Outdoors

A lawn debate: Nature vs. nurture

Wildside column: Experts says chemicals have no place on your grass

Jim Hoffman, a director of the Monarch Research Project, stands between his pond and a late-July profusion of bee balm in one of several native prairie plantings on his southeast Cedar Rapids property. The strategically placed prairie ended the erosion that had been polluting his pond while beautifying the landscape and providing a haven for birds and pollinator insects. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
Jim Hoffman, a director of the Monarch Research Project, stands between his pond and a late-July profusion of bee balm in one of several native prairie plantings on his southeast Cedar Rapids property. The strategically placed prairie ended the erosion that had been polluting his pond while beautifying the landscape and providing a haven for birds and pollinator insects. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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My wife and I disagree about our lawn, which is a succession of dandelions, white clover and plantain held together by Kentucky bluegrass in the cooler months and crab grass in the heat of summer.

She thinks the neighbors look down on our less-than-the-great American lawn and resent our repository of weed seeds. She suggests I spray herbicide on the weeds, fertilize the grass, water it during dry spells and otherwise get in step.

I, who can’t stand the smell of 2,4-D and collect all my clippings for use as compost and mulch on my vegetable garden, resist. And, since I’m the one who mows it, she grudgingly lets me have my way.

Doug Tallamy, an expert on the benefits of native habitat and a foe of groomed turf grass, sides with me on the chemicals but says I could be doing a lot more to fulfill my obligations as a responsible steward of the land. I plan to learn how when Tallamy speaks at the Sept. 29 Linn County Landowner Forum at Clearwater Farm in Marion.

“There’s no good reason to put chemicals on grass. For the sake of a status symbol, we are literally poisoning ourselves and the Gulf of Mexico so we can have pretty lawns,” said Tallamy, professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.

Tallamy, an acclaimed author and lecturer, describes chemically treated lawns as ecological wastelands.

“We need to create landscapes that contribute to a healthy ecosystem,” he said.

Tallamy recommends cutting lawn areas in half and replacing turf grass with native plants that improve water quality, benefit wildlife and remove carbon from the air and fix it in the soil.

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At the upcoming Linn County Landowner Forum, Tallamy will explain how to integrate beneficial plants into urban landscapes while maintaining an attractive appearance.

Jim Hoffman, a director of the Monarch Research Project, one of the forum’s co-sponsors, has been applying Tallamy’s principles for the past decade.

Hoffman bought a 12-acre pasture in southeast Cedar Rapids in 1995, built a house on it and converted the pasture to turf grass.

“I was going for the great American lawn,” he said.

Hoffman said he mowed it and sprayed it for many years before concluding the golf course-like monoculture was more trouble than it was worth.

“It was taking too long to mow, and I was having huge runoff issues after heavy rains,” he said.

The runoff cut gullies in his lawn and washed fertilizer into his pond, fueling algae blooms and vegetation growth that rendered the pond virtually unfishable.

About 10 years ago, as Hoffman learned more about the environmental benefits of native plants, he began replacing his turf grass with mini-prairies — large islands of wildflowers and deep-rooted grasses. He now has five plots, the largest covering half an acre, with a goal to convert half his lawn to native plantings.

Hoffman said he does not miss the chemicals and fertilizer he no longer applies to his remaining lawn. The strategically placed prairie plots have solved the erosion problem, and fish again flourish in the pond’s clear water.

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“The coolest thing is the benefit to pollinator insects (bees and butterflies chief among them) and birds (including colorful goldfinches and melodious meadowlarks) that inhabit the native plants,” he said. “The second-coolest thing is that I don’t have to mow it. And the third-coolest thing is that it’s fun to look at all year-round.”

The forum will offer workshops and opportunities to talk one-on-one with habitat restoration experts, including more than 20 vendors offering specialized products and services.

Online registration is available at www.monarchresearch.org.

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