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Lawns can help the earth  RSS feed

 
garden master
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I thought it would be pertinent to talk about lawns and proper ways to take care of them. In the U.S. there is approximately three times as much land growing grass as there is land growing food.
This makes grass the most grown crop which makes it something to think about on a benefit level.
Most people involved with Permaculture and the other, similar methods seem to think grass is bad, but lets look at some things grass does before we go ripping it out, which is a disruption of the soil biology.
First off, grass sequesters carbon just like trees do but since there are so many more grass plants per square foot when compared to trees, guess which one sequesters more carbon, yep, grass does a better job of sequestering carbon.
One acre of trees can process around 1/4 the amount of carbon when compared to one acre of grass, this makes grass something to consider, especially if you have animals that require pasture for their food source.

The problem with grass is that most of the people who grow it have been entrenched and bullied (in some cases) to use chemical rescue methods to have their plush, green, carpets of lawn.
There are even neighborhoods that require it as part of the list of Requirements in the Home Owners Association rules to live here.
There are many "lawn care" companies that instantly show the lawn owner just how green and plush the lawns they come and spray once a week are, then they hold out a contract with "You too can have one of these wonderful lawns, just sign here".
I am not talking about this method, it works but it isn't sustainable without a large enough pay check to be able to adsorb such an expensive undertaking year after year.
I am talking about how to have a wonderful, draught resistant, no spray lawn, one that you can enjoy without spending a fortune for water and fertilizers and insecticides, it can be done, you can have your green carpet and lay on it too while keeping more money in your bank account.

I look at a lawn and I see a piece of ground that is covered, so no worry about erosion. Sure it may not be growing edible plants, but at least the plants that are there are preventing the soil from washing away and those plants are sucking in carbon dioxide and moving some carbon into the soil, where we want it.
People who love lawns still out number those of us who would prefer to have food to eat. Some of these people are starting to change their minds about this but it will be quite a while before our numbers are close to even.

So how can these people change their method to permaculture type methods and still have that plush patch of green for all to see and Ooo and Ahhh at?
It's really quite simple, they just need to first stop using artificial foods for their grass plants and move to using longer lasting, finely ground compost and mineral dust and compost teas.
These items build the soil under those grass plants, entice those plants to send their roots deeper thus becoming able to gather water from far below the surface which means less need for water from sprinklers.
At the same time the microorganisms in the soil reproduce and grow stronger, fungi weave through the soil particles and wrap around the grass plant roots making more nutrients available to those plants.
Do this type of nurturing for a year of lawn growth and wowsers, super lawn.  Do this method for several years and we have created a convert and we have made a lawn that is organic and permacultured.

So, what do you think? Lawns, while not super food producers (unless you are a horse or donkey or hog, chicken, duck, goose, rabbit, etc.) are good carbon sequestering plants, instead of disparaging the people who love their lawns, lets convert them to our methods and lead them to the light.

Redhawk
 
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Thanks for your thread, Bryant.  I think that you are on the right track, for sure.  There are certainly a lot of people still growing lawns and a lot that will continue to do so before they will grow food, so why not an ecological lawn?

One of the main contributing factors that make lawns not ecological is that most lawn people tend to have the idea that they only want grass in their lawn.  A while back, lawn seed mixes included not only a large variety of grasses but also clover and other plants.  Then the chemical herbicide companies started convincing people that dandelions and clover and others were not a part of a proper lawn, and they should be eliminated, and this new paradigm became the 'lawn culture'.  Not only does soil depth, fertility, and moisture retention drop, with the reduction in diversity, but this drop also corresponds with the need to fertilize, feed and water, as you mentioned.  So one thing to get into the masses that would have a huge impact would be to get it re-accepted into society that a lawn does not have to be solid grass.  The weed battle is a major detriment to human/earth relations, not just the fertilizer problem that you mention.  The problem with the lawn culture is more that they have been convinced that they can have a lawn that is completely weed free, lush, green, and just grass; but this is not natural, and never will be.  It is a monocrop, and will need to be 'managed'  (read: mismanaged) in much the same ways as monocrops everywhere, with high inputs.

