Courtesy of Jason Koski/Cornell University

October 11, 2023

Cornell Botanical Gardens Natural Area Project Advances Lawn Sustainability

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A matter of carbon neutrality and preservation of biodiversity has led the Cornell Botanic Gardens to reimagine the conventional lawn approach that today covers 40 millions of acres in the United States. 

Challenging the conventional lawn gardening practice — constant mowing, over-watering and over use of fertilizers and pesticides — is critical to furthering horticultural sustainability approaches. Currently, lawnmowers produce 7.1 million tons of CO2 annually, as they typically operate on gas. Beyond greenhouse gasses, conventional lawn homeowners are estimated to use 10 times more the amount of pesticide and fertilizer per acre on their lawns than farmers do on their crops. 

Almost 15 years ago, Krissy Boys, Natural Areas Horticulturist at Cornell Botanic Gardens, was captivated by the Danthonia spicata, a species of native grass more commonly known as poverty grass. She mentioned that she spotted this beautiful native grass on the side of the road and began questioning the presence of native species in Fall Creek. 

“I was astounded by the grass that we see,” Boys said. “It is all European. Our native grasses are almost invisible to us.” 

This realization led a group of specialists at the Botanic Gardens to instate a project called the Native Lawn. 

The Native Lawn project aimed to reimagine landscape and gardening practices across the US. The project is a designed plant community, explained Director of Natural Areas for the Cornell Botanic Gardens Todd Bittner. “It is based on a combination of dominant or co-dominant species paired with other species that fit other ecological roles in a plant community,” he said. 

The goals of the Botanic Garden’s Native Lawn were to create a lawn that tolerates a moderate amount of tramping, requires minimized watering, needs no fertilizer and pesticide use and does not require constant hand weeding. “This project converted a non-native grass (and weed) lawn to a low-maintenance, low energy input, and high biodiversity, sustainable native lawn,” Bittner said.

The project has proven to be significantly successful. Cornell Botanic Gardens found that the native lawn only needed to be mowed one time per year to keep it around eight to 14 inches high. According to Bittner, the team started using an old-fashioned scythe later on to achieve the adequate height, so the care of native lawn now emits zero CO2.

As climate change continues to disturb and alter weather patterns, specifically creating droughts throughout regions like New York state that typically receive substantial rainfall, Danthonia spicata has shown great promise as a drought-adapted native grass species to serve as the foundation of the native lawns in the Northeast region, according to Boys. Overall, the project reiterates the need to innovate and seek alternative horticultural practices. 

“There is hope in plants being able to adapt,” Boys said.

Bittner additionally mentioned that the native lawn yielded nearly four times as many insect families versus amounts found in traditional lawns, emphasizing the importance of the presence of biodiversity. “Diversity is good in ecological systems, and in the native lawn,” Bittner said. “Like native plant communities, diverse, healthy plant assemblages can create a tight matrix that makes it hard for weedy species to establish and persist.”

Beyond biological diversity, Cornell Botanical Gardens is committed to the preservation of biocultural diversity. 

In collaboration with the Lakota Sioux community, the Botanic Gardens is working to study the impact climate change has on their livelihood as indigenous communities heavily rely on seasonal cues for hunting, fishing and other cultural practices. A collaboration at Cornell includes a group of students that got together to increase availability of native species including medicinal and sacred plants. Together with the Cornell Botanical Gardens, indigenous students created the Akwe:kon Full Circle Healing and Honoring Garden to honor land cultural use and availability of native species. 

Looking forward, the Native Lawn project aims to expand further, focusing not on just native lawns but how they can be utilized in local parks and other low use recreational areas 

“We plan to develop additional native lawns that will incorporate more native species — both those that grew spontaneously in our first lawn as well as local native species we think can thrive in a native lawn — and scale up,” Bittner said. 

The initiative aims to continue to expand across campus in order to be a significant strategy that brings Cornell closer to its carbon neutral goal of 2035.

Regina Galvan Rumayor can be reached at [email protected].