16 Steps for Eco-Friendly Lawn Care

two blue rain barrels side by side on patio

Drowning your lawn in water and synthetic chemicals may help you achieve the picture-perfect home, but there’s a better way to care for your lawn. Find out how you can help protect the planet and still maintain a stunning yard with these 16 steps for eco-friendly lawn care. 

What is eco-friendly lawn care?

Eco-friendly lawn care is an approach that allows your turf and plants to thrive without harming the environment. 

Spraying compost tea over a nutrient-deficient lawn is eco-friendly lawn care. Dousing the yard with excessive fertilizer so that your already healthy turf can be a brighter shade of green is not eco-friendly lawn care. 

But why bother with eco-friendly lawn care? Isn’t grass good for the environment?

It’s true your lawn has many benefits. It improves soil structure, absorbs rainwater runoff, and cleans the air we breathe. But sometimes, our lawn care practices aren’t the kindest to our planet. Here are some facts about lawns that will raise your eyebrows: 

  • Maintaining lawns produces more greenhouse gases than they absorb.
  • Lawns are stripped of biodiversity and have contributed to fading insect populations. (Why this matters: Insects pollinate the crops we rely on for food, and they keep our Earth clean by decomposing waste). 
  • Covering only 2% of U.S. land, residential lawns require more irrigation water than any agricultural crop grown in the country. That’s a lot of water for no agricultural value. 

Your lawn’s impact on the environment may be surprising, but it doesn’t mean you need to banish its existence (remember, your lawn has many benefits). Instead, look at your yard as an opportunity for biodiversity, water conservation, and awareness within your community. 

The following 16 steps to eco-friendly lawn care are a great way to start your lawn’s eco-makeover. 

16 steps for eco-friendly lawn care

1. Test your soil

man holding colour chart for soil testing in his hand
CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products | Science Image | CC By 3.0

Your soil is your lawn’s foundation, and growing grass on “mystery soil” has consequences. A soil test reveals your soil’s fertility, structure, and composition, which helps you determine the most efficient way to care for your grass. 

Here’s why settling for “mystery soil” isn’t so eco-friendly: 

  • Not understanding your soil’s fertility levels often leads to unnecessary fertilizing. When too much fertilizer is applied, water washes the chemicals away as toxic runoff, which pollutes local waterways. The polluted runoff kills aquatic organisms and contaminates drinking water. 
  • Different soil types retain different amounts of water. If you don’t know what soil type you have, you might be overwatering your lawn, which leads to polluted runoff and leaching. 

2. Fertilize the right way

Fertilizer is a significant runoff pollutant. When irrigation water or rainfall washes away unabsorbed fertilizer, the runoff pollutes streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. 

So how can you fertilize with the environment in mind? Here are some tips: 

  • Fertilize at the right time of year to reduce the amount of fertilizer carried away in runoff. The best time of year to fertilize warm-season grass is in summer. Early fall is the best time to fertilize cool-season grass. 
  • Use the right amount of fertilizer based on your soil test results.
  • Switch to organic fertilizer to protect water systems and increase biodiversity. 
  • Fertilize no more than once a year, and do it right. Healthy lawns typically don’t need more than one fertilizer treatment per year. 

3. Reduce pesticide use

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a long-term approach that prevents pests through various techniques, including habitat manipulation, biological control, and modified cultural practices. IPM prioritizes human and environmental health and only resorts to pesticides when absolutely necessary. 

So why practice IPM? Similar to fertilizer, pesticides accumulate in rainwater runoff and pollute our aquatic ecosystems. The fewer pesticides you spray on your lawn, the better. 

But won’t fewer pesticides mean more pests? Not exactly. If you’re spraying pesticides on your lawn to manage a pest issue, there’s likely a trait about your lawn the pests find attractive. IPM gets to the root of the problem, while pesticides act as a bandaid –– they offer a fast solution but don’t always fix the underlying issue. 

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: The healthier your lawn, the less vulnerable it is to pests, which means you’ll use less pesticides. Here are three simple IPM tips that can help prevent pests and boost lawn health: 

  • Aerate the soil: Compact soil blocks water, oxygen, and nutrients from accessing the turf’s roots. Relieve soil compaction with an aerator and boost turf health. 
  • Dethatch the lawn: Thatch is the layer of dead organic matter accumulating between the turf blades and soil surface. Too much thatch will attract pests and must be removed. 
  • Remove plant debris: Autumn leaves, spent annuals, and twigs make excellent pest real estate. Remove the debris from your yard to avoid an infestation. 

4. Switch to organic lawn treatments

Depending on the situation, you may have no choice but to use chemical control on a pest, disease, or weed. But before you buy the first product on the shelf, make the eco-friendly choice and choose an organic lawn treatment instead. 

Why go organic? Many organic lawn treatment products (fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides) are eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic products. Here’s why: 

  • Organic products quickly break down in the environment, making them less likely to be carried away by runoff. Inorganic products do not break down in the environment and often pollute runoff. 
  • Most organic products are not toxic to humans or animals. If the product escapes into a water system, there is a low chance of harming aquatic life. 

