Do people want lawns?

If you are thinking that you would like to throw out your lawnmower and fill your yard with native plants, you are not alone. The facts – about how lawns waste water, pollute the atmosphere, poison us, trample on wildlife habitat, and take our time and money without giving anything back – are making their way into the public consciousness. Surely there are some people who genuinely like lawns. But, even as lawns continue to be a default landscaping choice in many new developments, as outdated local regulations continue to favor and protect lawns, and as that one turf lover in every neighborhood tries to shame and bully others into mowing their grass, more and more Americans are taking the stance that lawns just don’t make sense. Though not all of those people have yet had the courage to take this stance publicly by changing how they garden, here are three statistics showing that views on natural yards are changing dramatically.

People hate mowing the lawn. In the fall of 2011, CBS News surveyed Americans about their least favorite chores. 20% of the people surveyed said that mowing the lawn was the chore they hated most, making lawnmowing the least popular chore in America. According to this poll, mowing was less liked than other types of tedious yardwork, including raking leaves and shoveling snow.

It’s worth noting that this survey presumably included people who don’t have lawns – meaning that among those Americans who do have lawns, even more than 20% hated mowing above all their other domestic tasks.

People really hate leafblowers. Somewhere prior to 2002, a Learning Channel documentary reported that people named leafblowers as the third-worst invention ever. In a survey about terrible technology, only parking meters and car alarms earned more votes for being awful inventions.

Leafblowers are not needed in natural yards, for the simple reason that natural yards have no “yard waste” that needs to be blown away. Fallen leaves, grass clippings, and other discarded plant parts are recognized as valuable resources that can be either left in place or quietly gathered into a compost pile, to fulfill their destiny and return to the soil.

People want more native plants. In 2008, a survey by Consumer Reports found that a respectable 26% of American homeowners wanted to replace at least some of their lawn with “flowers, rocks, or native landscaping.” More recently, the number of homeowners who want to plant natives in their yards has climbed to a whopping 84%, according to a survey  by the American Society of Landscape Architects. In this survey, homeowners also named planting drought-resistant species and establishing low-maintenance landscapes as changes they would like to make in their yards.

Natural yards are no longer a fringe gardening choice. They are not being adopted by people who “just like plants”; they are being mindfully established by homeowners who recognize the overwhelming evidence that yards that are in harmony with nature are better for the environment, our health, our community, and our pocketbooks.

Put native plants in your yard. Tell people why gardening this way is important to you. You are in good company.

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Do people want lawns?

What is blood tea?

If you want to fertilize your yard without supporting harmful manufacturing processes, and if you want to go beyond ordinary composting but are not yet ready for humanure, you may want to try blood tea.

As described in the previous post, nitrogen is important to both plants and animals. There’s lots of it in our bodies. If you weigh 150 pounds, about 4 pounds of you is nitrogen. Where is it?

Some of it is in your blood.

That’s right: bleeding on plants provides them with essential nutrients that they need to grow.

Classic movies notwithstanding, no one is suggesting that we open our veins over our garden beds. But if you happen to be female, you are probably bleeding profusely on a regular basis and wondering if there’s something better you can do with all that stuff.

Enter blood tea.

It is simple to make. First, stop using disposable sanitary products. They contain toxic chemicals, produce an enormous amount of garbage, and cost the average woman $2,200 over her lifetime. Instead, invest in reusable products, such as cloth pads.

Once you have cloth pads, you will need to wash them. In between the time that you use them and the time that you wash them, you will want to throw them into a bucket of water, to prevent the stains from setting. But then, what to do with the resulting bloody water? Your first thought will be to pour it down the toilet.

Don’t. Pour it on your plants instead. This is blood tea.

If a menstrual cup is a better reusable choice for you than cloth pads, the process is similar: empty the cup into a jar, dilute the blood with some water, and feed the result to your plants.

This is not disgusting or unsanitary. It is a healthy way of using our biological processes to nourish other life. “That time of the month” is far more joyful when we use it to produce more plants instead of producing more trash.

What is blood tea?

What is humanure?

Unlike green manurehumanure is actual excrement. As the clever name might lead you to guess, it is excrement that comes from humans. What does this have to do with natural gardening?

Let’s talk about fertilizer.