One of the best lawns that I've seen was built in an area that was glacial sand and rock. The soil was nutrient poor, and high draining.  It was my sister's place, about 20 years ago. The original lawn was sparse and full of bare rocks and sandy spots.  The contractor laid out three inches of woodchips which he ran a sprinkler on for a couple days, covered this with a thin layer of sand, and then two inches of topsoil to which he added clover and rye seed, heavy on the clover. These sprouted and grew with vigor, and when he deemed they were strong enough to take walking, he walked over them with a seed spreader, throwing out more grass seed, clover seed, and other seeds.  The new seeds sprouted in the understory of the established plants, and all of them rooted down in the woodchips to get the water, the clover linking to the carbon to break down the tough wood with it's symbiotic nitrogen colonies.  The chips were gone in a few years (as was evidenced when we built a garden bed) replaced by a rich top soil.  Because of the wood chips watering was minimal, and the mineral dirt beneath the chips also became rich soil full of earthworms.  Despite the variety of species, the lawn was lush and green for the most part (the odd dandelion flower was always around), and if mowed properly looked much like anybody else's with a lot less of the maintenance, and no chemicals. 
 
Bryant RedHawk
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The average length of root in a "managed" lawn is one inch, this is not enough root system to sustain the plant without consistent input of water and false nutrients (fertilizers) add to that the input of some enzymes at a huge cost and you have created a perfect storm waiting to collapse, shallow roots.
Grass plants can put down roots as deep as four feet when those roots are given the nutrition needed and the biological enticement to go down deep.
Roots that go down deep prevent plant death from lack of water as well as reducing the need to water frequently.

If you substitute finely ground finished compost and add compost tea applied once a week for three months you will have given the soil a huge boost in the microbiological department.
Many of the lawn care companies are now promoting monoculture applications of things like beneficial nematodes and singular bacterial applications, while these can work, they lack the full diversity that comes from a good compost tea application and they are not self sustaining unless everything else is already in balance.

The use of compost powder and compost teas addresses this and will create a balanced microbiological system that is resistant to all forms of problems including tick and flea infestation.
Since we have such a large population of suburbanites and a green carpet mind set for what lawns should be, it seems to be an uphill battle, however even the big chemical companies are starting to cater somewhat to those who are looking for more organic methods to keep their lawns looking good.
These powerhouses of chemistry will take their sweet time coming around because they are all about more dollars for their pockets but they are beginning to understand that people want to get away from their poisonous past.
This is probably because of the shear number of studies that have and are being done on dogs and the relationship between the lawn and dog cancers.
Interestingly enough, there are more cancer studies being done on dogs than there are being done on humans and these studies are showing that what you put on your lawn has a huge effect on the health of your pet dog.
This is probably one of the incentives to the big chemical companies to explore "alternate" methods and products such as nematodes, bacteria and enzymes as treatments for lawn care.

Redhawk
 
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For me lawns are burdens.
When I have a lawn, the  Man hassles me to cut it.
I don't want to be a servant to this plant, so insteead, 8 kill it every chance I get.

If i lived outside the reach of the Man, and I had plenty of land, my "lawn" would be a pasture.
 
pollinator
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As a minor point, I don't think there are as many permaculture people against the existence of lawns as you imply. In the topic "why are we mowing", many people were more against the fact that lawns have to be mowed continuously, mostly because of Home Owner Association non-sense, than against the lawns existing. It is far better to have a lawn than an empty patch of dirt or a rock lawn, that much is true.

If all HOA would allow people to have chickens in their backyards at the very minimum, then I don't think we'd be having these kind of discussions. I'm sure some people would either love to have pet chickens they get eggs from or chickens they would eventually take to the butcher, both of which would fertilize and cut the lawns for them at the same time. Laws are preventing one of the best options people could have right now to go in the direction of permaculture.

---

I feel the compost teas/fine ground compost you talk about are unlikely to happen on an individual-basis for most part. I dislike quoting myself, but here I go anyways:

Jarret Hynd wrote: After trying to explain why people mow in the first place, I'll now paraphrase geoff lawton in his explanation on people attempting to make compost: "people put a bunch of food scrap and grass in a bin, and then in a few weeks they look at it and it's just food scraps covered in grass and that isn't rewarding". It goes back to the point of mowing the grass and leaving it on the ground is easy, while composting and gardening take at least some skills(attention at minimum) and (more)time. A person can't just dig a hole, put a seed in the ground and feel the job is accomplished, as they need to be involved for long periods of time with that plant - it's a real commitment. The person can now rationalize a reasonable argument to not make compost. "if I don't have a garden, why should I compost?" or "I'm so short on time lately. If I got rid of my garden, I wouldn't have to compost either".



