meanwhile, native prairie violet (Viola pedatifida) tolerates drought, can bloom twice a year, supports a variety of specialist bees and ants, and forms a dense net of roots at least six inches deep that aerate soil and makes space for stormwater drainage. Multiply that by 9-18 different unique species, and you end up with a “lawn” that helps both people and the environment.


Can our short meadows give meaningful benefits compared to prairie?

For the same reason we need to keep a chunk of original lawn, we’re planting test plots of prairie. In theory, our Native Mini Meadows are petite prairies: native prairie plants that happen to stay short. They’re a compromise between the resource-poor normal lawn and the resource-abundant prairie. Our prairies ought to provide even better climate adaption, pollinator support, and soil health than our Mini Meadows, at the price of being much taller than people are comfortable with in their lawns.

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