The Freedom Lawn was “invented” by a trio of Yale Forestry and Environmental Studies professors in the early 1990s, a concept rooted in low maintenance residential turf areas that aren’t watered, chemically managed or mowed with powered equipment, offering up the joyously weedy landscapes as a more environmentally-responsible replacement for the intensively-managed suburban lawn.
You’ll note word invented is in quotes, because some landowners were (and still are) practicing this method of lawn care without realizing they are so forward-thinking. But growing awareness of the benefits of “greener” management practices is leading more people to consider the Freedom Lawn as an intentional lawn management method to protect ground and surface waters.
Unfortunately, great ideas don’t always work quite the way visionaries hope when taken from the drawing board and applied to real life situations, and in a recent issue of the Virginia Turfgrass Council’s monthly journal, Dr. Erik Ervin, an associate professor at Virginia Tech, shined light on yet another sounds-great-but-really-isn’t idea. You guessed it — Freedom Lawns.
The intention is certainly right for the times, but Dr. Ervin points to research which indicates the reality may actually be more damaging to water quality than more traditional lawn care when all inputs except periodic mowing are eliminated. Freedom Lawns, he says, “can fairly rapidly become (environmentally) irresponsible.”
… But Still Use Compost
The author offers a few tweaks to correct the failings of the no-input Freedom Lawn and, at no surprise to us, many of these suggestions include the use of compost. Among his 12 Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Sustainable Lawns are the following tenets:
- Following the specified program for soil/surface preparation, adding a 1” to 2” layer of quality compost prior to seedbed preparation would also be very beneficial to lawn health and water infiltration over time.
- Repeatedly applying organic matter via the compost will build topsoil, bind nutrients and water and promote soil aggregation for improved water infiltration and compaction resistance.
- Two compost applications per year of a quality compost at 100 lbs./1,000 sq. ft. (500 lbs. per application of compost for the typical 5,000 sq. ft. suburban lawn) would provide all the fertility the lawn requires to remain healthy and dense enough to greatly limit any potential P or N runoff.
Phosphorous (P) does not leach if there’s enough clay and/or organic matter in the soil. Organic matter can be added by leaves, clippings and, of course, compost, and because it’s slow-release, compost can help with N runoff, too.
High maintenance lawns are fast becoming as passé as the era of poodle skirts from which they came. But as we learn to love those dandelions and find ourselves, quite literally, in the clover, it’s important to remember the role healthy soil plays in maintaining a healthy lawn and a healthy planet.
Use chemicals or not, embrace species diversity for your lawn or not, mow it or not. But no matter which practices you adopt for your backyard ecosystem, make sure there’s enough organic matter below the ground to make whatever you do an environmentally-responsible effort.
The full article, Are Freedom Lawns Environmentally Responsible? can be accessed by following this link. It’s well worth the read, even if your lawn is still stuck in the ‘50s.
PHOTO: Flickr/by Susan Harris