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Sustainable Lawn Care Alternatives After No Mow Month

May 31, 2024

 

Closeup of a bumblebee on purple wildflowers

Be kind to your local waterways and wildlife by implementing one of these backyard conservation tips this summer!

In the Southeastern US, we’re all used to the sight of a manicured green lawn – homogenous, lush, and weed-free. However, spaces like these don’t occur naturally; maintaining them takes a lot of resources, and can be a hidden source of carbon emissions and environmental damage. That’s one of the many reasons that almost 1,000 Nashville residents signed up for this April’s No Mow Month initiative, facilitated by the Cumberland River Compact. No Mow Month participants not only decreased their carbon footprint by letting their grass grow in the month of April, but also saw benefits like an increase in wildlife visiting their yards, improved stormwater absorption, and beautiful spring wildflowers.

A no mow month sign posted in a lawn full of grass and wildflowers.
My No Mow Month sign.

If you’re anything like me, No Mow Month left you looking for more ways to continue reducing urban runoff and helping pollinators in your own backyard. Fortunately, for those of us who want to keep practicing environmentally conscious lawn maintenance as the summer rolls on, there are several easy and accessible options!

Consider making one of these lawn care “alternatives” your new norm this year

  1. Extend your No Mow practices: Leaving even small parts of your lawn unmowed can support local wildlife, help absorb more rainwater, and improve soil health. Try it in an area of your yard that never gets particularly tall.
  2. Electric mowers: Switching to an electric mower cuts carbon emissions and decreases noise pollution – they’re great for the environment as well as your ears!
  3. Plant native plants: Got a grassy area you don’t use recreationally? Consider planting a pocket prairie or rain garden. Native plant installations are ultra-absorbent; according to the Green Values Stormwater Management Calculator (cnt.org), a 100 sq. ft. pocket prairie has the potential to capture nearly 30% of the runoff from a home’s roof. They’re also beautiful, low maintenance, and a source of food and habitat for beneficial critters.

The case against traditional landscaping

So, what are we actually preventing when we decrease or eliminate our use of gas lawnmowers? Turns out, a surprising amount of air pollution: because gas mowers are classified as Small Off-Road Engines (SOREs), they usually don’t have strict emissions regulations like cars. A 2015 study by the EPA found that in 2011, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment accounted for 24%−45% of all non-road gas emissions in the US. Another study estimated that mowing for one hour is equivalent to driving a car 100 miles.

Plus, if you participated in No Mow Month, you already know that mowing less allows plants’ roots to grow deeper and absorb more water, helping to mitigate urban stormwater runoff. Reducing stormwater runoff is especially important because traditional lawn care often involves the use of fertilizers, which are washed into nearby creeks and streams each time it rains. Common fertilizers contain nitrogen and phosphorus, which can trigger algal blooms in bodies of water. Some algae is normal, but an overabundance of it can prevent light – and oxygen – from reaching below the surface, which suffocates aquatic plant and animal life.

Two examples of algal blooms, green algae in a stream and red tide in the ocean.
Algal blooms can look like excess plant growth in ponds and streams, or like the notorious “red tide” that keeps you from swimming at the beach. Image credits: tn.gov (1), flickr user AJC1 (2)

According to TDEC’s 2021 Nutrient Strategy Taskforce report, fertilizers used in Tennessee – both in yards and in agriculture –  provide up to 5% of the nitrogen and phosphorus delivered from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a seasonal “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where algal blooms create hypoxic (oxygen-deprived) conditions that kill everything below the water’s surface each summer. In 2018, this dead zone measured 8,776 square miles. (Source: the Progressive Farmer)

Although we think of ourselves as “landlocked” here in Tennessee, it’s important to remember that through our local waterways, the impact of our actions travels a long way.

Overview shot of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hypoxia zone, or “dead zone”, in the Gulf of Mexico. Image: NASA.

Leading the way in alternative lawn care

Good news: the tides are turning, and many states and communities across the US are starting to encourage sustainable lawn care! California banned the sale of new gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers (commercial and residential) starting in 2024. Minneapolis, Minnesota reimburses residents through a grant program for installing native landscaping and pollinator habitat in their yards. Colorado offers a rebate program for people to trade in their gas-powered equipment. Washington, D.C. banned both the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers by amending their Noise Control Act in 2022. These new regulations, along with grassroots programs (like No Mow Month) across the country, demonstrate a growing trend towards more sustainable lawn care practices. Systematic change begins with individual change – the Compact is encouraging Nashvillians to rethink how they treat their yards in hopes that with enough community support, our city might one day be a gold standard for environmentally conscious landscaping.

Conservation landscapes: the yards of the future

Participating in No Mow Month helped me see my yard as an opportunity to take responsibility for the well-being of my natural environment. With that understanding, maintaining a homogenous carpet of non-native grass began to feel kind of silly. This spring, I sowed an unused portion of my backyard with native wildflower seed mix; watching the plants come up has been a fun and gratifying experience for my whole household.

Vibrant growth of native plants in a neighborhood lawn.
Around 3 months of native plant growth in my backyard. This area was frequently muddy, and the soil often washed into my driveway when it rained. Now, that problem is gone – and hopefully I’ll get to enjoy black-eyed susan, tickseed, and coneflower blossoms next year!

If you want a native plant garden like mine, but aren’t sure how to get started, fill out this form to request a conservation landscape consultation. The Compact helps Davidson County residents design and plant Pocket Prairies and Rain Gardens, providing plants at no cost to qualifying properties. While mowing less is a great first step, the Compact envisions a future in which Nashvillians simply have less turf grass: instead, native flowers and grasses flourish in residential yards, preventing erosion, capturing and filtering stormwater, and providing food and shelter to local wildlife. It’s a future that’s better for plants, animals, streams and rivers, and people – what’s not to like?

Author bio: 

Headshot of Jess Awh on a blue background.

Jess Awh is the Communications Coordinator at the Cumberland River Compact, where she creates multimedia content to tell the story of water-centric conservation initiatives in Middle TN. Jess has a bachelor’s degree in music with a focus on ethnomusicology from Columbia University. She was born and raised in Nashville and is deeply committed to environmental advocacy in the city she calls home. In her free time, she enjoys playing guitar and hanging out with her cat, Birthday.