Alternatives to the American “Lawn” Part III: Let Your Landscape Work for You (Not Vice Versa)

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Hotline, Spring 2002

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

It’s not just a well-planned house that can contribute to energy and water savings; your landscape could be part of a savings plan as well. Just consider this:

  • (Hardy native) trees, shrubs, and groundcover will absorb up to fourteen times more rainwater than a grass lawn and don’t require fertilizer.1 Further, these plants help transfer surface water back into the groundwater, not into the overburdened storm water drainage system.
  • Carefully positioned trees can save up to 25% of a household’s energy consumption for heating and cooling. U.S. Department of Energy predicts that the proper placement of three trees will save an average household between $100 and $250 in energy costs annually.2
  • Shading an air conditioning unit can increase its efficiency by 10%.3

    Most lawn grasses do not thrive in the presence of a great number of trees, but there is a lot of value in those trees and they can work for you! Items mentioned above will provide just a few of the savings to be achieved by moving away from a typical yard of manicured grass and developing an ecological landscape which can provide both resource and financial savings in the areas of energy, water, fertilizer, mowing and weed/insect control.

    Energy Savings: If you have ever suddenly exited an urban area on a hot sultry day and passed into a heavily treed park or green area populated by numerous mature trees, you may have noted the pleasantly cooler temperature. In fact, as recorded by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the daytime temperature in a tree-shaded neighborhood may be three to six degrees cooler than in a treeless urban area. This same effect can work towards cooling your house.

    To achieve this result in Pennsylvania, you might locate taller, sturdy, deciduous trees close to your house to shade the roof. Broad shorter trees should be planted on the west side of the property to block afternoon solar heat. Be sure to shade the air conditioner (if you have one). Trees, shrubs or hedges planted along a driveway will reduce heat radiation as well. A trellis for climbing vines can be used to shade a patio. Walls facing the sun can be shaded by tall bedding plants or climbing plants.

    What about water? What is the expense of watering the usual landscape of manicured lawn? The Xeriscape Council (an organization that promotes landscaping with a minimum amount of water) notes that 30% of urban water on the east coast and 60% of urban water on the west coast is used for lawn irrigation.4

    In many years, including 2002, regardless of monetary sprinkler expense, Pennsylvanians can not afford to water the lawns because of a drought situation. Wells in numerous areas of the state are precariously low. In February of this year, Governor Schweiker made this announcement: “I urge all Pennsylvanians to do their part to conserve water in every way they can. If conditions do not improve, and we do not work together to conserve water, we could face the worst drought in our state’s history by spring. That is why I am declaring a drought emergency for 24 Pennsylvania counties this early in the year.” In addition to the 24 counties now in drought-emergency status, seven counties remain in a drought warning, and 31 counties are under a drought watch.

    Planting the yard area with hardy native shrubs, trees, groundcover and flowers (especially plants that do well in drier environments) will reduce the need for any additional water. Meandering pathways through this landscape can provide a pleasant landscape experience. This landscape will keep your yard green while a lawn may turn brown in a dry summer. In drought emergency counties, watering with well water is prohibited right now.

    Expense of Pesticides/Herbicides: Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, in his manuscript “Economic and Environmental Costs of Pesticide Use,”5 provides estimates of the cost in economic terms of pesticide use in the United States:

    1. The estimated pollination losses to food production from pesticides’ effects on honey bees and wild bees is $200 million per year.

    2. Destruction by pesticides of the natural enemies of pests can cost an estimated $520 million per year in the U.S.

    3. A conservative estimate of costs of fish killed per year by pesticides (6-14 million) ranges from $24 to $56 million.

    4. The total number of wild birds killed by pesticides is estimated at 67 million. The value of this bird loss to pesticides is $2.1 billion annually.

    Of course this is not in reference to pesticides used on lawns alone, but lawn chemicals are often implicated as part of the non-target species damage described above. For example, of the 18 major lawn chemicals, 85% are toxic to fish. Very recently, the Department of Agriculture in Washington State banned the use of the herbicide Clopyralid, used on lawns to kill dandelions, clover and thistles, for 120 days starting March 1, 2002 to prevent contaminating municipal compost. The Clopyrid persists in compost and later harms flowers and damages vegetable crops such as tomatoes.

    Energy (mechanical and human): A lawn needs regular mowing, which requires the expense of equipment, fuel, and your energy, and will produce polluting emissions.

    Each weekend, about 54 million Americans collectively mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year and producing tons of air pollutants, contributing to respiratory problems.

    Moving to a landscape that works naturally with the environment requires some initial work and expense, but in the long run it not only reduces outright yard expenditures, but could save household energy expenses as well.

    Most importantly, as more land is developed, we need to be more vigilant about the total environment. It’s not only the parks, forests and farms, it’s our own yards which collectively make up millions of acres of green space. Think about ending the manicured lawn battle and work in harmony with the environment to save resources, time and money.

    1. Maryland, Dept of Environment: html

    2. “Landscaping for Energy Efficiency,” U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

    3. Ibid.

    4. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, Gordon T. Geballe, Redesigning The American Lawn, A Search for Environmental Harmony, 1st ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 75.

    5. Dr. Pimental. “Economic and Environmental Costs of Pesticide Use” at a conference sponsored by the Rachel Carson Council at George Mason University. September 25 & 26, 1998. (1. p. 131, 2. p. 128, 3. p. 137, 4. p. 139).