Research by Tom Cook at Oregon State University in Corvallis led to the concept of the "eco-lawn," a mixture of grasses, flowers, and herbs that stands up well to mowing. Eco-lawn doesn't mean an unkempt meadow but is designed to be compatible with the uses of a conventional lawn--sitting, strolling, and playing. For several years, researchers have studied plots planted with various combinations of grasses and broadleaf plants to discover what thrives when mowed. Professor Cook says, "We are in the early stages of developing stable mixtures of grasses and broadleaf plants for use in lawns...the ultimate goal will remain that of producing ecologically stable mixtures that will persist with fewer inputs than conventional lawns." See Professor Cook's articles,"Low Maintenance Alternatives to Conventional Grass Lawns: Ecolawns Revisited" and "Low Maintenance Turf?" for more information.
Specific seed mixtures create the eco-lawn. The basic components in the Corvallis trials are perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass. Other additions include yarrow, Roman chamomile, English lawn daisy, and clover.
Once established, Cook writes, "all eco-lawn plots have received no fertilizer at all or one fertilizer application at the time of planting." Clippings are returned to the plots after mowing through "grasscycling." This practice helps maintain soil fertility.
Weeds? Cook notes "we've never had significant problems with weeds." The common lawn herbicides would damage the eco-lawn's combination of plants. The point is to establish a lawn requiring no herbicides.
The test plots have been mowed from once a week to once every 3 weeks. Cook suggests that a 2-inch mowing height gives "the look and feel of a tended lawn." Watering requirements are kept simple. All test plots have been irrigated once a month during summer, applying about 1.5 inches of water each time. (Cook estimates that "in a normal year this amounts to about 1/3 to 1/4 as much water as a regular lawn.") Without irrigation, the lawn will go dormant.
Eco-lawns can be seeded in the spring or early fall. Seed mixtures are available from Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, Oregon (1-503-928-9280); ask for the "dryland mix." Another source is Protime Lawn Seed, Portland, Oregon (1-503-239-7518). They package "Fleur de Lawn" which is distributed by several garden centers in our state. Keep in mind, that what works well in Corvallis, Oregon, may need to be modified for the different growing conditions of eastern Washington or the Puget Sound region.
If many of us are willing to join Professor Cook in testing new lawn seed mixtures, we can change current concepts of lawns.
For more information about "Ecolawns", check out the Seattle Public Utilities' page, "About Ecoturf" at http://www.seattle.gov/util/Services/Yard/Natural_Lawn_&_Garden_Care/Natural_Lawn_Care/ABOUTECOT_200311261654594.asp
For further information contact your local WSU Extension Office.
From The Gardener Vol 6, No. 1 Spring 1995. Links updated 04/11