Polyculture Lawns: An experiment in turning my turf into a more biodiverse, carbon sequestering environment

I’ve been learning all about lawn care in my Landscape Management class this semester. Since starting this program, I’ve found a deeper interest in lawn than I ever thought possible, which still isn’t that high. Turf is kind of boring, and most lawns are nothing but turf. You don’t realize just how boring turf is until you are staring at it’s auricles with an eyeloop trying to figure out if this is Kentucky bluegrass or fine fescue. But lawns and turf aren’t always the same thing, and lawn care has sparked my interest. Mostly, I am interested in how we can use lawn to create more biodiversity in the landscape and capture carbon. The more I thought about this, the more the idea of a polyculture lawn began to take shape in my mind.

A polyculture is loosely defined as an area where humans are cultivating a variety of plants in the same area, as opposed to a monoculture, where only one crop is grown. We all know what monoculture looks like, the endless rows of corn or soy or wheat or sunflowers or whatever that you see on the typical American farm. The common turf-grass lawn is also a monoculture, or at least, the goal is generally to make it one. A perfect lawn has no weeds, it’s full and lush and green, and that’s what most people are aiming for. However, the pursuit of that goal often takes a great deal of labor and inputs in the form of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, most of which are made from petrochemicals. That is not only bad for the environment, but expensive also.

Most people I talk to would prefer a low maintenance lawn, but that can be difficult to achieve with a monoculture lawn. Monocultures are by nature more susceptible to pests and diseases, and most of the more popular grasses are high maintenance to begin with due to shallow root systems and high need for nutrients and water. A monoculture of grass, particularly cool season grasses such as bluegrass, is going to need a lot of maintenance. There are lower maintenance grasses, but they tend not to be super popular because they don’t look like what people think a lawn should look like. Buffalo grass, for example, requires very little water, pretty much no fertilizer, and only needs to be mowed once a year, but it is brown half the year (being a warm season grass) and not as deep green as we are used to seeing lawns be during the times it is green. Even if you personally like one of those grasses (I’m partial to blue gramma grass), you might live somewhere where a lawn that’s brown half the year would not be okay, such as in a neighborhood with an HOA. Or you might live in an area where the majority of them simply won’t grow, which is pretty much anywhere north of Colorado.

These issues troubled me, until I came across an article about how until the invention of broadleaf herbicides, most lawn seed blends contained clover seed. The clover was soft, green, and stood up to foot traffic as well as the grass. Moreover, because clover is a nitrogen fixing plant, it reduces grass’ need for fertilizer, and clover is much more drought resistant than grass, meaning it could keep your lawn looking green even in low water years. The practice of clover and grass yards died out with the invention of broadleaf pesticides because clover would die when the pesticides meant for dandelions, mallow, and lambs ear was sprayed in the yard. It was only then that it became the norm for your lawn to be nothing but turf grass.

I was intrigued. It didn’t take much to convince me that I wanted to overseed my yard with clover. The increased coverage would discourage weed growth, the clover would grow deeper roots than our bluegrass, thus improving soil structure and carbon sequestering potential, and it would stay really green with little water during the heat of the summer when our bluegrass wants to go dormant. I settled on a variety called micro clover, which would hopefully be tiny enough not to draw too much attention from neighbors and passers by. But the more I thought about this, the more I wondered what other species could be added to a yard.

Having a wide variety of plants growing in your yard attracts in a lot of life, which is something I’m definitely keen to do. Improving the microbiology of my soil improves its fertility and it’s potential to sequester carbon, something I’m super interested in. In turn, this improves insect life, which if there is a lot of insect diversity, it makes it harder for the insects that are true pests to get a good foothold in my yard. More insects would likely also include more pollinators, which would make my garden perform better. And more insects will attract in other life that I’m interested in, particularly local reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Especially snakes and birds, because I just like snakes (also, they will keep mammal pests like mice, voles, and squirrels to a minimum), and I love watching birds. I would love for my yard to both attract more beneficial wildlife and sequester more carbon.

There are a number of perennial ground covers available to replace turf-grass if someone is so inclined. There is a whole company dedicated to “stepables” (which goes by the same name as the type of plants it sells, Stepables.com), low growing plants that will spread to cover a large area of ground and take varying degrees of foot traffic. Most of these are intended to be planted instead of grass, but what if I still wanted some grass? What plants would grow well with grass? They would need to be plants that could tolerate a heavy amount of foot traffic, occasional mowing, and be able to compete with grass, because healthy grass should theoretically out compete most broadleaf plants that make their way in. Obviously, many broadleaf plants make it into grass all the time, but dandelions and the like are somewhat hardier than most of the perennials we intentionally cultivate.

This, of course, brings up the concept of just letting weeds take over your yard, something that is popular out there in the permaculture world and that I have a knee jerk reaction to. Many people take the position that no plant is a weed, but I have the opposite opinion. Any plant can be a weed, a weed is any plant out of place. Still, by that definition, if you desire to cultivate a yard full of bindweed and purslane, those would not be out of place. At least not for you. The problem comes in when you consider just how very invasive these plants are, and your neighbors may not appreciate you sharing your plants with them. I personally don’t like those plants not because I hate the look of them (dandelions can be quite lovely, as can thistles and bindweed), but because they tend to outcompete the plants I have intentionally planted in my garden. As much as I love pulling weeds (and I’m one of those rare weirdos that can say that), I cannot keep up with how fast those will take over my beds. And if I feel that way, I feel like it’s not cool to potentially subject my neighbors to that either. Especially given that my neighbors will probably respond by spraying more broadleaf pesticides in their own yards, which is likely to end up in my yard as well, something I’d like to avoid.

Clearly, going the all natural route is not for me. I would want to carefully select the plants to blend into my turf, plants that would spread but be a little subtle, not use too much water, handle foot traffic and mowing, and mix with grass. Bonus points if the plant flowered, because that would be great for pollinators. Information on this is not readily available out there! I found one company, Fleur de Lawn, making a totally grass free turf blend which looks lovely, but not exactly what I was going for, as I still wanted some grass. Apparently, much like enjoying eating vegetables as well as meat, being interested in having grass as well as broadleaf plants in your lawn is not allowed. Luckily, I like to be a bit of a rule breaker.

So, with much excitement, I’d like to announce my intention to begin a great experiment with my lawn. I’m going to try and create a polyculture lawn, one that includes both grass and broadleaf plants. I’m going to see what plants work well for my needs, and what don’t work so well, and I’m hoping to recruit other lawns into my experiment in time to get an idea of what works well for them. This is going to be a big experiment, because I don’t know what plants will perform well under these conditions. I’m not sure if anyone does. But I know how to find out! I also want to monitor what this does to my soil, as well as to plant life spotted in my yard. I can take a soil test right now for a baseline to see where my soil stands, but I don’t have a lot of record of what kind of insect life was in my yard in previous years. I know I have seen bumble bees, and other bees (I suspect mostly honeybees, but can’t be sure), and wasps, and a small number of butterflies and moths. There are the fairly common assortment of spiders too, the funnel weavers, the common house spider, and an occational orb weaver. Also rolly pollies, and ants, and earthworms, slugs, and snails. But beyond those, I’ve never paid very detailed attention to it before, so I don’t have a very detailed base to go on. I suppose I could wait a year to take detailed stock of what my yard’s wildlife situation was before hand, but this isn’t a formal scientific study, and I don’t want to wait. We’re diving in!

What are your thoughts on the idea of polyculture lawns? Any plant suggestions? Things I should look out for? Tell us what you think in the comments!

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