Caution: Organic does not always mean safe. Organic products are chemicals that occur in nature, whereas synthetic chemicals are artificial. Just because a chemical exists in nature does not automatically mean it’s safe for humans and animals. 

Most organic products are safer for the environment than synthetic products, but this is not always guaranteed. It’s essential to research the product you’re using before applying it to your lawn. 

5. Encourage a deep root system

A healthy lawn requires fewer chemicals than a struggling lawn. But to achieve a healthy lawn, you must help your grass develop a deep root system. 

A chemical-free way to encourage deep roots is a proper watering technique. If your watering method is poor, your lawn will struggle to survive, which leads to more chemical use. 

Here are two irrigation techniques that will quench your lawn’s thirst –– the right way: 

  • Water infrequently and for long periods: Watering too often and for short periods encourages a shallow root system. Watering less often and for more extended periods encourages a robust root system. 
  • Water in the early morning before 10 a.m.: You’ll lose water to evaporation if you water after 10 a.m. But that doesn’t mean you should water in the evenings when the sun is down –– watering at night creates a long-lasting moist environment that invites pests and disease. 

6. Mow the right way

close-up of the back side of a lawn mower sitting on grass
Phil Roeder | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Another trick to sustaining a healthy lawn is mowing it the right way. Mowing your lawn the wrong way will make it susceptible to pests and disease, which ultimately leads to harmful pesticides and fungicides. 

Here are some mowing tips that will protect your lawn’s health –– naturally: 

  • Don’t mow too low: You might scalp your lawn if you do. Scalping stresses the turf and makes it vulnerable to pests, weeds, and disease. Yikes!
  • Follow the rule of thirds: Never cut off more than one-third of the blade’s length. For example, if the grass is 3-inches tall, don’t cut more than 1 inch. Pretty simple, right?
  • Keep your lawn mower blades sharp: You wouldn’t cut your hair with dull scissors, would you? Dull mower blades rip the grass rather than cleanly cut it. 
  • Know your grass type: Mow your lawn according to your grass type’s recommended mowing height.  
  • Keep the mowing height high: Mowing at the higher end of your grass’s recommended cutting height encourages a deeper root system. It also helps shade out those pesky weeds. 

7. Overseed the lawn

When your lawn develops patches and begins to thin, don’t ignore the problem. A patchy lawn is vulnerable to weeds, which leads to more chemical herbicide use. 

Encourage dense, healthy growth with routine overseeding so your lawn can battle the weeds without chemical assistance. 

When should you overseed? The best time to overseed a warm-season lawn is in spring. The best time to overseed a cool-season lawn is fall.  

8. Don’t bag your leaves or grass clippings

Your local news station just announced it’s time for the weekly leaf collection. As your neighbors pile up their leaves on the sidewalk, you may want to think twice about bagging your leaves –– and your grass clippings. 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, landfills received about 10.5 million tons of leaves, grass, and other yard trimmings in 2018 –– that’s the weight of approximately 9.5 million adult walruses entering the landfill. Even scarier, this total amount comprised 7.2 percent of all municipal solid waste landfilled.

Not only does bagging yard trimmings take up landfill space, but it also removes valuable nutrients from the environment. Removing a precious food source from your lawn and garden doesn’t sound so eco-friendly, now does it?

So what can you do with your leaves and grass clippings? Here are some tips: 

  • Mow your leaves with the lawn mower to create a nutritional mulch for your grass. Cut the leaves down to dime-sized pieces. When you can see half an inch of grass above the shredded leaves, you’ve shredded them enough. 
  • Use shredded leaves and grass clippings as mulch in the vegetable garden or flower beds. 
  • Compost your leaves and grass clippings, which you can later use as mulch or organic fertilizer. 
  • Leave behind your grass clippings. They’re healthy for your lawn and will decompose quickly. 

9. Save water with a rain barrel

Millions of people lack access to clean, safe drinking water. Saving water is critical, especially if you live in an area that has droughts, water supply shortages, or a dry climate.

Nationwide, landscape irrigation accounts for an estimated one-third of all residential water use –– totaling approximately 9 billion gallons per day. 

By investing in a rain barrel, you can help conserve irrigation water, minimize runoff, and save on energy costs. Simply trim your gutter’s downspout (if possible), place the rain barrel underneath it to collect the rainwater, and then use the water for your lawn care.

There are many different rain barrels on the market, so remember to choose wisely. 

How much rainwater can rain barrels collect? A rain barrel can collect an awful lot of water. For every inch of rain that falls on one square foot of your roof, you can harvest 0.6 gallons of water. 

For example, let’s say the roof section that drains into the barrel is 150 square feet in size. After a half-inch of rainfall, the barrel can collect up to 45 gallons of rainwater. After 1 inch of rain, the barrel can collect up to 90 gallons of rainwater (although you may need more than one barrel). 

10. Save water with drip irrigation

When you’re watering the lawn, do you give your gardens and flower beds a sip, too? It may be surprising to learn that water from your hose or sprinkler is often lost through evaporation, wind, and –– you guessed it –– runoff. 

