Cincinnati Nature Center Blog

Rethinking Your Lawn: A Guide to Living with Imperfection

Neighbor’s perfect green carpet.

By Jeff Sperry, Director of Development and Marketing 

There’s a reason the lawn treatment companies put little signs up saying “Stay Off the Grass for 24 Hours” when they finish a treatment. The chemicals they just sprayed all over your yard are poisonous.  Having two precious daughters who enjoyed playing outside, I ended my quest for the ‘perfect’ lawn years ago.  No more fertilizer. No more herbicides.  No more lush green carpet.  The other concern about those lawn chemicals is that they don’t stay only on your lawn.  They get absorbed into the watershed ecosystem, negatively affecting small streams, creeks and eventually larger bodies of water.  They aren’t good for the environment. 

Eight years ago, I moved into a suburban Cincinnati neighborhood like many around the region.  Everyone’s lawn was an immaculate, lush green carpet—a perfect monoculture of habitat suitable for nothing. My new lawn was also perfect, just like all the others.  Even though my daughters were now in middle school and high school, I had no desire to dump a regular schedule of chemicals on my lawn. I knew it would take strong resolve to buck the neighborhood expectations.

My weed-filled lawn during dandelion season.

During the first year in the new neighborhood, all went fine.  The lawn was mown on a regular schedule, and no one would have expected there was anything different going on in my yard. In year two, a few dandelions started popping up here and there. I managed neighborhood expectations by manually digging out the invaders with a long metal weeder, and my lawn still seemed to fit in with the rest of the perfect green carpets.  By year three, the dandelions became more prevalent, and weeding by hand became almost useless.  I embraced the dandelions in year four and let them do their thing.  When pulling into the driveway at night, car headlights revealed hundreds of tall dandelion stems topped with their seedhead puffs.  It looked like a field of zombies ready to stagger into the garage and take over my house.  Fortunately, a weekly mowing kept the zombies at bay, and after about four weeks of dandelion blooms, my lawn really didn’t look that different than any of the others in the neighborhood. 

Pollinators love the weeds!

Fast forward to April 2020, and my lawn is filled with ‘weeds’ of all sorts—clover, violets, crabgrass, ajuga, nutsedge, purslane, chickweed, creeping Charlie, and of course, the beloved dandelion. But really, the only time of year that my lawn looks completely out of place in comparison to other lawns in the neighborhood is for about four weeks in April and May when the dandelions strut their stuff.  The rest of the year, my weed-filled lawn basically fits in with all the other yards. The perks associated with a chemical-free lawn are many:

  1. Pollinators!! One of the biggest reasons to embrace weeds in your lawn is the benefit to our native pollinators.  Bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects LOVE the early flowers on all of those weeds.  A weedy lawn is actually a perfect habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects.  You won’t find any bees on the perfect, green carpet lawns.   
  2. Less mowing needed. Because of all the fertilizer used in lawn treatments, my neighbors have to start mowing their lawns earlier in the year and also end their mowing later in year than I do.  Some mow two or three times in the spring before I even think about dusting off the mower.
  3. Less watering. All of those perfect lawns need A LOT of water in the summer to keep the carpet green.  I never water the lawn, and it looks just fine.  Even if it turns brown in August, fall rains turn the lawn green again very quickly. 

After the dandelions are done, my weed-filled lawn looks pretty good!

The biggest challenge to going chemical-free for your lawn, is getting over the need for perfection.  Your lawn doesn’t have to look like every other lawn in the neighborhood.  In eight years, no one has ever come over to complain about my dandelions or any other weeds.  And guess what?  I’m now starting to see dandelions take hold in several other yards in the neighborhood!  Maybe ‘perfection’ can one day mean a lawn which provides perfect habitat for pollinators!