The buzz might never rival a gasoline-powered mower, but there's growing noise out there about reenvisioning a cherished American tradition: the turfgrass lawn.
For years, environmentalists have bad-mouthed the water-hogging, wildlife-repelling, gas-guzzling and polluting features of what the Lawn Institute, an industry group, calls "the earth's living skin."
Now, as lawn lovers prepare for spring planting, alternative ideas are gaining traction. One would replace that "living skin" with "freedom lawn," a wild quilt of grass and whatever else grows in. Others suggest having less lawn, or a different kind.
"There is just much more awareness now, better-educated consumers," said Nancy Bosold, turf specialist with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension.
While the industry seeks to improve traditional grass qualities such as color and vigor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rutgers University, among others, are investigating ways to make Kentucky blue grass and other lawn stalwarts more drought-tolerant.
They're also testing nontraditional grasses, like fine fescues, that could someday serve as environmentally responsible, attractive counterpoints to those vast expanses of lawn.
And they are vast - 50 million acres of yards, parks, cemeteries, golf courses, athletic fields, and corporate campuses across the country. Expensive, too: Lawn care is a $40 billion-a-year business.
But just as half a loaf beats none, half a lawn or a reconfigured one is increasingly the goal.
"Having a dense stand of vegetation surrounding the home is what people ought to strive for. How people get there can vary," said Ted Steinberg, environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.
Since September, Susan Harris of Takoma Park, Md., and eight other environmental writers and garden activists have been promoting this moderate stance through their Lawn Reform Coalition. It's dedicated to "natural lawn care, regionally appropriate lawn species, and design alternatives to lawn."
"It's great to promote making meadows or vegetable fields for everyone, but that's not going to happen for most people," said Harris. "To have the most impact, we have to have solutions for all kinds of situations." At her home, Harris went all the way, replacing the front lawn with creeping plants and perennials and the hilly back with nitrogen-enhancing white clover and water-retaining sedums.
Still, the point is "to encourage less lawn, other ways of doing it. You can keep the lawn but take care of it more naturally, in a more environmentally friendly way," Harris said.
Psychologist Maureen Carbery and her husband have a traditional front lawn in Villanova. But last year, after paying someone to remove a man-eating bamboo stand in their woodland-like backyard, Carbery decided to experiment.
Instead of turf grass to replace the bamboo, she planted a "no-mow" seed mix of fine fescues, which are slow- and low-growing, plus thick, annual rye to stabilize the soil.
Designed for sun or shade, for creeping or clumping, the blends top out at six or eight inches before mounding over, and need no fertilizers. They require less mowing and, once established, little watering, and some even stay green year-round. Fescue mix costs about $4.25 a pound for a 50-pound bag, while Kentucky blue grass costs $3 a pound for a 50-pound bag, but fescue will cost far less to maintain.
Carbery, cofounder of Habitat Resource Network of Southeast Pennsylvania, a volunteer environmental group, said her experiment did pretty well, despite drainage issues and weeds.
With time, the weeds should be crowded out. And Carbery intends to plant ferns, iris, and more "no-mow" grasses in the wet spots, which should help with both moisture and gaps, and give the yard a meadowy look.
Which sounds nice, but you can't play football on a lumpy meadow. True, said Carbery, whose own children are older, "but our younger nieces and nephews actually prefer to play back there than on the front lawn."
And even in its first year, she reported, the mounded fescue "was flowing, it blew in the wind, had a lot of movement to it. It was very graceful."
Her seed mix came from Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., where owner Neil Diboll has been testing blends since the late 1980s. He said business was picking up, especially among corporations and municipalities, including the city of Cleveland.
"If they have acres and acres, this saves them a lot of money and wear-and-tear on mowers. They mow once a month instead of every seven to 10 days," Diboll said.
Locally, "low-mow" and "no-mow" fescues and grasslike clumpers called carexes are being evaluated at Chanticleer, the public garden in Wayne, and Scott Arboretum on the Swarthmore College campus.
Chanticleer executive director R. William Thomas said the fescues generally performed well, with some weeds and germination problems. "And if someone wants a clean, crisp-cut lawn, that isn't what it is," he said, "but I find it very beautiful."
About 20 kinds of lawn alternatives are being evaluated at Scott Arboretum, although garden supervisor Charles Hinkle acknowledged that "some of our areas will always be lawn. There's a good reason turf grass is popular," he said, citing its pastoral quality, uniform look, and ability to withstand foot traffic.
But the Swarthmore campus has steep slopes and rocky spots that make mowing difficult, and shady areas that won't support turf. "We're also looking for things that are environmentally friendly, and if we can reduce some of our lawn area, we can save money on mowing," Hinkle said.
Joseph R. Cairone, a landscape architect from Havertown, hasn't had much luck with fescues. So he replaced his backyard grass with trees, shrubs and wildlife-friendly plants. His front is a mix of that and lawn.
"The front yard should be a living space, not a wall-to-wall carpet or a sacred landscape that you can't enter," he said.
Which was how Frank Hyman of Durham, N.C., felt about his front lawn seven years ago. He was hell-bent on getting rid of the whole thing - until his wife pleaded, "Can we keep just a bit of grass?"
Hyman settled for a "lawnlet," his nomination for "a practical middle choice" between lawn and prairie. It can be any sized turf patch, but his is about as big as a king-size bed. It's placed strategically, with side-by-side director's chairs, amid vegetable, herb and flower beds, and connecting pathways.
"Somehow it's part of our culture that it's all or nothing, and the conventional lawn does have a lot of strikes against it, but there's no denying a swath of beautiful, well-maintained grass looks really great," said Hyman.
"Even so," he added, "I think it's going a little too far to expect people to get rid of all or even most of their lawns."
Embrace the "lawnlet," then. It's lush with weedy grass, has a nice geometric shape and unique identity. All in all, a grand place, its creator said, for "stargazing at night and flower-gazing during the day."
Still, for all these apparent incursions, turf-lovers need not fear that the grassy lawn - a must-have status symbol here since the mid-19th century - is going anywhere soon.
Said Steinberg: "The perfect lawn is alive and well."