Installing a drip irrigation system in your flower beds and garden is an excellent way to conserve irrigation water. A drip irrigation system is a network of plastic pipes that slowly and directly delivers water into the plant’s root zone. The soil readily absorbs the slow dripping water, which leads to less water loss (and saves you from an extra lawn care chore). 

11. Switch to a clover lawn

grass filled with clover flowers
Famartin | Wikimedia | CC By-SA 4.0

Clover is a low-maintenance, eco-friendly grass alternative. If you want to join the eco-friendly bandwagon, make the switch to a clover lawn. Here are 10 reasons why people are choosing clover over turf: 

  • Clover requires less water than a grass lawn.
  • Clover needs few to no mowings.
  • Clover is drought-tolerant and can remain green throughout summers and mild winters. 
  • Clover doesn’t need any fertilizer to thrive.
  • Clover can easily combat weeds, which means no herbicide use.
  • Clover is inexpensive.
  • Clover lowers the need for aeration.
  • Clover attracts beautiful pollinators.
  • Clover typically has fewer pest problems than turfgrass.
  • Clover grows well in partial shade, unlike most turfgrasses.

12. Downsize the lawn 

Everyone’s talking about downsizing their homes, so why not downsize the lawn, too? The bigger the lawn, the more water and chemical fertilizers it requires to thrive. 

Downsizing the lawn might take a bit of sweat, but you’ll end up with fewer lawn chores and a gorgeous yard that’s good for the environment. Here are four ways you can downsize the lawn and grow less grass: 

  • Replace turf with ground covers. Ground covers are low-growing plants that grow along the ground as they spread. Replacing turf with ground covers means less mowing, and if you grow native ground covers, it means less watering and chemicals. 
  • Install a xeriscape. Building this lawn alternative is an excellent way to conserve water and reduce chemical use. A xeriscape is a type of landscape that thrives on little to no irrigation water (usually, the local rainfall is enough).
  • Build a rock garden. Similar to a xeriscape, a rock garden requires little maintenance. Save water, reduce chemicals, and enjoy the visual beauty that rocks can bring to your lawn. 
  • Install permeable hardscapes. Permeable hardscapes, such as decomposed granite or porous asphalt, allow the water to pass through the surface and into the soil. Solid hardscapes, such as a solid concrete driveway, can increase rainwater runoff. 

13. Grow native plants

Transforming a section of your yard into a native plant sanctuary is an excellent way to grab the neighbors’ attention (and get them talking about eco-friendly lawns). 

So what makes native plants such an eco-friendly addition to the lawn? Native plants:

  • Thrive without fertilizers and pesticides
  • Control erosion and stormwater runoff
  • Restore natural habitats
  • Increase biodiversity
  • Require less water than non-native plants

14. Switch to green tools

Gas-powered lawn mowers, weed eaters, leaf blowers –– they’re not welcome in an eco-conscious lawn. Gas-powered tools produce carbon monoxide emissions that are harmful to the user and the environment. 

Instead of filling up your tools with gas and oil, make the switch to corded and battery-powered tools. Corded tools require an electrical outlet to operate, whereas cordless tools run on a rechargeable battery. 

15. Use organic mulch

Does your lawn care checklist include mulching the planting beds? Mulch has many benefits: It helps retain moisture in the soil, controls erosion, blocks weeds, and reduces erosion. But what sets organic mulch apart from inorganic mulch?

Organic mulch, such as wood chips or shredded bark, is a plant-based material. Organic mulch: 

  • Adds nutrients to the soil
  • Enhances the soil’s microbe community
  • Builds biodiversity
  • Enhances plant health
  • Reduces the need for fertilizer

Inorganic mulch, such as rocks or shredded rubber, is not plant-based material. Inorganic mulch doesn’t provide nutrients to the soil or build biodiversity. Landscape fabric, a type of inorganic mulch, can even kill the soil and threaten plant health. 

16. Increase biodiversity with habitat gardens 

Add up all of America’s lawns, and they’ll cover roughly the size of Florida. Imagine the positive environmental impact we could make if these lawns contained bustling habitats and removed more greenhouse gases than they produced?

With the help of native plants, you can boost your yard’s biodiversity by building habitat gardens. These gardens provide food and shelter for wildlife and restore balance to the ecosystem. 

Examples of habitat gardens include: 

  • Meadow gardens
  • Butterfly gardens
  • Wildflower gardens
  • Water gardens
  • Bog gardens
  • Moon gardens

Hire a professional green thumb for help

Taking care of the lawn is hard work, especially when developing a whole new routine. While you’re busy designing your new butterfly garden, hire a lawn care professional to mow the grass, edge the flower beds, and overseed the lawn. You’re busy saving the planet with your new eco-friendly yard, so it only makes sense to ask for help. 

Main Photo Credit: Jennifer C. | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is an artist, writer, and nature lover. She enjoys teaching readers about the importance of eco-friendly lawn care, integrated pest management, biodiversity, and sustainable landscaping.