How to get a low-impact, lush landscape

Is the grass greener on the other side of the fence? That might not be such a bad thing, Consumer Reports says, now that the best yard on the block probably isn’t the one pumped full of chemicals and water.

“After World War II, a uniform, emerald-green lawn was marketed as a sign of success, but it’s becoming an outdated look as we understand the costs entailed,” says Diane Lewis, a physician and founder of the Great Healthy Yard Project, which teaches homeowners how to get beautiful yards without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. “It’s much more appealing to have a more varied and less perfect lawn that’s nurturing for your children, pollinators and wildlife.”

Instead of wall-to-wall coverage, more homeowners are going for the area-rug effect — for example, buffering a smaller patch of lawn with native plants that attract bees and butterflies. Others are using the yard to create an edible garden. Water-smart landscaping is also gaining traction, notes Consumer Reports, especially in drought-stricken regions, where some municipalities pay residents hundreds of dollars to replace thirsty turfgrass with gravel or mulch.

Consider this: Homeowners apply up to 10 times more pesticides per acre to their lawns than farmers do to crops, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Exposure to those toxins carries potential health risks, from skin rashes to cancer. And after they leave your yard, “the chemicals don’t just disappear,” Lewis says. “They wind up in rivers and streams and eventually get into our drinking water.”

Then there’s the economics. Maintaining a trophy lawn can be expensive, especially with water costs up 25 percent since 2010, according to the American Water Works Association. In parts of the Southwest, where tiered pricing applies, monthly bills can top $300. If the expense doesn’t cause homeowners to rethink their thirsty yards, being branded a water hog might. California’s State Water Resources Control Board website has even started ranking communities by their per capita water use.


1. Let it grow. A scalped lawn means weak, shallow roots, so let your grass grow to about 41/2 inches before mowing it to about 3 inches.

2. Mulch those clippings. They’ll deposit nutrients back into the soil, which could reduce your fertilizer needs by 25 to 40 percent, says Dr. Van Cline, senior agronomist for Toro.

3. Water less often. An established lawn needs only about 1 inch of water per week, including rainfall (use an empty tuna can to keep track). Rather than a daily sip, Consumer Reports recommends giving the lawn a good, long drink once per week or so.

4. Air it out. Heavily compacted soil denies your lawn much-needed oxygen. Aerating the lawn with a core aerator will help the soil breathe. Fall is the ideal time for this project because spring aeration can kick up weed seeds.

5. Embrace certain weeds. Clover takes nitrogen from the air and feeds it to the soil. With their deep taproots, dandelions can provide natural aeration. Mow them as you do grass.

6. Do a soil test. That will tell you which nutrients are missing. Applying lime can control acidity and reduce fertilizer needs. Though do-it-yourself kits are available, your local cooperative extension will do a more accurate soil test.

7. Look for low-maintenance ground cover. “Sedge is a grasslike plant that’s getting a lot of attention,” says Pam Penick, author of “Lawn Gone!” It can take occasional light foot traffic. For higher-traffic areas, she likes No Mow Lawn Seed Mix from Prairie Nursery, a fine-fescue mix suitable for cooler climates. In hot, arid regions, consider Habiturf, a mix of short prairie grasses.

2015 Consumers Union Inc.