Soon the dandelions will be in bloom all over the lawns of America’s suburbs, and they present an opportunity for you. The blossoming of these little yellow flowers is your chance to help the pollinators without spending one cent or, in fact, doing anything at all. You can be a rebel, a little bit countercultural, and support the health of pollinators in the ecosystem that sits right outside your home.
As much as people like to prune and tame and labor over manicuring their lawns, they are actually part of an ecosystem, and our human activity can either coexist with the creatures there or work against them. In the spring, dandelions are one of the first food sources for bees coming out of hibernation. Cutting down those dandelions deprives the bees of that meal. Worse, spraying the dandelions with chemicals can kill the bees outright. For the sake of the native bees or your neighborhood beekeeper, please PLEASE do not spray the dandelions. Even better, leave them to grow.
Dandelions aren’t just good for the bees; they’re also beneficial to your lawn and the other plants you grow. The taproot of the dandelion helps to draw nutrients in the soil upward, making them more readily available to green things growing nearby. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can eat the dandelions in a salad or make tea out of them (LawnStarter). They have a wide variety of nutrients, which is why they used to be considered valuable, not a weed to dispose of.
The humble dandelion is a good example of how the rise of lawn culture put our ecosystems and our relationship with nature out of balance. It used to be that owning land was valuable because of what land provides—a space for growing food. Certainly, land ownership offers other cultural and ecological benefits, but the idea that you would own land, however much, and work hours each week to grow an invasive crop that takes an obscene amount of water and chemicals to maintain, and out of the bargain you got—what—a sense of fitting in? That nonsense, my friends, is a bourgeois display that says you can afford to waste precious natural resources. It all goes back to the French aristocracy (the ones who eventually were beheaded when the people couldn’t afford bread) (Medium). We really can’t afford to waste these resources, either. There are 40 million acres of lawns in America (Salon). Imagine if we did something healthier and more useful with even half of that land.
Lawn culture is an expensive waste of time, energy, and water. I’d be thrilled if we did away with it entirely, personally. I’m going to tell you why. And then I’m going to give you some ideas of what to do instead.
Why Manicured Lawns are Bad for the Environment
- The carbon emissions from gas-powered lawnmowers, leaf blowers, trimmers, etc. are super wasteful (The Week). We have an electric lawnmower and tools from Ryobi that we are happy with.
- Grass lawns are a monoculture of a non-native species that does not support the biodiversity needed for healthy ecosystems (Discover Magazine).
- Fertilizers used on grass are terrible for the ecosystem. They are very high in nitrogen which throws the soil’s nutrients out of balance. If you live on or near water, those chemicals wash into the water, causing an algae bloom which chokes out the sunlight, damaging the biodiversity and health of the plant and animal life meant to live in the water. (Greater Greater Washington)
- All this grass is potentially very flammable in areas prone to wildfire, especially in drought, which is increasingly everywhere (PBS).
What to Do Instead of Mowing Your Lawn
- A recent study showed that mowing your lawn every two weeks instead of every week was beneficial to the bees. So a middle road is possible! Just mow less frequently. (USDA)
- Build some garden beds for wildflowers or a vegetable garden, or plant some trees. Adding diversity to the plants in your yard will boost the ecosystem, especially if they are plants native to your area. Less square footage to mow, too.
- Don’t use chemicals. Period. Your lawn might not look perfect. And I’m sorry, I don’t actually care. Grass gets brown when it’s dry out and then greens up again when there’s moisture. That’s how the plant works.
- You could also grow a ground cover other than grass. There are plenty of species that require a lot less water, grow slower, and provide food and shelter for insects and creatures. Less maintenance, more biodiversity. Finding the right ground cover for your area will take a bit of research and work, but that’s just time you’d be mowing your lawn, anyway.
- Read a book.
- Take a walk.
- Make a jar of “wishes” for your favorite young (or young at heart) person using the puffy seed balls of your dandelions.
- Make a cute “Pardon the Weeds. I’m Feeding the Bees” sign.
- Save money.
- Take a nap.
Lawn culture comes with a lot of baggage in American life. It’s tied up with ideas about prosperity, hard work, good civics, being a good neighbor, sometimes the actual law (The Atlantic). If you have an HOA, there might be little you can do to buck this bologna, aside from mowing every other week. Really, though, it’s all so unbelievably wasteful.
But, Kasey, you might say, you have a half-acre of…dirt. And that is true. The alpacas eat everything before it can grow much. But in our back yard, we keep it low-maintenance, mowing about once a month, letting the alpacas eat the grass, not wasting water on it, and focusing our energy instead on the pollinator and vegetable gardens. We have a lot going on on the homestead, and, frankly, not spending a lot of time tending to the grass—easily the least useful plant we grow—is a relief.
Join us, won’t you: let the dandelions grow, mow your lawn less, and have a beer instead, you rebel, you.