I think the only way to combat the quick and easy use of applying conventional fertilizers would be if someone did a start-up lawncare company using compost tea instead. It's something that any landscape company could add into their offered services aswell. At the very least this would get people to see that compost tea is acceptable in the industry - many might try to make their own after that.

---

As a last point on the chemical applications, here is some anecdotal evidence. When I did work for a landscaping company, a few clients wanted the dandelions out of their lawn. My boss was reluctant as we didn't do any icky stuff like that, but there was some "eco bio-bar" which was supposedly very low toxic. You just drag it across the lawn with ropes, much like if you were a donkey, and it applies some waxy substances to the weeds. To shorten the story, I accidentally grabbed this bar with my hand and 1 hour later my head was spinning and I had to spend the next 3 hours just laying down in the truck drinking lots of water. The thoughts that went through my head were mostly about what happened if the chemical was "normal" stuff instead, or what happened if a child went to play on the lawn afterwards. I'd wager 50% of lawn owners would convert to a permaculture alternative, if it was available through a company, if they saw the first-hand damage that these substances do to people, let alone the soil.

---

All of this does bring up a good point though. If people can not look after something as simple as a lawn without relying on conventional chemical and fertilizer, it's better to not push them straight to gardening or other advanced activities - application of any kind without proper knowledge can have plenty of bad consequences. If there was a 12 step program to start a path of sustainability, I'm sure one of the first steps would be to convert a normal lawn to one that requires less maintenance and external input.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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If i lived outside the reach of the Man, and I had plenty of land, my "lawn" would be a pasture.

yeah.  mine is a feral meadow.  It does have some thistle 'issues' though.  I mostly scythe it for mulch.

All of this does bring up a good point though. If people can not look after something as simple as a lawn without relying on conventional chemical and fertilizer, it's better to not push them straight to gardening or other advanced activities - application of any kind without proper knowledge can have plenty of bad consequences. If there was a 12 step program to start a path of sustainability, I'm sure one of the first steps would be to convert a normal lawn to one that requires less maintenance and external input. 

  This is a very good point.  Converting some of it to simple to grow garden plants, like peas, would be a good start too. 
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Jarret Hynd :  I think the only way to combat the quick and easy use of applying conventional fertilizers would be if someone did a start-up lawn care company using compost tea instead. It's something that any landscape company could add into their offered services as well. At the very least this would get people to see that compost tea is acceptable in the industry - many might try to make their own after that.
 



There are currently a few companies doing exactly this today, and they are making a nice dent in the "normal method" for lawn care companies.

There are also companies that are making and marketing the powdered compost and compost teas for home application.
So the mind set is beginning to be changed, but it will take time, just as it took time to get to the point we are at now.

William Bronson:   If I lived outside the reach of the Man, and I had plenty of land, my "lawn" would be a pasture.



Grass plants usually make up the majority of pasture, these also need the deep roots for draught tolerance. The biggest difference is that you rarely mow a pasture, when you do it is to "make hay".
I have pasture on my farm, the only place we mow is the back yard and that is more because if we didn't we would have poisonous snakes in our gardens.

Most people already on the Permaculture path know that grass is not the best thing. What I started this thread for was discussion of ways to get those in suburbia on our bandwagon.
But, even though grass is not the best thing, it does have a place, especially if that is all you are allowed to grow on a piece of land.
The key is to grow that grass the best way you can, with out any more harm to the environment.

Redhawk
 
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I think the biggest challenge for laws in the West is water. We have thousands of acres of native grasslands in California, but only those in the high country stay green past June or so (where we get thunderstorms and there's still snow melting). For the rest of the summer and into winter those grasslands turn a golden amber, a color people are unwilling to have in their own lawn until the spring thaw comes in February. Other places in the US that get summer rains don't have this problem. I will never forget the first time I visited Ohio in the summer and saw the ridiculous explosion of grasses all around. I kept wondering who was irrigating these empty fields by the highway — why would someone waste so much water to grow grass you just end up brush hogging?? Of course that's silly. That's just how grass grows in Ohio. That is not how grass grows in California.

For me, I see a few more challenges to sustainable lawns than soil health:

- Changing building practices such that lawns are built on topsoil, not compacted builders rubble. I would need several inches of compost (x 1/2 acre) for several years in a row to correct the soil health at my house in Dunsmuir. If you can imagine laying sod on top of a levee, that's roughly how it was built. Most new construction seems to follow similar plans.

