Eartha Steward: Lose the lawn! |

Eartha Steward: Lose the lawn!

by Eartha Steward

Dear Eartha,

I need grass clippings for mulch in my garden. When I lived in big cities at lower elevations, grass clippings were very easy to find. Do you know where one might get grass clippings?

Ivy, Silverthorne

Large, lush lawns in need of a regular cut are getting harder and harder to find in Summit these days. Good to hear! Outside of golf courses and single-family homes, many of us condo and townhome folk often lack the green spaces. Quite frankly, I think the well-manicured green grass look is ugly and not-so-eco-chic. Coming from a compost enthusiast, I do like the high nitrogen boost grass clippings can give my compost pile or vegetable garden, but I don’t like where they come from – a monoculture of water-intensive grass.

Other than the nitrogen and mulch factor, green grass is more of a headache than a help. Now that Summit is turning green, many landscapers and home owners are out tending gardens and lawns. Across the US, it’s been the same for a couple of months now – gas up the mower, buy the herbicide and insecticide, spray the weeds, add the synthetic fertilizer … a weekly (but detrimental) ritual.

Why the dis on lawns? First of all, lawn chemicals are highly toxic to people, the environment, wildlife and our pets. Almost all lawn herbicides and pesticides are full of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. In fact, a non-profit organization called Beyond Pesticides determined that over 78 million people spray their lawns and gardens every year. The most disturbing thing I found on pesticides is what it can do to our beloved pets! Dogs that have been exposed to herbicide-treated lawns can double their chance of developing canine lymphoma and other cancers.

You should never use grass clippings from treated lawns in your garden or compost bin! Pesticides containing clopyralid and picloram have been found to outlast even hot-composting processes. The EPA found these two chemicals can contaminate compost or mulch made from grass treated with these products.

Lawns are also water-intensive! Last year, 60 percent of municipal water usage in the western US went to landscape irrigation. It is estimated that a typical 1,000 square foot lawn requires over 10,000 gallons of water every summer. We are already experiencing a water crisis with many drought areas in risk of running out of clean drinking water. In addition, landscape runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the U.S. with 40-60 percent of all nitrogen applied to lawns ending up in our waterways.

Lawns are energy intensive! Beyond the chore of constant upkeep, energy is required to run lawn equipment, transport lawn chemicals and fertilizers, and to produce artificially made nitrogen. The US uses over 70 million tons of artificial fertilizer every year on lawns alone.

Think about what lawns do to our pollinators – the bees and butterflies. Nice manicured grass yards are like deserts for bees. Lawns are highways of grass instead of native flowers. Plus all the lawn chemicals are devastating to our pollinators.

With all respect, I hope it continues to be harder and harder to find cut grass because that just might mean we have fewer lawns. Let’s encourage our community to invest in edible landscapes; to build raised beds and herb gardens; to design ecosystems and permaculture guilds; and to support xeriscaped lawns with native and drought-tolerant perennials.

In Boulder, there’s a great organization called Community Roots Urban Gardens ( where a “Neighborhood Supported Agriculture Model” is used in place of lawns. The organization has converted front and back yards and church lawns into vegetable gardens for neighbors and CSA shareholders.

My final solution for you is to find the mulch or nitrogen you need from the Summit Plant Exchange. The local Yahoo group is where you can post and receive free items for the garden. The offer of garden tools, plants, soil, animal manures, and seeds are all welcome! Visit the HC3 composting page at for more info.

Eartha Steward is written Jennifer Santry and Erin Makowsky at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Submit questions to Eartha at

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