Welcome to my suburban jungle

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

In between snowstorms, hail and rain showers (all in one afternoon) this past weekend, I took advantage of a sun break to dust off the family lawn mower and take a crack at the grassy jungle that my backyard has become.

Fortunately, it was an extended weather break, which gave me the three hours I needed to resurrect the mower from its winter hibernation.

For this one afternoon, the sounds of spring in our neighborhood not only included chirping birds and the rough notes of the chorus frog, but my increasingly frustrated cursing and shouting as my mower repeatedly blurted into life with a mighty roar…followed by a sputtering death wail and silence from the engine.

After an hour or so of this start and stop routine, the mower’s aged engine (I bought the machine back when Nirvana was in its heyday) settled into a rough and raspy rhythm that suggested it might either expire or explode any moment.

As I was cutting my way through the sea of grass, I was reminded of how much I want to get rid of the lawn in my yard. Aside from the constant hassle of mowing the grass, there are a host of environmental reasons. Lawns are water hungry, displace native plants, and because most of us choose to mow with gas-powered equipment, lawns contribute to air pollution.

The concept of the lawn originated in England, where the temperate (and often rainy) climate ensured the grassy areas could stay green most of the year without watering. That concept doesn’t translate well to the Pacific Northwest, where despite our rainy rep, our climate features an extended summer drought period. Unless we crank up the irrigation, our lawns get as brown as a convention of UPS drivers.

The typical suburban lawn in America uses 10,000 gallons above and beyond rainwater each year. At this point, a better writer would tell you how many bathtubs of water that is. Let me just assure you, that’s a lot of baths.

Our obsession with sod affects the air, too. Lawns beget lawn mowers. I’ve already confessed to my carbon-dioxide spewing lawn mower, so you know I’m not going to preach back to nature, granola and push mowers for everyone (well, maybe back to nature, but push mowers are only for those who want to really punish their kids or themselves).

Operating the average gas-powered lawn mower for an hour generates enough polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (apparently the name for what emerges from the south end of a car) equivalent to driving a car 20 miles. Historian Ted Steinberg, author of “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn,” notes that the gas and oil spilled from filling and topping off mowers and other gas-powered garden equipment is greater than the amount of oil spilled by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Lawns are a monoculture of (usually) nonnative vegetation. By replacing the area’s native grasses and shrubs from our yards, they displace the birds and wildlife that associate with them. Making space for native plants can make a yard more attractive to local birds and help sustain these species in our region.

And if that’s not enough to get you thinking lawn alternatives, there’s a financial angle, as all the gas, lawn mowers and fertilizer add up. Natural alternatives are inherently cheaper. One study estimated the savings of converting an acre of lawn to native vegetation could save $90,000 over 20 years.

Whether I’ll see that much savings or not, I’ve already started my own back-to-nature movement in my yard. While the backyard is still ruled by soddage, I’ve begun replacing two smaller lawns in the front with native vegetation.

I’ve begun adding native groundcovers, flowering plants and shrubs on one of the lawns. On the other, native fireweed has serendipitously begun taking over the lawn. The next step is to add more natives to the mix.

Federal Way-ers wishing to replace or reduce their lawns and/or add native plants to their yard can find a number of great information resources on native Pacific Northwest plants. One of the best is a nonprofit organization called the Washington Native Plant Society (www.wnps.org). I’ve listed others on the links page at www.hylebos.org.

This may just be the year I begin working on getting rid of the lawns in the backyard. If I do, I know I’ll be able to save water and reduce my carbon footprint, as well as provide native plants that will beautify the yard and attract native birds.

I will also save half a day each spring trying to get the mower started.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos. Contact: chinook@hylebos.org.

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