Rethinking Lawns:

Testing Ten Types of Turf Treatments


What if we rethought lawns?

Lawns are the largest irrigated crop in America at 63,000 square miles. That’s about 35,000 football fields or three times the area used to grow corn!

Seemingly small things like mowing and watering add up when there’s that much grass. Between mowing, watering, weeding, and the flooding it increases, lawn is expensive!

Title: An Average Lawn. Image depicts a closeup of a lawn, it’s soil, its grass and weeds, and a lawnmower. Descriptive text: Mowed weekly, which takes work, money, & burns gas. Often watered daily. Water flows straight through to flood other areas. Needs chemicals to prevent weeds. Compacted soil can’t absorb water. Shallow roots store little carbon. The only food for pollinators is weedsWhat could lawns become?

Lawn grass is just one species of thousands we could plant in our cities. What if we tried something else?

Experts from Chicago Park District & nearby institutions are trying out different plants we think will work. The plant mixes in this experiment include our native prairie flowers & grasses.

Watch with us as we find out what species grow best here and who comes to enjoy the new sights!

Title: Our experiment’s benefits. Image depicts a close up of a lawn height mixed variety of species and a root & water-filled soil profile. Descriptive text: No mowing saves work, money, & the environment. No need to water once established. Mixed species makes it harder for weeds to sneak in. Flowers are food for pollinators. Deep roots capture carbon, stablize and build soil. Water is absorbed, reducing nearby flooding.



The Experiment:

There are so many different plants we could be using in our lawns. For this experiment, we’re trying out ten different lawn-like options to see how they survive, how they help our environment, and how they look in our landscape. We’re on the lookout for things like how much water they hold, how much carbon they sequester, and how many pollinators come to visit.

First, we have to make sure we understand what’s going on with lawns in the first place to compare them to our new plant mixes. For comparison, we’re growing comparison or “control” plots of seeded normal grass.

Image: Treatment #1-3, an image of standard grass lawn, mown to average height of 4” #1 - Pre-established - lawn with weeds #2 - A roll of sod with green grass #3 Seeded, where grass is slowly growing in

Then we are trying a variety of alternative grassy options that are already grown as specialized lawns like golf courses and natural areas. Some of these grasses are low growing, so they need less mowing. Others are native, with deeper roots and more drought tolerance.

Image: Treatment #4 - Low growing, less mowing fescue. A thinner, denser grass that averages at 6” Treatment #5 - buffalo grass (bouteloua dactyloides) monoculture. A chunkier, denser, bluer grass averaging 6” height.

There are plenty of grasses that are native to Chicagoland that could, but currently aren’t, used as lawn grasses. Sedges especially have been growing in popularity with landscapers and garden centers, but there doesn’t seem to be much research going on in urban sedge usage and benefits. Creeping grasses like our usual lawn plants, sedges have great potential to serve as drought-resistant, deeper-rooted, native grass options.

Image: Treatment #6 Sedge Lawn. A variety of grasses in a range of greens and thicknesses. Average heights around 7 inches

Grass alone can only do so much, though. By introducing low-growing native flowers to the sedge mix, these short meadows can support local pollinators.

Image: Treatment #7 PennLove Meadow and #8 OakPath Meadow, two different mixes of sedge grasses and native prairie flowering plants, blooming in oranges, pinks, purples, and whites. They average around 7 inches tall.

How many species do we need to create a stable community? To collect a variety of pollinators? To always be blooming? To answer these questions, we are also doing a combined Meadow and a same sized prairie restoration.

Image: Treatment #9 - High diversity meadow (PennLove and OakPath combined). A huge variety of blooming plants and grasses mixed together to form a colorful, low-growing community around 8” tall.

Finally, we complete the set with something more like a real prairie.

Image: variety of prairie species in dense combination


Thank you to the following institutions for supporting our work:
Chicago Park District Natural Areas
Cardno Native Plant Nursery
Chicago Botanic Garden
University of Michigan-Flint
The Eppley Foundation for Research
The David H. Smith Fellowship