- Integrating deciduous tree systems into every lawn, such that the entire lawn is in partial shade.

- Integrating water catchment systems on a massive scale for almost every home. I'd guesstimate a minimum of 20k gallon rainwater tanks per 1/4 acre, plus greywater systems in every house. Even that feels low (see attached water usage from University of California’s Centre for Landscape and Urban Horticulture). Most places in California get effectively zero rainfall May - November.

- Finding a solution to the lawnmower problem. Maybe it's changing regulations around animals in residential settings so you could rent some chickens/goats every once in a while to take the grass down, or maybe it's replacing our entire electrical grid with renewable  sources so electric equipment has no emissions. Mowing is absolutely critical out here for wildfire control

Now, if I lived in Ohio where it rained all summer and my house was built before scrape-and-sod practices, I do think it would be as simple as tending the soil. But out here in California, I think there are a lot more challenges to making lawns sustainable.
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Bryant RedHawk
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hau Kyle, I have lived in both Southern Ca. and Northern Ca. I understand what you are saying very well.

You make some valid points, especially on the way builders install instant lawns on new builds, I don't see a way to change them in the near future.

Soil is, however, very important to grass plant well being, without good soil under those plants, they can not sink their roots deep.
Watering shallow (as most home owners do) promotes shallow root systems and then you have to water all the time or you have brown grass.

You would be surprised at how little compost it actually takes to start the compacted soil at a construction site to start breaking up and soaking in water.
1/4 inch of compost will get the ball rolling and if you add compost tea to that, then the breakup of hardpan speeds up.
If you use a rototiller before you lay down the sod, things are sped up even more and then it is quite possible to have draught tolerant lawn.

California has many different climates from one end to the other and there is also a vast difference in the amount of top soil from one end to the other.
Our house in Torrance had far more than the house in Hermosa Beach and neither could compare to the 100 foot depth of our house in Sacramento which was in the American River flood plain.

For many places in Ca. grass is not really the viable solution, something more like they use in most of Arizona (pea gravel with rock gardens) would be a better choice, but people don't want that in Sunny Ca.

California is on the verge of loosing much of a water supply that has been taken for granted since the 1960's and when that happens, there will be a forced change in the "what a lawn looks like" mind set.

Redhawk
 
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Lawns are in my opinion a pest, we inherited a layout that includes several small lawns, none of which are ever watered, fed or anything other than mown, one is in a space we really cannot do anything else with, one provides somewhere to sit and the other we put 8 fruit trees into this year, We'll probably always keep the grass under them though.  that one grows from march to november including any dry spells, it's tough thick grasses, about 50% clover and the occaonal marsh thistle not very lawn like really. But the roots if you go to dig up a bit are still only a couple of inches, depth probably really depends on the grass type. We only have one lawn that is lawn grasses, fine things that stop growing when it stops raining.
Now we can have anything we want there are no rules at all on what we have here, but there really are not many options when you want something that you can walk over or put a table on, and be low(ish) maintinence. all the things I have seen are high maint or very very expensive to install.

I do wonder if lawns as you guys are describing them are an american thing, everyone here has lawns it's a convenient way to cover land, but I have never seen anyone water one, they might weedkill, but if so they should change their poisons, they aint working.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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  Here's an image of what we are talking about, Skandi.  I hope it comes through; it's a jpg doc.  A little slice of Americana.
 
William Bronson
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Kyle Neath wrote: I kept wondering who was irrigating these empty fields by the highway — why would someone waste so much water to grow grass you just end up brush hogging?? Of course that's silly. That's just how grass grows in Ohio. That is not how grass grows in California.



😂

I had to read this out loud to my wife, so damned funny!

My "grass" is always green, because I leave it the hell alone.
Oh, and because I actively pull up grasses in order to advantage plants like creeping charlie and plantain.

When forced to cut by threat of legal action, I beat it down with a weed wacker.

I have also cut it with a machete, just to give my neibors something to think about.

To me the obsessive  coddling of a lawn makes you into mother natures jailor,a job I simply refuse to do.
 
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When I first moved in here, I thought for sure I'd eventually switch to entirely permaculture / pathways / woodchips, etc.  But I've realized I like walking outside barefoot too much to do away with all grass. 

Right now I have a bunch of things planted here and there, and a tiny strip of "meadow" (where I'm letting things grow as they please).  That still leaves a lot of grass, which is really a polyculture of grass, clover, oxalis, and violets, etc. on a really bumpy lawn.  I'm committed to maintain however much I end up keeping without weed killers, artificial fertilizers, etc.  Definitely a fan of the violets. 

