Calgary

OPINION | Hey, Calgary, it's time to rethink the lawn

As a society, we’re obsessed with grass. But a growing buzz of horticulturists, landscape designers, ecologists and biologists are urging us to give up on neatly cut grass, put away the mower and learn to love dandelions.

'We need to break the traditional definition of what a beautiful yard means'

Blue flax grows on the side of a hill in southern Alberta. Native species have adapted to the yo-yo temperatures, winds and dry spells that define our unique climatic zone. (Arden Nering)

This column is an opinion from freelance writer Ryan Stuart.

Arden Nering thinks she knows why her business is suddenly blooming.

The owner of Wild About Flowers, a 16-year-old native plant nursery near Black Diamond, says the arrival of spring brought "a huge growth in sales" of flowers, shrubs, trees and grasses specifically adapted to Calgary's challenging Chinook climate.

"Everyone's at home looking at their yards," she says. "They've got extra time and they want to make it look better."

May is always prime yard-work season, and during this pandemic spring, it's especially ripe.

Travel restrictions mean most of us are spending more time at home. Food security concerns have increased interest in vegetable gardens. And, maybe most compelling, digging in the dirt is good for us. Anxiety and depression have increased with the crisis and lockdown. Gardening is a proven remedy for both.

An obsession with grass

Traditionally, sprucing up the yard focused on the lawn: mowing, watering, fertilizing, weeding and edging. As a society, we're obsessed with grass — there are 6.2-million lawns in Canada.

But a growing buzz of horticulturists, landscape designers, ecologists and biologists are urging us to give up on neatly cut grass, put away the mower and learn to love dandelions to solve a bunch of stubborn environmental problems. 

"We need to break the traditional definition of what a beautiful yard means," Nering says.

Arden Nering collects seeds for her native plant nursery near Black Diamond. Our lush, green lawns are a desert when it comes to diversity. (Arden Nering)

No one argues there are perks to a nice strip of flat grass. It's great to lounge on. Ideal for playing catch or kicking a ball. And they're nearly a requirement for anyone with young kids.

But lawns are also a desert of diversity. A mono-culture of grass blades provides almost no habitat or food for insects.

That may sound like good news, except that most of the crops and foods grown in Alberta rely on bugs like bees, butterflies and moths for pollination. Even many of the grasses cattle munch on need insects.

These pollinators are in trouble; populations of many key species are declining.

Environmental costs

Then there are all the inputs.

A season of cutting with a gas-powered mower spews out 48 kilograms of greenhouse gases. Up to 70 per cent of the water treated by the city goes onto lawns. Some of the fertilizer applied to lawns inevitably washes into wetlands, rivers and lakes, messing with ecosystems.

Gardens full of a mix of species create more natural-acting habitat that's attractive to insects, birds and other wildlife. It's also more disease and pest resistant.

The Nevada bumblebee, or bombus nevadensis, hunts for pollen on a silky scorpion weed. When you add more colour and diversity to your lawn, it will transform into a year-round meadow ecosystem with predators and prey and flowers blooming from spring to fall. (Arden Nering)

Flowers feed pollinating species that then go on to fertilize crops. Plants have deeper root systems than sod, so they tend to absorb more rain water and hold soil together better, reducing runoff and erosion. And gardens suck up more carbon dioxide than a lawn and store it deeper underground.

It's about doing less

Making the transition doesn't have to be hard, expensive or require any knowledge. It's actually about doing less.

The Canadian Wildlife Federation's new Grow it! Don't mow it! campaign aims to create pollinator pathways across the country by encouraging Canadians to stop mowing a small section of their lawn.

"It's going to be a challenge for people used to seeing a yard in a certain way," says Carolyn Callaghan, a conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation. "But when you don't mow, beautiful things can happen."

At first, it won't look like much more than dandelions and grass. That's perfect.

"We're used to looking at dandelions as a weed, but they're also a pretty yellow flower, food for pollinators and a medicinal plant for people," she says.

Add more colour and diversity by sprinkling a little native wildflower seed mix. Within a few weeks the tall grass will hum with activity. Eventually, it will transform into a year-round meadow ecosystem with predators and prey and flowers blooming from spring to fall.

From grass to garden

The wild patch approach might be too messy for some and not go far enough for others. Replacing grass with a garden is a little more work, but still beginner friendly and affordable, says Laureen Rama, the owner of Eco-yards, an environmentally conscious landscaping company in Calgary.

"It's not hard," she says. "A green thumb is mostly about knowing when to water."

Her rule? Stick a finger in the soil. If it feels wet, don't water. If it's dry, turn on the hose.

Building a bed isn't much more complicated. Dig about 15 centimetres into the grass, turn the chunks of sod into a pile, mix in some compost, cover it with cardboard to keep the grass from growing back up, and then add a layer of bark mulch.

Plant seedlings — veggies, flowers, shrubs or trees — right into the pile. Any mix of plants is better than grass. However, the best are native species. That's especially true around Calgary where "black thumb" is a common affliction.

Native seeds for sale at Wild About Flowers nursery near Black Diamond. Replacing grass with a garden is a little more work, but still beginner friendly and affordable. (Arden Nering)

"I talk to people all the time who can't keep plants alive," says Nering. "They think it's them, when really it's what they're planting."

Buy native species that can thrive here

Due to another cultural bias, gardens tend to be full of exotic species that don't belong here. It's what they sell at big box stores and what most landscapers plant. However, a week-long Chinook in February will fool many non-native plants into thinking it's spring. The return to winter often hurts them.

Native species have adapted to the yo-yo temperatures, winds and dry spells that define the city's unique climatic zone. They're also more resilient to the extremes brought on by climate change and preferred by native pollinators.

Here's some tips and suggestions to get a buzz going in your yard. 2:58

Planting a native species garden is definitely pricier than planting grass, but "once established, native plants are really low maintenance," insists Nering.

Where grass needs weekly cutting, a garden needs only a spring cleanup and a weeding once a month.

An Ontario study that tracked the cost of lawn and garden ownership found that after seven years, all that mowing and watering of the lawn eliminated any initial cost savings.

"All you get out of a lawn is work," concludes Nering. "Gardens not only draw out pollinators, they draw us out, too. They're so much more interesting to look at. There's so much more going on. And there's so much more to enjoy."


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

As a full time freelance writer Ryan Stuart has covered everything from Greenland’s emergence as the next adventure tourism destination to why humans love looking at fire. His work regularly appears in Men’s Journal and Outside and he’s a contributing editor to Explore and Ski Canada Magazine.

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