Trick question: What is the largest irrigated crop in the United States? Answer: Your yard, and all the rest of them. Lawns cover 40 million acres of the US, which is more than the 11 largest national parks combined and three times the acreage of corn crops. About 10% of Ohio is in lawn.
People dump billions of gallons of water on the ground daily to keep the turfgrass emerald-green. Can’t have “weeds” encroaching or unwanted insects attacking the grass, so over 100 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides drench lawns annually. These toxic chemicals make their way into waterways and cause various environmental and human health issues.
I won’t even go into the gas use and pollution generated by lawn mowers, and that noisy scourge of suburbia, the gas-powered leaf blower.
Lawn management is a multi-billion dollar industry, so there is plenty of seductive spin aimed at convincing people that a manicured lawn is good and healthy. Don’t want the Joneses to leave you behind! The truth is that all of this non-native grass and its attendant management has laid waste to native plants and wildlife.
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It doesn’t have to be like this. And increasing numbers of homeowners are eschewing traditional high-maintenance turfgrass wastelands in favor of hardy and beautiful native flora. And just last week, The Dispatch garden writer offered suggestions for alternatives to turfgrass.
When I moved to Worthington a few years ago, I immediately set out to vanquish lawns in favor of native plants.
Today, my yardscape is floristically diverse and full of interesting low-/no-maintenance plants. Numerous butterflies provide fluttering proof of increased eco-friendliness. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen American snout, cloudless sulphur, hackberry emperor, monarch, and summer azure laying eggs on appropriate host plants (none of which are turfgrass).
The McElhaneys’ ‘wildlife refuge’
Last year, my brother Mike introduced me to one of the kings of lawn-to-native conversion, Josh McElhaney. Josh and his wife Abby live in the epitome of urbanized suburbia: the corner of Karl and Maize roads in northeast Columbus. I visited their “yard” again on July 13, and was blown away by its diversity.
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Josh began his mission to diversify an acre of lawn in 2015. Seven years later, it bears beautiful fruit. At least half the grass is gone, replaced with a rich palette of native flora. Various coneflowers, cup-plant, several goldenrod species, prairie-dock and sunflowers provided lemony highlights and sent the local goldfinches atwitter in anticipation of the coming seed crop.
A discerning botanist would have fun searching the McElhaney yard. Curiosities such as queen-of-the-prairie, pawpaw, persimmon, rattlesnake-master, royal catchfly, and wild honeysuckle dot the grounds. Five species of milkweeds are in the gardens, a boon for monarch butterflies. One is Sullivant’s milkweed, which was first discovered in Ohio in the 1830s. Its finder was William Starling Sullivant, the botanist son of Lucas Sullivant, the founder of Franklinton, which would evolve into Columbus.
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Splashes of color come courtesy of easily grown native standards such as blue false indigo, mountain mint, redbud, and wild bergamot. A daring gardener, Josh has also planted two species of sumac: ecological heavy lifters, but they occasionally need to be reined in. In all, about 100 native plant species now flourish in the McElhaney yard and it in no way resembles its grassy predecessor.
I asked Josh why he started down the native path, and he gave a wonderful answer. The McElhaneys have two girls, ages 8 and 10, and wanted them to be able to experience nature and all that comes with it at fingertip range. That they can; just a step or two out the door and this easy opportunity has sparked an interest in flora and fauna in the girls.
Josh likes showing off his homegrown wildlife refuge, and sharing what he’s learned about establishing native flora.
If you would like to visit, send me a note at email@example.com and I will put you in touch.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.