A recent article published in the Hartford Courant (article here)describes the environmental impact for the 245,000 acres of lawn grass that blankets the landscape of the Nutmeg State (almost 8% of the total land area of the state), which is more than the total land for use in agriculture production.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture and famed designer of Central Park, is often credited with sparking the migration of turfgrass lawns to the homes of ordinary North Americans. We’ll get back to Olmsted in a minute.
Any good homeowner who wishes to have a lawn they can be proud of surely goes to great lengths to maintain their patch of grass. This almost certainly means fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides will be deployed in that effort, along with gasoline exhaust, and gas spills, that incidentally occur in the process of mowing the lawn.
Along with storm sewers and urban runoff, lawn related pollution, the article notes, is a growing source of pollution that creates unsightly and unhealthy algae blooms and ecological dead zones in the Sound.
In New Canaan, the Noroton River, Five Mile, and Silvermine Rivers, along with dozens of smaller tributaries like Poorhouse Brook and wetlands interspersed throughout town, act as veritable conveyors of these chemicals as they are washed away by rain, sprinklers, or improper disposal. There is of course no such thing as "away"; we know all too well that these rivers and waterways eventually end up discharging into the Long Island Sound where everything that is transported is concentrated in quantities that have overwhelming environmental impacts on the riparian and estuarine habitats, home to all kinds of sensitive plants and wildlife.
The article goes on to discuss the increase in fertilizer use as well as the financial cost of such endeavors. Of note, a study referenced in the articles described "improving the property value as the primary benefit provided by a lawn."
This idea of increased property values is one area that the Land Trust can also play a role. It is estimated that the Land Trust has approximately 600 neighbors, each able to enjoy the common open space afforded to them, and to all, through the ongoing stewardship of the Land Trust and its volunteers, without cost to the Town or use of taxpayer funds. These properties require no fertilizer, no mowing, only the occasional and precise application of pesticide when invasive plants become overwhelming.
When garnering support for the development of Central Park, Olmsted described the increased property values neighbors would experience over time. This "Proximate Principle" describes the concept that open spaces like those managed by the Land Trust contribute to increased property values, and if the owner these lands were the town a "capitalization" of the value of the park or open space could be captured through increased property taxes collected. The Land Trust collects no taxes for its efforts, but manages to continue supporting these lands through generous donations from members and supporters in the community.
These natural areas, wooded uplands, and fern filled lowlands, offer a different experience than the large flat open spaces like sport fields or city parks, and are an essential element to the character of New Canaan. Residents may bear in mind the impact large sprawling lawns and maintenance have on the environment (not to mention the pocketbook), and consider the value of manage, but more natural, open space throughout town.
(Photo: Bumblebee Conservation Trust)
Sedges, clover, or wildflower meadows would all be viable options for New Canaan homeowners with large lots. After establishing these lawn alternatives, there is very little cost or time of maintenance, and the environmental benefits begin to accumulate: native plants and flowers often fix nitrogen in the soil, improving the health of the land and lowering the risk of erosion, provide habitat and food for birds, bees, and butterflies, improves the quality of water and retains storm flows to help prevent downstream flooding in large rain events.
These are all ideas to consider, and may be seen as bucking a trend of convention, but in a positive way. Explore the New Canaan Land Trust website to see more of the good work we are doing around town, and have a look here to explore alternatives to grass in the front "yard".