Because of health issues, I have to mow a little bit at a time (human powered mower), rather than all in one day.  Just before the last heat spell of the season, and the dryest part, I got part of it mowed, and another part I didn't get to.  The mowed part got burned and dry-looking during the next couple of weeks, like a scar on the land, while the unmowed part stayed looking like normal, green grass (if slightly high).  No more mowing here till rain!!

I really cringe when I see folks mowing in the extremely hot, dry weather.  The grass looks so dead afterwards, almost like it's a desert.  I mean, I'm glad people round here don't really water their lawns, because that's a waste of resources, but at the same time I hate to see that desert-look in a backyard, just to maintain a certain height.  If you just wait till there's rain, the grass is fine, at least around here.

carbon sequestering grass:

I saw an article in Organic Monthly (I think??) about a year ago, and I wish I'd saved it.  It was about a kind of grass that grows extremely deep roots and sequesters carbon as well as anything on the planet.  I really wish I knew what that grass was.  I think it would be an interesting experiment to grow a patch of it, and see how it does here.  (I think it was a prairie grass of some sort.)  Does anyone remember that?
 
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carbon sequestering grass:

I saw an article in Organic Monthly (I think??) about a year ago, and I wish I'd saved it.  It was about a kind of grass that grows extremely deep roots and sequesters carbon as well as anything on the planet.  I really wish I knew what that grass was.  I think it would be an interesting experiment to grow a patch of it, and see how it does here.  (I think it was a prairie grass of some sort.)  Does anyone remember that?


I didnt read the article you speak of but remember reading how well coastal sea grass sequesters carbon theres an article here saying they sequester more than forests
[url=http://http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/05/22/3508277.htm]Seagrass article[/url http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/05/22/3508277.htm
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Renee, you are thinking of buffalo grass.

 
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Recurring question in my mind.  Out West as mentioned, things brown out in late May early June for miles of open hillsides.

We have expansive clay, it bakes down to cracked lifeless cement at least 2 or 3 feet down.

What is the most productive role for a land caretaker to play?  What judicious labor can help to transform it?  Should it be transformed, is that the proper goal? 

Mowing or grazing during the wet season periodically should increase sloughing of roots and slowly build organic matter?

Adding water on the shoulder months of summer at least can help keep living roots in the ground and maintain some soil activity?

Adding deciduous trees, for shade and soil cooling, and for nutrients and mulch via their leaf litter?

What else can I do? 
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Adding compost teas that are fungal dominant by injecting the tea down to around a foot depth will start the processes and allow you to "green the desert" faster than waiting for nature to do it.

Growing deep rooted plants will then not only allow for organic matter to build up easier but it will also work towards the draught proof land goal.
By planting a mix of deep rooting leafy plants and trees you allow the soil to be shaded as well as covered for the cooling effect you mention, which is a really good thing to have going for you.

Creating some collection pools, filled with plants also allows water to soak into the soil and remain available during the no rain periods.
Mulching is almost always a good idea for arid areas but not to the extent of killing off the root growing plants, which do more good than any mulch can.
Using a diverse set of plant materials, building the soil microbiome with fungi and bacteria along with all the other microorganisms found in living soil is a sure fire method of changing the  microclimate of a given space.
The more diversity you can add and the more water collecting structures you install, the better the land will become and continue to recover/ remediate, year after year.
Along with deciduous trees, conifers, shrubs and bushes can be used to get a healthy green space going that will persist on its own once all the parts are able to work together like nature does.

Mowing really isn't the best thing to do in such areas, grazing short term is a far better way to get plants lowered since you are also adding manure, trampling of the soil and urines, all of which serve to increase the food available for the microorganisms and thus for the plants.

Redhawk
 
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For a number of years I've pondered an organic lawn service. Picture an above ground pool with a tarp full of manure lowered into it. There's a pump which fills a tank truck or maybe just a tank on a trailer. The operator drives around his territory and sprays this tea over the lawns of concerned citizens that want a fine lawn. This won't kill weeds, and it will make them grow lushly. But if mowed weekly the lawn will look green.
 
Time is mother nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once. And this is a tiny ad:
2018 need a rental/event manager for great pay
https://permies.com/t/50293/permaculture-projects/rental-event-manager-great-pay
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