Sustainable Lawn Care

Northern flicker woodpecker foraging in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens lawn

Northern flicker woodpecker foraging in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens lawn

The Arboretum’s mission and land care work focuses on conserving and restoring natural areas. We also manage dozens of acres of lawn, mostly in our garden areas: the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden and Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, a collection of trees and shrubs hardy in northern climates.

Arboretum lawn areas are mowed during the growing season at a high mower setting. Grass clippings and fallen leaves are chopped to create light mulch, returning nutrients to the soil. We do not irrigate, fertilize, or use pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides) in lawn care. These sustainable practices prevent chemical runoff, harm to pollinators and wildlife, and unnecessary costs.

Our lawns are diverse: they include grass species like red fescue and bluegrass as well as small flowering plants like clover, heal-all, violets, and even dandelions. These flowering plants support pollinators, especially early in spring and during summer heat. Dutch white clover is a legume that fixes nitrogen, providing nutrients to the lawn.

There are many ways to manage the land on which we live, work, and play. While lawns are common in yards, parks, and playgrounds, they do not need to be monocultures that are irrigated and fumigated.

Ecologically, the healthiest way to manage land is to plant a diverse selection of native plants. In home landscapes, adding garden beds of native plants will cut down on lawn area and increase biological value. But even lawns can be more ecologically friendly if they are cut at a height of about four inches, watered and fertilized infrequently (or not at all), and allowed to grow without pesticides or herbicides.

A monoculture of grass is better than concrete – but not by much. It does not support biodiversity or absorb stormwater effectively, increasing runoff. Monoculture maintenance often increases nitrogen oxide emissions from mowing and can release harmful fertilizers and pollutants into groundwater, lakes, rivers, and streams.

There are many excellent resources about environmentally friendly ways to care for lawns. Here are a few that we like:

  • Madison Area Municipal Stormwater Partnership offers tips for lawn care, with additional resources from UW Extension.
  • Bee City USA provides a framework for communities to work together to conserve native pollinators by increasing the abundance of native plants, providing nest sites, and reducing the use of pesticides. Madison, Wisconsin, is a Bee City USA affiliate.
  • University of Minnesota Extension provides a guide for planting and maintaining a bee lawn.
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency offers lawn care tips for reducing nutrient pollution.