Why manicured lawns are actually bad for your backyard

Home owners are being urged to take advantage of the winter months to make their backyards more environmentally friendly in time for summer by moving away from the perfectly manicured lawn.

It is estimated around 4400 hectares of Australia is under turf, covering an average of 11 per cent of capital cities.

Experts agree there is a range of better alternatives than “ecologically dead space”, focused on food, water and wildlife rather than the upkeep of a blanket of grass.

Sowing the seeds of a more climate-friendly backyard happened in the winter, said acclaimed garden designer Paul Bangay.

“The big push now is for not having a lawn. People are realising that they do take a lot of work,” Mr Bangay said. “That is definitely a trend worldwide and in Australia.”

“Doing mulching in winter is good preparation for the onslaught of the summer heat. You want to plant plants that don’t need much water.”

Using Australian natives and Mediterranean plants were good options as they did not require a lot of water, he said.

“As far as a microenvironment goes, you’re not encouraging insect life [with lawns]. Lawns are a barren site for them. We’re trying to introduce insects and diversification,” he said.

“Without insects, man wouldn’t survive; we need them to pollinate everything. That is vital to our whole environment.”

Home owners could contact their council to get a list of local plants, trees, shrubs and native grasses if they were unsure of where to begin, said Paul Sinclair, campaign director at the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a big backyard with lawn there are so many things you can do in that space,” Dr Sinclair said, adding that it was a wasted opportunity otherwise.

“[Lawns are] dead spaces that use lots and lots of chemicals to control weeds and use lots of lots of water. There is a lot of upside in thinking about what you can do creatively.”

While lawn is better than concrete, shade from trees is even better than lawn, Dr Sinclair said.

“Planting in the middle of winter is a great idea. People should be doing their research now; contacting their local council to see what they have on offer. Some councils have incentives for particular sorts of plants.”

He said different plants and zones diversified the backyard’s ecosystem, making them more resilient to the shocks and disasters that affect energy and water supplies at the height of summer.

“There’s no point [in doing so] when you’re in a prolonged heatwave. The time to do it is when you’ve got the time to get ready.

“Saving the Australian backyard is really important.”

Mixing up the different types of plants in the backyard not only provided a better environment for home owners, but a better habitat for insects rather than the monoculture of lawns, the experts agreed.

“Whether you’re a possum, a bee, a lizard or a frog, the classic Aussie lawn doesn’t offer much to eat or live in, and the chance of finding a mate is pretty low,” said Thami Croeser, RMIT sustainability and urban planning research officer.

With even a low botanic diversity, Mr Croeser challenged whether a single species of grass cooled a backyard.

“Recent research by a team at Macquarie University has shown that grass doesn’t help much with cooling during heat waves, especially compared to a proper tree canopy.

“If you’re wondering if your lawn could be doing something a bit more special next summer, the first thing to think about is what you’d like to prioritise. Your garden could be about food, water, wildlife – or a combination of all of these.”

He suggested sectioning off a garden to build raised beds for vegetables and herbs and gravity-fed water features if a yard is prone to flooding or waterlogging.