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Living Green

Breaking free from the suburban lawn

by Jason Best

Illustration of a house. The lawn holds a revered place in the American identity, somewhere up there with cars and cheeseburgers, and like anything Americans love, there's a whole industry to support it. We spend $30 billion a year on our yards, most of that on trying to keep them green. The lawn care industry spends a good deal itself trying to convince us there's no place a red-blooded American would rather be on Saturday than behind a mower. But all that water and fertilizer, all those toxic pesticides -- not to mention the homogenizing effect of 27 million acres of McLawns on the American landscape -- have led a growing number of homeowners to take a hard look at their turf, and many are finding they're tired of competing with nature. Unlike the Kentucky bluegrass that blankets so many yards, native plants have evolved to thrive in their region's ecosystem. Once you've established them, they don't need much in the way of life support. It's not as easy as putting away the old John Deere and letting your place go to seed (for starters, your local laws might prohibit that). But after a few seasons of work, homeowners who have decided to go native get to spend their weekends doing something other than whacking weeds.

Northeast Woodland

Northeast Woodland
Shady spots challenge even seasoned gardeners, but for those who live surrounded by the dense deciduous forests of the Northeast, shade is a fact of life. Sun-loving grasses are impractical, but thankfully, the forest comes with its own lush alternatives such as mosses and ferns. You can choose from a surprising number of woodland-loving wildflowers for color. If you're looking to add wildlife to the mix -- birds, butterflies, bunnies, and such -- you have to give 'em what they want: Find out what they like to eat and plant it, and supply water and shelter, such as nesting boxes, rock piles, and hollow logs.

Great Plains Prairie

Great Plains Prairie
Natural landscapes take planning: Mother Nature can toss her seeds hither and thither, but you've only got an acre. Get to know your property -- where it's sunny, what the soil's like, where it's wet -- and you can match plants to habitats. Start small if you have to: a few plants this year, more the next. People have ended up with whole prairies this way. And why not? If you live on the Great Plains, native prairie plants are often your best bet for practical landscaping -- they've adapted to the blazing summers and prolonged droughts, and they're beautiful to boot.

Desert Southwest

Desert Southwest
Forget rock gardens and surly-looking cacti -- Xeriscapes don't have to be drab. The word Xeriscape was coined in Denver twenty-five years ago to denote a whole system of landscaping designed to conserve water. Xeriscapes can still have green "oasis" areas (placed near the house for their cooling effect), but the first principle of Xeriscaping is good, commonsense design. (An acre of zoysia in Phoenix is not common sense.)

So you're ready to rip up that fescue and get back to nature. But where to begin?

Wild Ones is an association dedicated to natural landscaping. Their handbook is invaluable (, as is Lorraine Johnson's book Grow Wild!.

Every state also has at least one native plant society. Find a comprehensive list at natives.html.

If you're interested in creating wildlife-friendly habitat, visit the National Wildlife Federation ( habitat).

For would-be Xeriscapers, most arid states offer programs to encourage water-wise landscaping. Start with the Xeriscape Council of New Mexico (

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

OnEarth and NRDC do not test or endorse products. Product references are for information only.

Illustrations: Rodica Prato

OnEarth. Spring 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council