Fertilizer is substances – often artificial substances – that help to provide nutrients for plants. A key ingredient in fertilizer is nitrogen, an element that is important to both plants and animals. Nitrogen is found abundantly in our atmosphere – when you breathe, you are inhaling much more nitrogen than oxygen. But most plants cannot absorb nitrogen from the air. They need it in a different form.

This alternative form can be artificial fertilizer, or it can be compost. To make good compost, we must put in materials that contain lots of nitrogen. What contains lots of nitrogen? One answer is (recently) dead plants. Another answer is human waste.

Our own urine and excrement – which to us is useless and toxic – is valuable and nourishing to plants. If we relieve ourselves on plants, they will happily absorb that nitrogen.

While it might be fine to do exactly that on a camping trip in the woods, nobody thinks we should fertilize our suburban yards by defecating in them. Instead, we can use the somewhat more refined process called humanure.

We begin with a composting toilet. This device, instead of using clean, drinkable water to move our bodily waste to a treatment center, simply collects our byproducts in a bucket. A seat can be placed on top of the bucket to make it more comfortable, and a handful of sawdust after every use will hide the mess and absorb all the odors.

When the bucket is full, it can be emptied into a compost pile. At this point, it is very important that the compost be managed well. Human waste is full of pathogens, and the compost pile must get hot enough to kill those organisms. (No need for artificial heat: the beneficial organisms in the pile will generate plenty of warmth as they munch their way through all that delicious organic matter.)

Once the humanure is fully decomposed, it is indistinguishable from any other finished compost, and it is safe to use on our plants – even on our vegetable gardens. However, like greywater systems, humanure is severely frowned upon by many local health departments, due to its perceived hazards.

Humanure is a normal and natural way of recycling waste products back into valuable resources. It connects our own bodily processes to the cycles of the earth. However, because it is dangerous if not managed properly, and because it is not yet legal in many places, please thoroughly educate yourself on this topic before attempting to establish a humanure system. There is no shame in planting some native flowers today, and leaving humanure until you are more experienced and confident as a natural gardener.

What is humanure?

What does plowing do to soil?

In the previous post, we learned about soil compaction. This is one aspect of soil structure. Another aspect is layering.

We all know about topsoil: it’s the valuable layer of soil closest to the surface, that is rich with nutrients and other resources. Below this are other layers, or horizons, which are primarily of interest to soil scientists.

The point we will focus on today is that layers should stay where they are. When each type of soil is at the right depth, the plant community living on top of the soil thrives. When layers are all mixed up, plants suffer.

Mixing within a layer isn’t good for plants either. A third aspect of soil structure is the very specific way that particles are arranged in the soil. When clumps of sand or clay, water droplets, air pockets, and microorganisms get jumbled out of their proper places, soil ceases to function in the way that it’s supposed to.

What can cause this kind of jumbling? Plowing, an agricultural practice familiar even to non-farmers, is the process of deliberately scrambling soil. In other words: plowing is bad for soil.

Why would farmers engage in a practice that damages soil? The answer is that plowing boosts plant growth in the short term. By turning over the first few inches of topsoil, farmers can introduce more air to the soil. While air in soil is good, this is a case where too much of a good thing is not better. Soil microorganisms gorge themselves on the extra oxygen, and start breaking down organic matter in hyperdrive. That makes lots of nutrients available to plants, which consequently grow very vigorously.

The problem comes when those voracious microorganisms run out of organic matter to decompose. Then the amount of nutrients available to plants suddenly drops, leaving them struggling to survive. Farmers start feeding their plants artificial fertilizers in an attempt to maintain their yields from the depleted soil, and the whole system becomes expensive, unproductive, and environmentally damaging.

The practice of rapidly wearing out soil was not much of a problem when there were few people, when the American plains seemed to go on forever, and when farmers could plan to just move to a new quarter-section every few years. Now that pretty much all the land is spoken for, farmers need to farm as if they intend to stay where they are. Plowing is not a form of sustainable agriculture – and, indeed, the practice of no-till farming is becoming increasingly popular.

But many gardeners still use residential-scale equivalents of plowing, like rototilling and double digging. Just like with plowing, these practices increase fertility in the short term, but result in damaged soil that can’t sustain plant life over the long term. Many gardeners now are adopting practices that involve disturbing soil as little as possible.

People today have different knowledge and different values than people in the past. Plowing was once an iconic practice in the agricultural landscape. Now we know better ways of sustainably managing our land.

What does plowing do to soil?