The Secret Truth About Lawns That Only Environmental Horticulturists Know

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Why do we have lawns? Because it's attractive? Because your neighbor has one? Because you enjoy mowing it so much? Environmental horticulturist Kim Eierman wants you to rethink your lawn and question whether you really need one.

Eierman is an environmental horticulturist specializing in ecological landscapes and native plants. She teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Native Plant Center in NY, Rutgers Home Gardeners School, as well as other institutions. She speaks about ecological gardening topics and presents at industry conferences, garden clubs, nature centers, beekeeping groups, and other organizations interested in environmental improvements. She also provides horticultural consulting to homeowners and commercial clients.

Eierman's web site, EcoBeneficial.com, offers interviews with fellow horticulturists and ecologists, practical tips for home owners and gardeners, as well as her podcast.

My recent conversation with Eierman got me thinking about my entire landscape, and specifically my lawn, in a different way.

The Truth About Your Lawn: An Interview With Environmental Horticulturist Kim Eierman

photo of Kim Eierman courtesy of Ms. Eierman

Organic Authority: What is the main message of your work as an environmental horticulturist?

Kim Eierman:Small changes in our landscape can make huge environmental differences. I live in Westchester County, New York on less than a fifth of an acre and 16 miles from midtown Manhattan. The plantings and the landscape that I've grown over the past 20 years attract creatures such as birds, butterflies, and bees that were not here when we first moved in. If you plant it, they really do come. What you do really does make a big difference.

I tell folks, when you have a house and a yard you have an ecosystem, and often times it's not a very healthy one. What we do in our own landscapes is very impactful and important. We need to become stewards of our own landscape.

OA: What attracted you to this field?

KE: As a child I was always fascinated by nature. I was the kid who always wanted to go outdoors and be immersed in it so I participated in Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School, and just thrived on that stuff. I couldn't get enough of it. I didn't always work in horticulture. For awhile I worked on Wall Street; I was downsized and made the decision not to go back. I needed to pursue what was important to me.

The environment has always meant a lot to me, and the fact that we're just one of the creatures within our environment. We're one part of our ecosystem--we're one part of the food web. We're not the only animal on Earth.

OA: On your web site you say that traditional landscapes contribute to unhealthy ecosystems. What are some specific examples of that negative impact?

KE: People need to reduce their lawn. I call the lawn the Green Desert. Turf grass is not a native grass and does not support our local species. This turf grass expresses its displeasure by requiring a lot of input from us--lots of fertilizer, watering, sun, and mowing. I liken turf to a hungry, needy baby that always needs attention. We need to reduce the lawn size to just what we use for playing, picnicing, etc. If we just did that, we'd have an enormously positive impact on carbon emissions.

What do we replace the lawn with? Another really bad environmental practice is having a large area of a single plant species--a monoculture. It's the antithesis of a healthy ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems thrive with a diverse array of plants. So, don't replace one monoculture with another. Think about a diverse array of plants--a combination of trees, shrubs, and perennials. Think also about bloom timing to provide pollinators (birds, bats, bees) with resources within the landscape throughout the growing season. We want to emulate natural areas to support the local species.

Of course, hopefully, we're eliminating pesticides. Sadly, when people think about this they think, "I can use organic pesticides," but a lot of organic pesticides can be very toxic to bees. So our goal should not be a pesticide but rather to increase the health of our own landscape by bringing in beneficial insects with a diverse array of plants to support them.

OA: Why are native plants so important?

KE: Non-native plants aren't necessarily a bad thing. However, consider the fact that the creatures around you have evolved with plants that are native to your region--there's evolution at work. In the case of most of our native butterflies, their caterpillars tend to eat the leaves of different plants, and those plants can be very specific and limited. We have to plant host plants that caterpillars eat.

OA: What gives you hope that your movement is catching on?

KE: Things come in waves. This trend of native plants is not a new thing. This is a popular concept that has piqued and waned over the decades. I'm hopeful that we can piggyback on the local food movement to create awareness about the importance of our own landscapes. I'm excited to help people connect the ecological dots.

Related on Organic Authority

How to Green Your Lawn: 4 Natural Alternatives

Keep Off The Grass: 3 Simple Ways to Transform Your Lawn

Mow Your Lawn With Mother Nature's Hungry Critters

yard image via Shutterstock

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